Following months of intense pressure by undocumented students and his Latino voter base, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he will bring the DREAM Act to a vote on the floor as an amendment to a less controversial defense policy bill.
Reid has attached two ultimatums to the military bill: the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act) and a repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell," the military’s restrictive policy toward openly gay service people.
The DREAM Act focuses on young, undocumented people who were brought to the country as children by their undocumented parents.
The bill would create a conditional pathway to citizenship for those who arrived in the country before the age of 16, have finished high school and are out of status. In addition, the individual must either spend two years in the military or be accepted into a higher education institution.
The defense bill is expected to come to a vote next week, and Reid's tactic will force Republicans to vote against authorization for military spending if they want to oppose the DREAM Act.
"This amendment will ensure that millions of children who grow up as Americans will be able the get the education they need to contribute to our economy," said Reid in a statement.
According to a report by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, about 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high schools around the country each year. They do not qualify for most college loans or scholarship programs, and many are forced to pay out-of-state tuition for higher education.
It has been a decade since the DREAM Act was first proposed, and it is seen as one of the most sympathetic pieces of immigration legislation. The undocumented youth who would benefit from the bill are not responsible for their status in the United States, and their native countries are often places they hardly know or don’t remember at all.
Opponents of the bill do not want to open the door to legal status for such a large population, and many supporters do not want to accept a measure that falls short of the comprehensive immigration reform they see as essential.
However, given the current Republican wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, it is unlikely that comprehensive immigration reform will pass the current Congress, and Latino votes could be essential in November’s tightly contested congressional race.
Reid’s reelection fight against Republican Sharron Angle is pegged to be an especially close one.
"By bringing the long-overdue DREAM Act to a vote, Senator Reid has shown that he agrees with 70 percent of Americans who want to provide undocumented young men and women a chance to apply their full potential to making our country a better place to live," said Tyler Moran of the National Immigration Law Center.
Though the push by Reid for a vote is likely a concession to Latino voters, it also comes as undocumented youth have escalated the struggle to pass the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill.
In the past year, undocumented students have risked arrest in "coming out" actions, in which they reveal their immigration status publicly, and staged sit-ins at Sen. John McCain’s (R) office in Arizona and at the offices of five senators in Washington DC, including that of Senator Reid.
The Obama administration has already stopped the deportations of students who came to the United States without papers when they were children. Department of Homeland Security officials said that although they had made no formal change of policy to permit the students to stay, other more pressing deportation priorities have prompted them to decline to put undocumented students into deportation proceedings.
When the DREAM Act last came up for a vote, in 2007, it won at least ten GOP votes. Five of the ten – Bob Bennett (R-Utah), Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) – are still in the Senate. It would also have been part of the McCain-Kennedy comprehensive immigration reform legislation if it had passed in 2007.
The bill has 40 cosponsors and has been backed by labor unions, major corporations and universities. Even some diehard conservatives have expressed support.
Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and Fox News talk show host, was asked about his position on allowing undocumented students the opportunity to complete their education and become residents in early 2008 when campaigning before the Iowa caucuses at a university.
"They're not going home to a place they don't even remember," Huckabee said at the time, "I think we're a better country than that."