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A New Tack for the DREAM Act

July 19, 2007

An amendment that would attach the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act to the Department of Defense authorization bill never made it to the Senate floor Wednesday after Democratic leaders, unsuccessful in their bid to compel a withdrawal of troops from Iraq, shifted gears to focus on student loan legislation. Still, the attempt to connect a critical defense bill with the DREAM Act -- which would, among other things, provide a pathway to permanent residency for undocumented immigrants who undertake at least two years of college or military service – may represent a shift in strategy for advocates who have watched the bill long languish amidst contentious and inconclusive immigration reform battles.

U.S. Senators Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) were expected to introduce an amendment encompassing the DREAM Act during the debate of the defense authorization bill that was cut short Wednesday. Sandra Abrevaya, a spokeswoman for Senator Durbin, said Wednesday afternoon that the majority whip will still be looking to introduce the amendment whenever the Senate next returns its attention to the defense authorization bill, and added that, should this approach ultimately fail, “He’ll look at the very next opportunity.”

In addition to offering the permanent residency pathway to illegal immigrants who entered the country before age 16, the amendment also would clarify these students’ eligibility for in-state tuition (a murky and much-debated issue at present) and, for the first time, render them eligible for federal student loans and work study. Although the original DREAM Act was first proposed in Congress in 2001, and was included in the Senate’s unsuccessful stab at comprehensive immigration reform this spring, the full House and Senate chambers have yet to take a vote on the act as a stand-alone measure.

“I think we have a shot at passage; we’re expecting that it will need 60 votes to prevail because most of the amendments that have come up have faced a filibuster,” said Jim Hermes, senior legislative associate for the American Association of Community Colleges, one of 11 higher education associations that registered support for the DREAM Act in a Tuesday letter from David Ward, president of the American Council on Education.

“Obviously this is something that is connected to the overall issue of immigration reform, but this particular issue in terms of expanding the opportunity to people who were brought here as kids we think is 1) a less controversial issue and 2) one that speaks to basic issues of fairness and justice,” Hermes said.

The measure, though less controversial than other immigration reform proposals, is still likely to face some significant opposition from lawmakers who don’t want to reward illegal entry into the United States. “My heart goes out to all those who aren’t in control of their destiny ... but by the same token, the United States needs to be in control of its own destiny," Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said during a Congressional hearing on undocumented student issues in May.

Despite the impasse over Iraq that forced the bill off the floor Wednesday, the authorization act, in some form, is “a must-pass bill,” Hermes pointed out. “At some point, they’ll have to come back to it.”

“There are a lot of questions on the broader-based [defense authorization] bill," said Melissa Lazarin, associate director for education policy for the National Council of La Raza. “We’re hopeful that we will have an opportunity to debate this amendment. But if this vehicle does not work out, we will be identifying other vehicles to pass this.”

 

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