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.

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

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.

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.

Immigrant groups tout the bill as a top priority, and Hispanic voters in particular have put the heat on Obama and a Democratic Congress to deliver.

“For Latinos ... the ‘DREAM Act’ vote is a defining moment.... America cannot afford to lose another generation of young people who stand to contribute to its economic and social prosperity,” said Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, in a press statement Wednesday.

In New Jersey, presidents of 11 of 19 community colleges sent a letter last week to their congressional delegation urging support of the bill.

The age cap of 29 was put in place recently to address critics' concerns. Other recent changes include a requirement that applicants be able to speak and write in English, and a waiting period of 12 years before they could begin the process of sponsoring parents or siblings, who would have to leave the country for 10 years before gaining legal status.

The Migration Policy Institute estimates that about 2 million people could apply, but based on historical trends in education, it finds that fewer than 800,000 would likely meet the qualifications for permanent status.

Obama applauded the House vote and urged the Senate to do likewise.

"This vote is not only the right thing to do for a group of talented young people who seek to serve a country they know as their own by continuing their education or serving in the military, but it is the right thing for the United States of America," Mr. Obama said in a statement. "We are enriched by their talents and the success of their efforts will contribute to our nation's success and security. As as the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office found, the DREAM Act would cut the deficit by $2.2 billion over the next 10 years."

Seven Republican senators voted for a version of the bill in 2007, so proponents are targeting many of their efforts to get them to vote in favor of the current version.

Speaking on the Senate floor Thursday morning, Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois said of the eligible students: “There is a place for them as there was for my mother, who came to this country at the age of two as an immigrant, whose mother and father could barely speak the English language but who eventually gave birth to a son who stands before you today.... My story is an American story. And the story of these DREAM Act students is an American story, of fighting against the odds, coming from other places determined to be part of this great nation, and making a contribution that makes a difference. I pray that ... before this Congress packs up and leaves that we will address this issue.”

If the bill does not pass Thursday, it might have to wait until Congress is ready to address immigration reform more comprehensively, and with Republicans controlling the House and holding more sway in the Senate come January, enforcement issues could take center stage.

Obama's statement acknowledged that the DREAM Act addresses only part of the illegal immigration problem. It is "a piece of a larger debate that is needed to restore responsibility and accountability to our broken immigration system broadly," he said.

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