After a summer focused on fighting off Arizona’s hard-line law SB 1070, immigrant advocates are seeking to regain momentum with an all-out push on the Dream Act.
The Dream Act—or Development, Education, and Relief for Alien Minors Act—would provide a chance at legal residency for young undocumented immigrants who graduate from high school.
Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader, made a surprise announcement earlier this week that he would seek to bring the act to a vote as an amendment to the annual defense bill.
Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, a Democrat, seemed to raise the stakes even further with an announcement the next day that he would introduce a major immigration reform bill before the midterm elections.
However, the current Congress seems too deeply divided for major legislation to get through after two years of rancorous battles over stimulus, health care, and financial regulation.
So it was Reid’s plan for the more narrowly focused Dream Act that triggered the most excitement.
Pro- and anti-immigration groups are asking supporters to call and e-mail their representatives in anticipation of a legislative showdown.
With the Dream Act winning traction and buzz over immigration being heard on Capitol Hill, immigrants and their advocates again feel like they’re in the driver’s seat, said Shuya Ohno of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
“The anti-immigrant groups are on the defensive and are lashing out,” Ohno said.
The Dream Act’s detractors characterize it as an attempt to pander to Hispanic voters with a watered-down immigration amnesty.
The act “has the potential to immediately legalize millions and also result in the admission of millions more immigrants for years to come via chain migration,” said Jon Feere, an analyst with the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank that opposes more immigration.
Freere’s figures are exaggerated, Dream Act supporters contend.
The National Immigration Law Center estimates the number of high school students graduating each year who might qualify for the act at 65,000.
Even if the act were to include high school graduates over an extended interval—a recent version of the bill includes immigrants presently aged 12 to 35—the pool of potential Dream Act beneficiaries would number just under 1.5 million.
And since many immigrants would not apply—either because they lack interest in pursuing college, or are disqualified due to criminal records or deportation orders—the number of beneficiaries would likely be far lower.
“We’re extremely hopeful,” said Natalia Aristizabal, Dream Act organizer at Make the Road New York (MRNY), a grassroots immigrant rights group based in the borough of Queens.
A strong involvement by immigrant students and youth, particularly in the last year, helped keep the Dream Act present in legislators’ minds, she said.
“A bigger proportion of the population affected is fighting for it,” she said.
To benefit from the Dream Act, undocumented immigrant high school graduates must attend college or serve in the military.
They also need to have entered the United States at age 15 or younger and prove they’ve resided in the country for five years or more.
One young person who stands to benefit is Francisco Curiel.
The 18-year-old New York City resident came from Mexico three years ago, and is now a high school senior who also plays on a soccer team and holds down weekend food delivery jobs to help his family pay the bills.
In addition, Curiel himself has helped educate young people about the Dream Act as a youth organizer at MRNY.
The Dream Act would make it possible for him to access student loans and scholarships to attend college, loans he’s now barred from as an undocumented immigrant, Curiel said.
“I want to work, and contribute what I can to this country,” he said.
If the Dream Act does come up for a vote in the Senate—it needs to attract at least one Republican vote to do so—it would become the first major stand-alone piece of immigration policy to advance that far during the Obama administration.
However, the Dream Act has a history of failing to muster enough support at the last moment.
In 2007, the Dream Act was derailed by a narrow eight-vote margin in the U.S. Senate, despite the backing of prominent Democrats and Republicans, many of whom are still in Congress.
Again and again, the bill has attracted bipartisan support only to be stopped by a small core of Republican opponents.
This week, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said Reid’s advocacy of the Dream Act was purely motivated by his desire to attract Hispanic voters in Nevada. Sen. Reid faces a strong challenge in November from a Tea Party-backed Republican opponent, Sharron Angle.
Several Republican senators joined McConnell in criticizing Reid for attaching the Dream Act to the defense bill when it has little to do with war or security issues.
Given that at least one Republican must join Democrats to gain the 60 votes needed to advance the Dream Act, it’s very possible that it will again be defeated.
“Anything is possible,” said Ohno, of the National Immigration Forum.