Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was re-elected last week with strong support from Latino voters, will make one last push in the final days of the 111th Congress to pass legislation allowing illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children to earn legal status if they attend college or serve in the U.S. military.
Advocates of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act – better known as the Dream Act – say Reid has a better chance of passing the bill in the lame-duck session than he will when the new, divided Congress is sworn in this January.
Reid and other Democrats owe a political debt to Latino voters, whose support allowed embattled Democrats in California, Colorado and Washington to retain their Senate seats and the party to keep control of the Senate. Reid, for example, won 68 percent of Latino votes in Nevada; 30 percent supported Republican Sharron Angle, according to CNN exit polls. Angle won among White voters by 53 to 41 percent, the same polls indicate.
Latinos also helped re-elect some Democratic House members, including Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, who narrowly won a fifth term.
Republicans will take control of the House in January, and they picked up six seats in the Senate, where Democrats retain a slim majority.
If Reid can nudge the Dream Act through the Senate while Democrats are still in charge of the House, the bill has a real chance to become law, advocates say.
But it will be a tough fight, underscoring just how difficult it will be in the new Congress to reach consensus on the bigger, more complicated issue of reforming an immigration system that both sides say is broken.
Those who came here as children are generally regarded by lawmakers of both parties as the most sympathetic group of illegal immigrants. So, if Congress can’t reach agreement on how to help them, compromising on a broader reform plan that could lead to citizenship for adults who knowingly broke immigration laws could be all but impossible.
Reid tried to pass the Dream Act in September, but Republicans blocked a vote. The bill’s supporters say he may be able to pick up votes from senators who lost their re-elections or are retiring and no longer need to oppose the bill for political reasons.
"The reason the pressure is on Reid to pass it this year is that, starting in January, you’re going to have Republicans running the House who advocate mass expulsions, denying birthright citizenship, encouraging copycat Arizona immigration laws across the country, and fiercely opposing anything they would call ‘amnesty,’ including the Dream Act," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a national organization that supports the bill and advocates reform that includes a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States.
Obama backs Dream
President Barack Obama supports the Dream Act, which would allow illegal immigrants brought to this country as children by their parents to become legal residents and eventually U.S. citizens if they attend college or serve in the U.S. military for at least two years. The bill is aimed at helping people who came to the United States before age 16; have been here continuously for at least five years; are of good moral character; and are under age 35 on the date of enactment.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other Pentagon officials also support the measure, saying it would help boost military recruitment. Opponents say the legislation would give amnesty to illegal immigrants and encourage more people to break the law. Supporters say it would offer a path to economic stability for immigrant children, allowing them to become productive residents of the nation they see as home.
Since it was first introduced in 2001, the Dream Act has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee four times. It passed the full Senate in 2006 as part of a comprehensive immigration-reform bill, but it died when the House failed to take up reform. The House has never passed it. In September, Senate supporters fell four votes shy of the 60 votes needed to end a Republican filibuster.
"It’s hard to imagine how the Dream Act could pass the next Congress," Sharry said. "It may be an uphill battle now, but at least there’s a chance."
GOP stand at risk
Although Reid may gain votes from lame-duck senators such as Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and retiring George Voinovich, R-Ohio, he could face rebellion from the 10 Democrats expected to face tough re-election bids in two years.
"I can guarantee that we’ll do everything we can to let the voters in those senators’ states know two years from now that they voted to pass a loophole-ridden amnesty bill," said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, a Washington, D.C., lobby group that wants to reduce the number of immigrants coming to the United States.
But advocates of the Dream Act warn Republicans that their tough stance could backfire in 2012.
Although they acknowledge that the odds of passing comprehensive immigration reform in the new, more conservative Congress are dim, advocates say it’s important for their allies in Congress and the White House to go on the offensive, even if it’s only to force all lawmakers to take a public stand.
"This is going to be the battleground for 2012," Sharry said. "If people like Arizona (Republican) Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl don’t negotiate with Democrats on immigration reform, then I can see Democratic senators offering their own bill just as the Republican presidential primary is heating up. And guess what happens then? The Republican Party lurches to the right in order to pander to their base voters, alienating Latino voters. If the Republican candidate can’t get 40 percent of Latino voters, they won’t win and Barack Obama will be re-elected. I think that’s a powerful incentive for Republicans to do something."
In 2004, Latino voters helped propel President George W. Bush to a second term. In 2008, they were key to helping Obama win the White House.
But what Republicans have in mind does not appear to be compromising with Democrats.
Instead, Beck said he believes the new GOP-led House will seek to crack down on illegal immigrants and maybe even move to reduce legal immigration.
Specifically, Beck said he believed the House would pass legislation making the E-Verify system mandatory for employers, who would be required to use the electronic federal database to confirm that any workers they want to hire are in the United States legally.
The program already is mandatory for all employers in Arizona and a handful of other states.
He said he believed the House also may consider the elimination of the annual Green Card Lottery, a federal program in which about 50,000 immigrants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States are chosen to become legal residents. The program is designed to increase the diversity of immigrants coming to this country.
"It really doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to an unemployed American if their job is taken by an illegal alien or someone the government brought in legally," Beck said.