The Obama administration has been remarkably indecisive on the subject of immigration. On one hand, the president talks a lot about his support for a bill that creates a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants. On the other hand, the Obama administration has also deported a record number of illegal immigrants. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency estimates that 400,000 people will be deported in 2010, 25 percent more than were deported in 2007 under President Bush.
Though the president’s “comprehensive immigration reform” has come under scrutiny from all sides, one of the core ideas—the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (or DREAM Act)—should, at least in theory, please some folks. If passed, the DREAM Act would offer a path to legalization for undocumented college students or soldiers in the military who came to the United States as children (under 15 years old) and have lived here for at least five years.
Over the years, the DREAM Act has been politically divisive. First introduced in 2001, the DREAM Act has repeatedly been filibustered by Republican opposition. In 2007, the act received 52 votes in the Senate, eight too few to defeat the filibuster. Reintroduced in 2009, the bill faced a similar fate. Finally, two months ago on Sept. 22, the DREAM Act was once again introduced, but to no avail: only 56 senators voted in favor of the act. Although Democrats currently control Congress, many pro-immigrant Democrats were reluctant to vote in favor of the bill. On Tuesday, President Obama called on Democrats to introduce the bill in the House of Representatives during the lame duck session of Congress in one final push to get the act through while the Democratic presence is still nearly filibuster-proof.
Believe it or not, a fair number of Republicans have actually supported versions of the DREAM Act in the past. When the DREAM Act was proposed in 2007, 12 Republican senators voted for it; seven of the 12—Sens. Bennett (Utah), Brownback (Kansas), Collins (Maine), Hatch (Utah), Hutchinson (Texas), Lugar (Indiana), and Snowe (Maine)—are still currently serving in the Senate. However, the Republicans who voted for the DREAM Act in 2007 will probably not support it if it is reintroduced at the end of November. Moderate Republican voices are overshadowed by the red-hot anger Tea Partiers are spewing against undocumented immigrants. Even moderate Republicans like Senator Scott Brown have labeled the DREAM Act as “amnesty” for illegal immigrants. If Mr. Brown, who received a personal phone call from President Obama in April before the September vote, will not vote for the DREAM Act, more conservative Republicans are not likely to either.
If the DREAM Act—let alone comprehensive immigration reform—cannot pass with 59 Democratic senators, it will certainly not pass with the 53 Democratic senators remaining after the lame duck session. The decision to separate the DREAM Act from overall immigration reform makes the act more politically palatable, but nonetheless, the inability to pass the bill even with such strong Democratic numbers is a sorry sight.
Beyond the beltway, politicians have to consider public opinion of the act. As a whole, the American public tends to be more conservative and typically supports even strict anti-illegal immigration enforcement. Indeed, it is difficult to find a restrictive immigration measure that Americans will not support, no matter how extreme it is. A Pew Poll conducted in May found that nearly 59 percent of Americans support Arizona law SB 1070, even considering all of its shortcomings.
Nevertheless, there is some reason to think that the DREAM Act might have a higher level of support among average Americans than the usual pro-immigration bill. First, the DREAM Act’s supporters have the unusual characteristic of being equally, if not more passionate than the anti-immigration Republicans. Undocumented college students have participated in a number of public protests, from sit-ins at Senate offices to spelling out DREAM Act on South Beach in Florida. Their noise may have some influence on the debate.
Second, the beneficiaries of the DREAM Act—undocumented college students—look really good on television. Unlike the average undocumented immigrant, an undocumented college student speaks perfect English, knows to wave the American flag, and doesn’t look fresh-off-the-boat. Politicians love to talk about their support for college students: after soldiers (who are also covered by the DREAM Act), college students are as close to political gold as it gets.
Finally, proponents of the DREAM Act are in far better position in the immigration debate than advocates of immigration have been in the past. By focusing on the rights to citizenship for students, the DREAM Act avoids the tricky issue of granting “amnesty” to those who choose to cross the border illegally. These students did not typically decide to illegally enter the U.S. themselves: the decision was their parents’. And criticizing soldiers, even if they are undocumented immigrants, is about as un-American as burning Old Glory.
Whether this final argument works will probably determine the fate of the DREAM Act.