Will It Ever Be More Than a DREAM?

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Hundreds of activists converged on Washington in late September, pushing for what is beginning to seem like only a dream: passage of the DREAM Act, which offers the possibility of legality to some foreign-born children who entered the U.S. illegally.

As he has since he first introduced it nearly 10 years ago, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was the point man for the bill, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pledged to attach to a vital defense appropriation bill – along with legislation to repeal the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy toward gays.

But Senate Republicans – arguing that the DREAM Act was an inappropriate amendment to the Defense bill and that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell shouldn’t proceed before a departmental review – blocked the 2011 Defense Appropriations Bill, by a vote of 56-43, just four votes shy of the number needed to get the bill onto the Senate floor. It was the closest vote the DREAM Act has received.

Some called Reid’s pledge to push through the DREAM Act a ploy to woo Hispanic voters in his close campaign for re-election. Others hailed it as an imaginative way to try to overcome strident opposition to any kind of immigration reform.

But at the end of the day, DREAM Act backers were just where they have been since 2001 – lacking the 60 votes needed to get the bill to the floor for debate.

Although there is a slim chance that the bill could be considered when Congress returns later this month for a lame-duck session before new members are sworn in around mid-January, lobbyists and activists who back the bill are striving to develop strategies for Senate passage.

Asked recently what the strategy might be if DREAM is killed in Congress yet again, the coordinator of a coalition of DREAM-supporting lobbyists, Adey Fisseha, quipped, “Do you have any suggestions?”

The year 2010 had looked so promising for the DREAM legislation. The bill had picked up important support, first from educators, civil rights groups and immigration reformers; and later from military officers, top business executives and a growing body of student activists. Eleven Republican senators have voted for the DREAM Act at some point, and even a poll this year by conservative-leaning Rasmussen Reports showed a slight majority of likely voters supports it.

Lobbying activity on DREAM has risen dramatically, and this year has seen a major increase in its public awareness. President Barack Obama, long a backer of the DREAM concept, called it one of his most pressing goals.

The National Immigration Law Center attempted to quantify DREAM’s support in the weeks leading up to its failed vote this year with a list of pro-DREAM activity on its website. The list included 74,000 DREAM Act petitions; 335,000 calls, e-mails and faxes sent to Congress in its support; and a sign-on letter from 108 national organizations and 179 state organizations.

Jim Hermes, who has worked on DREAM since its inception as the American Association of Community Colleges director of government relations, characterized the act’s mixed prognosis: 

 “This year has definitely been unprecedented in terms of the level of activity and level of visibility of [DREAM],” said Hermes. “From that perspective, I’m hoping we can find a way to capitalize on that and push it beyond the final hurdle to get it passed.

“The no side [downside] of that is that the atmosphere surrounding the immigration issue in general is certainly more poisonous than it was when this bill was first introduced nine years ago. For that reason it makes it a little harder to move it forward.”

DREAM: a tutorial

Though the exact language of DREAM, an acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, has taken on various forms, the most recent Senate bill provides a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants under age 35 who:

  • Moved to the United States before they turned 16 years old and have lived here for at least the last five years.
  • Graduated from a U.S. high school or passed the GED.
  • Are of good moral character, which disqualifies those with a criminal record or who have been deemed a security threat.

Students who meet these standards – estimated at 65,000 American high school graduates a year, for a total of 800,000 illegal aliens in the country today, according to a Migration Policy Institute 2010 report – would qualify under the DREAM Act for conditional permanent resident status. For the next six years, applicants would have the rights of full citizens, minus the ability to travel abroad for lengthy periods of time, vote or receive certain federal financial aid grants.

Once the six-year conditional status expires, they would receive unrestricted lawful permanent resident status – their green cards – if they maintain good moral character and fulfill at least one of the following:

  • Graduate from a two-year college or certain government-approved vocational colleges.
  • Spend at least two years working toward a degree at a four-year college.
  • Serve at least two years in the U.S. armed forces.

The law would also apply retroactively to undocumented students who have already completed the requirements, if they are under 35.

Once armed with a green card, an immigrant can eventually apply for full citizenship.

A second major DREAM provision would repeal a section of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 that penalizes states for providing higher education benefits, including in-state tuition, to undocumented students. DREAM would not require states to offer immigrants benefits, but would leave the decision to the states. This means the 10 states that currently give illegal immigrants in-state tuition rates after at least three years of in-state high school completion could continue to so without fear of prosecution. California’s provision of in-state tuition for immigrant students is being challenged in the state Supreme Court and Kansas’ law was unsuccessfully challenged in 2005.

Durbin, the assistant Senate majority leader, has also reintroduced the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill, which some legislators have said they could support ,rather than using the ploy of making it a rider or amendment to other legislation.

The September vote was the second time that the bill had come close to consideration. In 2007 – after DREAM died as an attachment to a comprehensive immigration reform bill, was tabled as an amendment to the defense authorization bill and was briefly added but then removed from the eventually successful Student Loan Reduction Act – the persistent Durbin tried one last time to push DREAM through as standalone legislation. On an Oct. 24, 2007, cloture motion, DREAM received 52 yeas to 44 nays, eight votes shy of the 60 needed to proceed to a vote, but noteworthy because 12 Republican senators voted for the bill to proceed.


The policy debate

Many who oppose DREAM consider it amnesty for illegal aliens. DREAM opponents maintain it encourages more illegal immigration while denying opportunities for America-born citizens.

“The DREAM Act says we disapprove of you coming here, but if you do and bring your kids, there’s a green card and all sorts of subsidies waiting for your child after you’ve been here a while,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform, which advocates tough immigration enforcement. “So it just sends the message that you really should break our law.”

Nancy Meza, 23, who began advocating passage of DREAM as a student at UCLA involved in an on-campus support group for undocumented students, has an entirely different perspective. Since graduating in spring 2010 with a degree in Chicano studies Meza, whose family immigrated to Los Angeles from Jalisco, Mexico, when she was 2, said she is still unable to find a job, because 90 percent of the internships and programs in her field require a Social Security number from applicants.

“Going through college as an undocumented student is extremely difficult. We’re not from wealthy families,” Meza said. “[The DREAM Act] will make all the obstacles … worth it; because at the end of the day, we will be able to use our degrees that we worked so hard on to attain citizenship.”

Meza is convinced that DREAM will pass and remains active, taking part in a protest last month outside California Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman’s campaign office. Whitman opposes the DREAM Act and allowing illegal immigrants to attend California colleges.   

In Washington, DREAM lobbyists aim to piggyback on Meza’s passion and transform their argument into a cogent strategy that might sway a few more Republican senators.

“Hope springs eternal,” said Steve Bloom, the American Council on Education’s assistant director of federal relations, when asked about approaching certain Republicans again. “I think after the election, senators like Sen. [John] McCain (R-Ariz.), who have supported [DREAM] in the past, we ought to be going back to them and talking to them about the importance of this legislation and reminding them about their past support. And hopefully, they will reassess the way they’ve talked about it recently.”

But when pressed to determine the actual likelihood of success, Bloom, speaking before the November elections, was at a loss. “It’s very difficult to gauge. There are so many moving parts in the House and the Senate,” he said. “It’s so hard to know, but I will say that I think we’ll have to work hard.”

Fisseha, a policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center; Laura Vazquez, a legislative analyst at Latino civil rights group National Council of La Raza; and the spokesmen for Durbin and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the co-sponsors of DREAM’s most recent Senate version, agreed with an approach to re-involve Republicans who have supported the bill previously. But none could offer a fresh strategy that differed from that of the past 10 years.

Durbin and Lugar’s offices both declined interview requests with top advisers and declined to discuss details of their strategy, only saying they preferred DREAM as a stand-alone bill rather than as an amendment. A Durbin spokesman said it is unlikely DREAM would receive a stand-alone vote in the lame-duck session. 

Fisseha said she continues to be optimistic because of the army of enthusiastic student activists who won’t let the issue die, but instead are relying on new support from social media campaigns, letters to Congress, acts of civil disobedience – and new support from the business sector, including Bill Gates and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Some lobbyists, such as Bloom, are now advocating business reasons to support DREAM and saying that changes in tuition benefits would boost states’ rights, consistent with Republican ideals. Others are pushing the act, relying on moral grounds.

“There’s a notion in society that we don’t punish children for the sins of their parents,” Bloom said. “I think that does resonate with some of the Republicans.”