Undocumented students are protesting outside the White House today, risking deportation in order to promote legislation that would provide an avenue to permanent residency for children whose parents brought them into the country illegally.
The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, versions of which have been batted around Congress since 2001, would offer conditional permanent residency to high-school graduates who have been in the U.S. for at least five years. Those attaining this status would be allowed to work, go to school, or serve in the military for up to six years. Once they complete two years in a bachelor's degree program or serve as much in the military, they would be granted lawful permanent residency.
Since it was first introduced in 2001, the bill has seen support from Republican senators such as Orrin Hatch, Chuck Hagel, Kay Bailey Hutchison, John Cornyn, John McCain, and Richard Lugar. But as political tensions on immigration have mounted throughout the country -- the Arizona law and Utah list being the most recent examples -- Senate Republicans have become more skittish about voting for anything that an attack ad could slap with an "amnesty" label.
The last Senate vote on the DREAM Act was in 2007, when 38 Democratic and 12 Republican votes were not enough to grant cloture. Some Democrats withheld their votes because they feared the bill would diminish the chances for comprehensive immigration reform. Sen. Dick Durbin reintroduced the bill in 2009, with two Republican co-sponsors. After Mel Martinez was replaced by George LeMieux, the bill was left with Richard Lugar as its sole Republican sponsor.
Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center, said that bipartisan support for the bill has been much harder to achieve this year. In addition to pressure leading up to the midterm elections, she said, "there seems to have really been a sense that one of the most effective ways to undermine the Obama administration was just to be pretty negative or to block pretty much anything that was seen as an administration priority -- and immigration falls into that category. In some ways, I think the fight for the soul of the Republican party is being fought out on immigration issues."
But if Congress cannot muster the force for comprehensive immigration reform, Giovagnoli thinks the DREAM Act could have a good shot at passing on its own. In addition to Lugar, she identified "easily ten" Republican senators whom she believes could be convinced to support the bill.
A spokesman for Dick Durbin expressed confidence that the DREAM Act would be included in comprehensive reform but said that "if there is an opportunity to move the bill as a standalone piece of legislation, we'll certainly consider that option."
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