Monday, October 29, 2007

DREAM Act Update: Immigration Advocates Determined to Stay the Course after Senate Fails to Vote on Bill

by Daniela Martinez Moreno
AFSC Special Projects Policy Fellow

On October 18th, Majority Whip Richard (Dick) Durbin (D-IL), Senators Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) introduced a new version of the DREAM Act (S. 2205). The three Senators held hopes that the Senate would be ready to resume the immigration debate and move forward this proposed legislation designed to help children who were brought to the U.S. before the age of 16 by their parents but have not become permanent legal residents or U.S. citizens. These children, now teenagers and students, have become long-term residents of the U.S. They face unique barriers to higher education, are unable to work legally in the U.S., and often live in fear of detection and deportation by immigration authorities. However, in spite of Senator Durbin's leadership and the efforts of other Senate colleagues, the DREAM Act failed to win approval and was again defeated.

While AFSC has consistently called for the fair and equal access to education for undocumented children and youth, and for consideration of the substance of the DREAM Act, AFSC does not support actions that include military service or active duty as part of the DREAM Act legislation.
>To see a link of AFSC Analysis of the DREAM Act as included in the STRIVE Act, click here.

On Wednesday October 24, the Senate convened to proceed with a cloture vote (link to Senate dictionary definition of cloture vote) which would allow the Senators to close debate on S. 2205, and vote on the legislation. The resulting vote, 52 in favor of cloture and 44 against, was 8 votes short to closing debate on S. 2205 and proceeding to vote on the legislation. The fate of this piece of legislation reflects a resistance in the Senate to pass DREAM Act, whether as a stand-alone bill or a part of other bills. The DREAM act is also a provision in the STRIVE Act (H.R. 1645), which has not moved from the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law since this past August. In addition, although the original version of the DREAM Act (S. 774) is still a standalone bill, in September Senator Durbin was unable to attach it to the fiscal 2008 Defense Authorization bill. AFSC has continued to express its concern about attaching the legislation to military or defense-related bills.

Minor but Important Differences Between Two Versions of DREAM

Many opponents of the older version of DREAM Act (S. 774) argued that it would let undocumented students benefit from in-state tuition because it repealed part of the law (Section 505 of the IIRAIRA Act of 1996), which discourages states from allowing undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition. In reality, this version of the DREAM Act would have simply allowed states to determine for themselves whether or not they would allow undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition rates. Ultimately, this provision was dropped from the DREAM Act amendment that was offered in the defense authorization bill. Although S. 774 continues to have this provision, it was not included in the newer version (S. 2205). In addition, a new provision in S. 2205 clarified that only those who are 30 years of age or younger on the day on the enactment would qualify under the DREAM Act. It also eliminated the expedited processing for DREAM Act applications and the guarantee that no extra fees would be charged. Finally, it incorporated additional grounds for ineligibility including misrepresentation or false claim of citizenship or document fraud if committed after the age of 16 and failure to attend removal proceedings.

Differing Perspectives on Senate Floor

During the Senate floor debate on Wednesday October 24, various senators spoke on the legislation (S. 2205) and on the debate on immigration as a whole. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senator Durbin emphasized the need to pass this bill in order to offer a compassionate, humane solution to those children that were brought here at a young age, and have lived in the U.S. in an undocumented status. Senator Durbin stressed the need to understand the special circumstances of those who would qualify under the DREAM Act. He stated, "What crime did these children commit? They obeyed their parents."

Senator Durbin also spoke about the number of individuals that he encountered in his state who were exceptional students and diligent members of the community, yet whose hopes and ambitions were thwarted by their status as undocumented persons.

Members of the Senate who opposed S. 2205 expressed concerns that the DREAM Act was a specialized piece of legislation that would not address the issue of immigration in a more comprehensive manner. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX), for example, recognized that the children in question are in a state of limbo, but mentioned the need for a bi-partisan bill that also addresses the question of immigration enforcement. Senator Jeff Sessions expressed his opposition to the DREAM Act by stating that was not a part of comprehensive immigration reform. Senator John McCain left the chamber before the procedural vote on the DREAM Act, stating that the issue would most likely not be resolved until 2009, and objecting to the passage of the DREAM Act by itself, with no other amendments.

Inaccuracies Continue to Taint the Immigration Debate

A number of misconceptions regarding the DREAM Act have prevailed throughout the struggle to pass legislation that could help address the difficult circumstances of those who might benefit from the legislation. Some of these misconceptions surfaced during the Senate debate. For example, although only a limited number of individuals would be eligible under the DREAM Act, according to the Congressional Quarterly most Republicans and some Democrats continue to oppose measure that they believe will offer "amnesty" to any of the more than 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S.

In addition, soon before the cloture roll-call vote took place, the White House issued a "Statement of Administration Policy" opposing S. 2205. This policy announcement noted that S. 2205 "created a path to citizenship that is unavailable to other prospective immigrants." At the same time, it contains a number of inaccuracies that distort the DREAM Act. For example, the policy statement claims that the legal status granted in the bill would allow beneficiaries to petition "almost instantly" for family members. However, according to the Immigration Policy Center "the age and physical presence requirements of the DREAM Act, as well as the lengthy and limited process that involved sponsoring family members, will serve to limit opportunities to sponsor family members."
>To see "The DREAM Act of 2007: FAQS" compiled by the Immigration Policy Center click here

In addition, the Administration Policy Statement claimed that S. 2205 "includes loopholes that would authorize permanent status for certain aliens convicted of multiple misdemeanors and even felonies." However, the new version of the DREAM Act clearly specifies additional grounds for ineligibility, such as misrepresentation, false claim of citizenship, or document fraud if committed after the age of 16. Persons who are inadmissible or deportable on criminal related-grounds (INA section 212(a)(2) and 237(a)(2)) are ineligible for the DREAM Act program and the Secretary of Homeland Security cannot waive ineligibility on those grounds.

DREAM Discussion May Continue

The failure of the Senate to close debate on S. 2205 poses yet another challenge to passing immigration reform this year, and some fear it may reflect the fate of more narrow immigration pieces, such as AgJOBS (S. 340). According to articles written by Congressional Quarterly (CQ) staff, some Senators feel that the immigration issue in general will not be resolved until after the presidential elections. In addition, CQ states that Senator Menendez (D-NJ) is fearful that those who opposed the DREAM Act for its legalization provisions may also oppose AgJOBS, which would provide a potential path to eventual citizenship for undocumented immigrants who have worked in farm jobs for a specified number of days per year.

On the other hand, Senators such as Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) feel that legislation pieces such as AgJOBS may have a better chance of passing Congress because of their importance to the country's agriculture. Other organizations such as the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) have indicated "there is still a chance that the DREAM Act could be resurrected and enacted this year." According to NILC, the DREAM Act continues to enjoy bi-partisan support, including a majority of the Senate. In its recent statement AILA observes, "There will be a number of additional opportunities over the next few months to pursue narrow, targeted immigration policy reforms."

AFSC will continue to urge Congressional leaders to remove the punitive components of the Dream Act, support equal access to education for children and youth who might benefit from the legislation, and strongly urge for the removal of military service as part of the language in the current DREAM Act proposal.