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April 15, 2014

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Lack of key support has Joe Heck holding back his Dream Act bill

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Leila Navidi

U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev. speaks to the press outside after a Town Hall at Windmill Library in Las Vegas on Tuesday, July 2, 2013.

Were everything going according to plan, Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., would have introduced his immigration bill by now.

The second-term congressman began working in earnest almost six months ago on the draft legislation to put immigrants unauthorized to be in the United States on a pathway to citizenship provided they complete a course of post-secondary study or military service. He’d met with local and national stakeholders about it. And last week, he’d hinted strongly that a formal introduction of his version of the Dream Act — the first by a House Republican — was imminent.

Although the bill is finished — with no further changes expected — Heck has elected to sit on it, apparently waiting for a fuller coalition of support that most likely won't come.

Just before Thanksgiving, Heck and his staff met in his home district with approximately 40 local and national coalitions that have some stake in the immigration arena, according to Heck’s office as well as people who attended. The group included members of Nevada’s most vocal pro-immigration unions and activist groups, such as Culinary Local 226 and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, the Restaurant Association and a selection of Strip casinos. There were administrative staffers from Nevada’s major universities — UNLV, the College of Southern Nevada and Nevada State College — alongside representatives of private vocational schools; local Methodist, Episcopalian and Catholic clergy; representatives from Mark Zuckerberg’s and Michael Bloomberg’s new national working groups on immigration reform; and organizations from Las Vegas’ largest immigrant groups, from Hispanic to Thai communities.

In theory, that cast of characters would have been a perfect roster of support for an unveiling of Heck’s bill.

But though Heck persuaded business leaders, clergy and some community groups to sign onto his version of a Dream Act that could better transcend party lines in Congress, he failed to win endorsements — or even encouragement — from other members of the stakeholders’ group. The colleges stayed neutral. And the immigration activists gave him a flat-out no.

“What we have been fighting for, for the last year and really for the last decade, is comprehensive immigration reform, which means a pathway to citizenship for all people,” said Yvanna Cancela, political director for the Culinary Union. “While Heck’s bill is a step in the right direction, it does not meet those goals. It only accomplishes something for a subset of the population.”

Heck’s Dream Act — for want of a more official title — is not a terribly radical departure from the Dream Act that has languished in the Senate since the early 2000s. The original legislation envisioned putting young immigrants who were illegally brought to the United States as children on an accelerated citizenship track provided they spend at least two years in college or four in the military. Heck’s draft legislation would expand the number of qualifying routes to citizenship to include vocational training programs and certified apprenticeships; he also added the requirement that students complete their course of study in order to be eligible for citizenship.

Those adjustments have attracted new interest from groups that did not endorse the original Dream Act, such as the National Restaurant Association.

“I know there is this fascination with college, and there is nothing wrong with college, but at the same time, there are other roads to the middle class in America that are not necessarily college,” said Angelo Amador, the restaurant association’s vice president of labor and workforce policy. Amador helped draft the original Dream Act bill in 2000 as an employee of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “We would like for other people to have avenues to get legalization, and Heck’s staff has done a good job of that.”

At the same time, Heck’s bill has lost the support of many original Dream Act sponsors — not because he changed specific provisions of it, but because he is focusing on perfecting a Dream Act whose time they think has come and gone.

In 2010, the AFL-CIO was a key voice calling on Congress to pass the Dream Act to “give hope to our nation’s youth,” as national President Richard Trumka put it in September of that year.

The Democratic-led House would pass it in December; the Democratic-led Senate would fall five votes short.

But that was then — when with Republicans on the precipice of a House majority, they thought they wouldn’t get a chance to do any better.

“I know what happened in the past, and you can’t go back there,” said Danny Thompson, head of the Nevada AFL-CIO, which opposes Heck’s legislation. “Now, compared to then, there’s a real opportunity to pass something comprehensive ... but first, they have to be willing to admit that piecemeal (legislation) doesn’t work.”

Last June, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill with the support of 14 Republicans — including Nevada’s Sen. Dean Heller. But House Republicans were quick to reject the notion of taking up the Senate’s work, eventually declaring that the House would address immigration comprehensively by going through the spectrum of relevant laws a la carte.

It’s not what Democrats in the House wanted, but they seem willing to go along for now.

“We are going to do them piecemeal,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., one of Congress’ most vocal pro-immigration reform members, told Chicago Public Radio last month. “In the end, you’re going to have a full menu.”

But that’s not enough of a guarantee to bring Nevada immigration activists around to the idea of Heck’s bill.

“Basically, it’s making us decide between us and our parents,” said Astrid Silva, who works with PLAN and heads up Dream Big Vegas, a group of young immigrants who would be the targets of Dream Act legislation. “How do you say ‘Yeah! I’m 100 percent on board with only me being saved?’ ”

On the merits, Silva said, Heck’s legislation “could be worked with.” But that would depend on Heck showing more willingness to get on board with comprehensive immigration legislation elsewhere — such as H.R. 15, a repackaged version of the Senate bill sitting in the House, or making his legislation an anchor for a broader approach.

But Heck told stakeholders at November’s meeting that he didn’t want to see any other legislation attached to his bill, according to several people in the room, for fear it would become more difficult to pass. That stopped many activists short. If Heck wouldn’t let his measure be attached to any other legislation, how could it be made part of something more comprehensive? And if the bill’s composition was so fragile, why should they throw their weight behind it now?

“That’s the challenge with Heck’s bill,” Cancela said. “While he’s committed to ideas, he’s not committed to saying he has the votes to get it passed. It’s tough to get behind it when we don’t know where it’s going to go.”

“It’s more uncertainty than even in 2010,” Silva said, recalling the last time Congress voted on the Dream Act, with greater support from the groups she works with. “At least in 2010, we knew it was coming up for a vote.”

But Heck is likely not in a position to make such guarantees.

House Republicans have not warmed to the Dream Act. Almost all voted against it in 2010 — just before Heck got to Congress. And the House answer to Senate passage of comprehensive immigration reform was to approve a measure aimed at defunding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that now gives would-be Dreamers work authorization, a vote for which Heck is still taking heat from Democrats.

In that environment, Heck faces an uphill battle with his own party to even get his Dream Act heard.

“I think that’s the fear. If he can’t even get a hearing on this or meaningful support in his party, then what’s he doing here,” said David Damore, political science professor at UNLV. “That shows weakness, that he doesn’t have any clout in his party … and the Democrats aren’t going to run to his rescue knowing he’s in one of the most vulnerable seats in the whole House.”

So Heck is in an awkward position as he tries to rally preliminary bipartisan support for his immigration measure, claiming as he did in a Monday op-ed in the Las Vegas Review-Journal that his measure “is gathering support from interested parties at both the local and national level.”

It is. Just not the parties he seems to need most.

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