The DREAM Act is coming back. After a bruising, nearly triumphant fight through Congress at the end of last year, Sen. Dick Durbin is preparing to reintroduce the bill this session, his office confirmed last week. The legislation seeks to create a path to citizenship for undocumented youth who grew up in the United States; it surged ahead on the congressional agenda last session as key Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, courted Latino voters in a hard-fought electoral cycle.
There are however already murmurs of disquiet among immigrant youth advocates who fear that the version of the bill Durbin plans to introduce will be far more narrow than the one they backed even a year ago. The bill’s scope has shrunk significantly as its congressional backers have sought bipartisan support.
"We know the DREAM Act is going to be coming out soon, and that it’s most likely going to be similar to the version that passed the House last time," said Mohammad Abdollahi, an immigrant youth activist who helped cofound the DREAM Act clearinghouse DreamActivist.org.
According to Abdollahi and other immigration advocates familiar with the negotiations happening now, the bill will likely mirror the version that passed in an historic House vote last December but failed to clear a Republican filibuster in the Senate. They say that Durbin has resisted filing a broader version of the bill in order to accommodate his Republican colleague Sen. Richard Lugar, who is fighting off a more right-wing challenger back home in Indiana.
Abdollahi said Durbin’s decision to stick with a less than ideal version of the bill was "the major dilemma" in front of DREAM Act activists right now.
"If Democrats are not going to advocate for a stronger bill and just give in to Republican demands, then we have to recognize that Democrats are not going to have the backbone they need to have," Abdollahi said.
Others, however, acknowledge the realities of a shrinking political playing field for moderate Republicans, whose votes will be required to pass any version of the bill.
"I do think that Sen. Durbin is sensitive to the position that Lugar is in," said Adey Fisseha, a policy attorney and campaign coordinator with the National Immigration Law Center, which has supported the immigrant youth umbrella organization United We Dream and is advocating for the DREAM Act. "Lugar has drawn a primary challenger who’s been pretty vocal about highlighting Sen. Lugar’s support of the DREAM Act as his number one reason for running against him."
Indeed, Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock has forced Lugar into the political fight of his life, an unusual position for a veteran senator who’s accustomed to easy re-election. Fisseha said that immigrant right advocates appreciated that Lugar had stuck by the DREAM Act, unlike other Republican senators like Orrin Hatch and John McCain, who abandoned the bill after years of longstanding support for it. McCain won re-election last year after rebranding himself as an staunch anti-immigrant foe, and Hatch, who’s rumored to be facing a difficult re-election in 2012, may already be rearing for the same.
The DREAM Act is crafted to benefit a select portion of the immigrant population— undocumented youth who were raised in this country—and represents a break from the longstanding conventional wisdom that immigration reform must happen through a broad, comprehensive bill. It would allow undocumented youth who clear a host of hurdles and commit at least two years to the military or higher education an opportunity to qualify for citizenship. According to the White House, which was vocal in its support of the bill last year, the most recent version would benefit 65,000 youth. There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country right now.
Under the most recent versions of the bill, only those who arrived in the country before the age of 16, have lived in the U.S. for more than five years and are under 30 when the bill passes would be eligible. The bill also requires a 10-year probationary status before granting a green card, and then another three years before those who are eligible can be naturalized. Anyone with a felony or more than three misdemeanors would be ineligible.
The DREAM Act has been around for over a decade, and it’s been steadily narrowed with each successive iteration. The earliest versions did not include a military service provision—one could become eligible for citizenship with community service, which seems like a quaint impossibility in today’s highly polarized anti-immigrant climate. In the last days of the 2010 lame duck session, several key concessions were made that narrowed the bill’s scope in significant ways: the probationary period was upped to 10 years from six and the age cap was slashed from 35 to 30 years old.
The bill’s advocates knew at the time those changes would haunt them if the legislation failed. "Concessions are made in an effort to get votes," Fisseha said, "and if you can’t get those votes, where you leave off always becomes the starting point in the following Congress."
Fisseha added that she considered Durbin "one of the people best positioned to do the analysis of the political landscape," and trusted his commitment to keeping the DREAM Act as bipartisan as possible, but that political compromises come with real-life costs.
"It’s not ideal," Fisseha said of the new age caps, "and it’s not what we want. And it’s been a point of contention for a lot of DREAMers, because the people who worked on it the longest are aging out of a bill that would help change their circumstances."
"They fought for many years, for full on a decade, and now they will never be the beneficiaries of a bill they helped build and grow."
And still, the Obama administration continues to deport undocumented immigrants every day at a record clip, including those who would be eligible for the DREAM Act.
"As immigrant youth this is our message," Abdollahi said. "We’re willing to put ourselves on the line. Just like in July, we're not going to hold back against Democrats, because ultimately the DREAM Act lost votes on the Democratic side too."
Last summer undocumented immigrant youth staged a series of sit-ins in senators' offices and publicly criticized members of Congress from both parties who DREAMers, as undocumented immigrant youth activists are often called, felt weren't moving quickly enough to advance the bill. They often challenged even their strongest congressional allies, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez. Now they are prepared to put the same heat on Durbin, who has been a fierce DREAM Act advocate and was one of its original sponsors.
DREAMers' criticism of these new developments can seem like a puzzling position, especially coming from the same community that put its full weight behind a similar version that passed the House last December but eventually failed a Republican filibuster threat in the Senate.
"After two years of negotiations, we know the final version of the DREAM Act is probably going to be watered down even more," Abdollahi said. "It’s exciting that it’s coming out, but we have to be real with our communities because there are so many local battles happening."
Still, Abdollahi added, he and other undocumented immigrant youth will likely support the bill when it arrives. DREAMers end up being torn by a political reality that they’re clearly immersed in but loathe to accept. For immigrant youth, it’s not that anything is better than nothing. Rather, that in a harsh anti-immigrant climate and with a president that refuses to stop deporting DREAM Act-eligible young people, undocumented youth have no choice but to keep pushing to pass a bill that's as broad as possible, as quickly as possible.