The most ardent proponents of the DREAM Act know their chances of victory in the next few weeks are slim, but they also know that failure is pretty much inevitable if they wait until next year. Thus we are in the midst of a full-court press on yet another cause that once had substantial bipartisan support, but may not any longer.
DREAM, expected to come up for a vote in the year-end lame-duck session of Congress, is catchy shorthand for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors. Translation: The act would offer a path to citizenship — and economic prosperity — for undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children age 15 or younger. They'd have to have "good moral character," residency for at least five years, and a U.S. high school diploma or GED. Those who met the conditions would be eligible for military service, federal student loans, state aid and in-state tuition. After completing two years of college or military service, they would also be eligible for citizenship.
Right now, as Obama administration figures often put it, the doors of opportunity slam shut when these teenagers graduate from high school. They can't get federal college aid, they can't enlist in the military and they can't even work legally — all because of decisions made for them by others. Some of them don't even realize they're undocumented until they apply to college and need information to fill in forms. "Students end up shocked and in disbelief that they are not citizens of the only country they have ever known," Cecilia Munoz, director of intergovernmental affairs at the White House, said Monday in a Web chat. "It doesn't make sense to punish these students for the choices that their parents made."
You could not find more sympathetic protagonists in a public policy issue than conscientious students, and DREAM Act proponents are playing their individual stories to the hilt. On a conference call Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the issue became "very personal" to him during his seven-and-a-half-year tenure as head of the Chicago school system. He talked of the "total despair and desperation" of intelligent, hardworking high school graduates who had nowhere to go, nowhere to turn, because of their illegal status. "I can't tell you how heartbreaking it was to witness that firsthand," he said.
The Munoz Web chat and the Duncan cameo, on a call sponsored by Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, kicked off the administration's public advocacy for the DREAM Act. Liberals planned a Tuesday call to push for passage. Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, issued a supportive statement. Newspaper editorial boards are also speaking out. The Wall Street Journal and the Sacramento Bee are among those making a case for the legislation.
While the human element is compelling, it's far from the only reason to support DREAM. The military wants it because it is an incentive for more people to join. Others say that, as Duncan put it, "we have to educate our way to a better economy." Up to 65,000 people a year would be eligible for the DREAM Act. That's a big pool of smarts, creativity and productivity that we could either start nurturing, or continue to waste.
If this seems like a no-brainer, forget it. We're talking about immigration in the age of hard-line anti-immigration laws and Tea Party clout within the Republican Party; an age where most Hispanics vote for Democrats and Democrats try to keep them happy, even if defeat is likely. So what are the real prospects?
In the House, much better this year, while Democrats are still in the majority, than next. In January, when Republicans take over, the chief immigration voice in the House is likely to be Rep. Steve King of Iowa, in line to head the Judiciary subcommittee on immigration. He recently called the DREAM Act "this special amnesty program, this affirmative action program for illegals." Killing it, he said, is "a top priority." He also wants to end birthright citizenship for babies born in the United States of illegal immigrant parents.
So — it's now or never in the House. How about the Senate? Sixty votes are needed, as Munoz explained Monday to disbelieving young people on her White House chat, just to get the bill to the floor. "People don't declare themselves until they have to," she said. "We know we're over 50 votes in the Senate. The question is how close are we to 60? We don't know the answer to that question yet."
There are seven Republicans in the Senate who voted for the DREAM Act in 2007. Of the seven, Richard Lugar of Indiana, is a chief sponsor — one of several stands he's taken that put him at odds with his party. Two are departing at the end of the year, Sam Brownback to be governor of Kansas and Bob Bennett because he was ousted by a tea party conservative in a primary contest. Three — Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Olympia Snowe of Maine — face re-election in 2012 and have plenty of reason to be nervous about bucking the party. Hutchison lost a gubernatorial primary to the Tea Party-backed Rick Perry; Hatch witnessed Bennett's fate up close; and a Tea Party conservative just got elected governor in Snowe's state. The seventh is Susan Collins, also of Maine.
Other GOP senators who are leaving this year are George LeMieux of Florida (not there in 2007), George Voinovich of Ohio and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. It's conceivable that a vote or two could be found among them. Then there's Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. She lost a primary to Tea Party candidate Joe Miller but apparently has won re-election as an independent — so she's theoretically free, even obligated, to follow her inclinations and not necessarily her party.
Also in play, or not, are seven Democratic senators who voted against the DREAM Act in 2007. One of them, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, is retiring and theoretically could vote however he wants. Three — Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana and Kent Conrad of North Dakota — face tough 2012 re-election battles in conservative states. The others — Max Baucus of Montana, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas — are also from conservative states and may be unlikely to switch.
Democrats already are on track to lose at least one vote they had in 2007. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, running in 2012, says he's a "no" this time around. Jim Webb of Virginia (also a "yes" in 2007) and Joe Manchin of West Virginia will also be running next year in conservative states and haven't said how they'll vote. Two new Republican senators, Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Mark Kirk of Illinois, are relatively moderate but it's unclear if they'd consider supporting DREAM.
Duncan said he is talking to people in both parties and "there's some real interest. There's a couple of people ... who have moved in the right direction." But Carlos Gutierrez, who was commerce secretary in the George W. Bush administration, sounded a cautionary note. While the DREAM Act is "right for the country," he said, speaking after Duncan on the conservatives' call, it will only fly if it is sold as a down payment on a larger solution to problems like border control. "This needs to be positioned as a first step in the comprehensive solution and not a substitute for a comprehensive solution," he said.
Democrats need far more than a couple of people, of course. And Republicans don't seem inclined to give Obama anything that might resemble a victory, no matter how the argument is framed or how much it would improve their standing with Hispanics. Still, trying to read the minds and discern the intentions of senators is a fool's errand. That's why the DREAM Act still has a ghost of a chance, and an army of advocates on the field.