Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has announced plans to have the Senate tackle a measure that would let illegal immigrants who came into the United States as children become citizens — bucking a long-held tenet of Democratic strategy that immigration reforms should be dealt with as a comprehensive package.
The legislation, known as the DREAM Act, would allow undocumented people enrolled in college or enlisted in the military, and younger than 35, to obtain a green card and ultimately citizenship — provided they came to the U.S. before age 16, have lived here for more than five years, and have no criminal record.
After kicking around Congress for about 10 years, the DREAM Act is one of the best known and widely supported provisions in the canon of immigration reform laws. But in pushing it forward for a vote without the other pieces of the package, Reid may be gambling with the broader cause — and President Barack Obama’s campaign promise — to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and with his own political future.
Although the DREAM has received bipartisan support in the past, previous attempts to pass it as an independent measure have faced opposition from both parties: Republicans who as a party do not support the legislation, and Democrats who argue that addressing the legislation on its own saps energy from the effort to pass a more comprehensive immigration bill.
Reid seemed to address those concerns as he made his announcement Tuesday, explaining that it would be impossible to take up comprehensive immigration reform this year.
“I tried so very, very hard, but those Republicans we had in the last legislature have left us,” he said.
And with Democrats all but certain to cede more seats to Republicans during the midterm elections — including to many who have professed allegiance to the “no amnesty” stance that has received support from, among others, the Tea Party — many are wondering if no comprehensive immigration reform now really means none at all for the rest of Obama’s first term.
Opponents of liberalizing the nation’s immigration laws say a comprehensive immigration reform package will become even easier to vote down if the DREAM Act is passed separately.
“These are the most compelling people and arguments for amnesty,” said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which opposes the DREAM Act. “Once you take them out, whatever momentum you’ve got, you lose.”
Reid’s legislative strategy isn’t an entirely new one. This summer, some influential immigration advocates began to shift toward resigned acceptance of a more piecemeal approach to immigration reform, such as the DREAM Act and the AgJobs bill, which would increase the number of temporary work visas available for agricultural workers.
“I think the DREAM Act is perceived among the immigration advocacy community as a building block toward the broader goal of comprehensive reform,” said Olga Medina, an immigration policy strategist with the National Council of La Raza, a pro-immigrant advocacy group. “A victory would build momentum (for comprehensive immigration reform).”
But whatever the ultimate effect passing the DREAM Act would have on comprehensive reform, advocates and opponents agree that in the immediate term, the person who stands to gain the most from its passage is the senator himself.
In a race that by all accounts is neck-and-neck, Reid needs votes wherever he can get them — and an eleventh-hour victory for the DREAM Act could potentially mobilize otherwise dormant support in the Hispanic community, advocates say.
Both campaigns have been jockeying for the support of the Hispanic population, which makes up 26 percent of Nevada’s population and 15 percent of the state’s electorate.
But Reid and Republican challenger Sharron Angle differ widely on the subject of immigration, with Reid supporting the concept of a comprehensive bill that combines enforcement provisions with pathways to citizenship for the undocumented, and Angle likening measures that provide avenues to citizenship for illegal immigrants — including the DREAM Act — to amnesty.
But before the issue can stir Hispanics in Nevada, Reid has to come up with the votes in the Senate — and the majority leader refused to say whether he thought he could do so.
Reid said he would attach the DREAM Act as an amendment to a military spending measure the Senate is expected to take up next week. That bill is already being used as a vehicle for another controversial piece of legislation — the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which the Obama administration has advocated, but Republicans oppose as a party.
Reid said he had not coordinated his plans to include the DREAM Act in that package with the White House — which this week appeared to be carefully avoiding taking any position on strategy.
Asked this week if she supported the Senate considering the DREAM Act apart from broader reform, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano carefully told an assembly at the annual conference of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute that she and the president “support the DREAM Act … and he supports comprehensive immigration reform.”