Chances for comprehensive immigration reform have dimmed with the upcoming mid-term elections, prompting Democrats to push a measure that would grant citizenship to illegal immigrant students as a way to energize Latino voters.
President Barack Obama said he is backing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to attach the so-called DREAM Act to an overall defense authorization bill this week.
Latino groups are disappointed with Obama and Democrats for failing to act on a campaign pledge in 2008 to pass sweeping immigration reform in the first two years of a new administration.
And Obama recognized that frustration at an appearance before Hispanic leaders this month. But he urged Latinos not to “forget who is standing with you, and who is standing against you.”
To that end, Reid, who faces a stiff re-election challenge in Nevada, said he will seek a vote on the DREAM Act as early as this week.
Senate Republicans, like Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, accuse the Democrats of playing politics with the defense bill to pander to a special interest group ahead of the Nov. 2 elections.
Cornyn said the DREAM Act should not be taken up as a defense matter, and instead be part of an overall immigration reform bill that Congress should consider later.
“The DREAM Act should be part of comprehensive immigration reform,” Cornyn said. “Adding it to the defense authorization, which already contains an unwanted repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ is cynical and transparently political.”
The DREAM Act, if passed into law, would grant citizenship to roughly 800,000 illegal immigrant youths who were brought to this country between ages 5 and 16 and complete college or military service.
Although it was first filed as a bipartisan bill and still enjoys bipartisan support, its sudden inclusion as an amendment to the defense bill in a politically charged atmosphere before the election has left its passage in doubt.
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he is opposed to adding it to the defense bill. Other moderate Democrats could waver as well.
Reid said he does not know whether he has the 60 votes to cut off debate and get a Senate vote to attach the bill as an amendment to the defense legislation.
But with the prospects for a sweeping immigration reform bill unlikely, Hispanic and immigrant-rights groups are rallying to drum up congressional support for the DREAM Act legislation.
The military supports the DREAM Act, and supporters say the GOP has backed the bill in the past because it’s not a radical piece of legislation.
Latino groups like the National Council of La Raza, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the League of United Latin American Citizens have all called for congressional action.
“The Latino community is watching this issue and watching the vote on the DREAM Act,” said Angela Kelley with the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
Conservatives are rallying the base and urging lawmakers to oppose the measure.
‘Send a clear message’
Dan Stein with the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes the DREAM Act, said it would “send a clear message to parents that violating U.S. immigration laws will result in eventual citizenship and access to expensive taxpayer-financed benefits for their kids.”
Republicans in the Senate and House appear united in their opposition.
“The DREAM Act is a nightmare for the American people. It is an assault on law-abiding, taxpaying American citizens and legal immigrants,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.
Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who once argued against splitting off the DREAM Act from overall comprehensive reform to attract GOP support for a sweeping overhaul bill, say the time may now be right.
Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, D-San Antonio, said the lack of action by the Senate this year and the current political climate is forcing Democrats to act.
“This is an opportunity,” Gonzalez said.