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Why DREAM Act passed House, but may fall in Senate

House lawmakers passed the latest incarnation of the DREAM Act 216 to 198 late Wednesday. The Senate is expected to take it up Thursday, but its prospects there look dim.

By Staff writer / December 9, 2010

Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin of Ill., second from left, discusses the DREAM act on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

Harry Hamburg/AP


To some, the DREAM Act is a beacon of American opportunity and big-heartedness, a sign that young immigrants who work hard are still welcome here and have an important contribution to make. To others, the legislation is a slippery slope, a first step toward a broad amnesty for lawbreakers who slipped into the US illegally and remain unrepentant and unpunished.

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Whether the measure becomes law is now up to the US Senate. The bill, which creates a path to US citizenship for young people who were brought into the country illegally while minors, cleared the House late Wednesday, 216 to 198.

Prospects in the Senate are considered dim. In a preelection September vote, the DREAM Act went down 52 to 44. Since then, its supporters and opponents have been making last-ditch efforts to sweeten the measure and to sway lawmakers who may be teetering on the fence. The Senate is expected to take it up Thursday.

For a decade, various versions of the DREAM Act have been proposed – to no avail. In the latest bill, people would be eligible for conditional nonimmigrant status (a temporary way to be in the US legally) if they are under the age of 30, living in the US continuously for at least five years, and were brought to the United States before they were 16. They also must earn a high school diploma, GED, or college acceptance, and undergo various background checks. People would then be able to gain permanent resident status, and apply for citizenship, after 10 years and after completing two years of college or military service.

“The bottom line is a clash of two philosophical approaches,” says Jeanne Batalova, policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. “Giving a legal path to anyone who is considered to be a lawbreaker is seen as amnesty. On the other hand, the DREAM has been seen as [the part of immigration reform] most likely to succeed, because it’s about children who were brought here when they were small.”

President Obama is in the latter camp. He has worked the phones in recent weeks on behalf of the bill, and his staff on Wednesday sent out a tweet urging people to call their senators and representatives. Administration officials have been pushing hard to persuade the public that passing the bill would support not only education and the economy, but even homeland security.

Student supporters have gone on hunger strikes to call attention to the limbo that many young high school graduates find themselves in when it’s time to apply to college or pursue jobs and their illegal status becomes a barrier.

Opponents see it as a back-door amnesty, and addressing students’ immigration status while other key immigration issues remain unresolved is proving difficult. The DREAM Act, they say, would exacerbate illegal immigration problems by rewarding families who didn’t wait in line.

“It is still a broad amnesty,” says Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in Washington. “There is absolutely nothing in there that promises better enforcement” of immigration laws, he says. And because it’s not limited to students with high grades in high school, he says, “you’ll have people occupying seats at community colleges at a time when many of these institutions are overwhelmed” as citizens go back to school to improve their job prospects.


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