The Obama administration has been remarkably indecisive on the subject of immigration. On the one hand, it talks a lot about its support for a bill legalizing undocumented immigrants. On the other hand, it has also deported more undocumented immigrants than any other president in history. In the process President Barack Obama has pleased neither side; Latinos believe the administration is all-talk and no action, while conservatives believe the administration’s deportations are just a secret ruse for amnesty.
Now, however, an effort is coming which may please at least one side. On September 14th, 2010, Senator Harry Reid announced his support for the DREAM Act. This is a bill which, if passed, would offer a path to legalization for undocumented college students or undocumented soldiers in the military, who came to the United States as children (younger than 15 years old) and have lived here for at least five years.
There are a number of interesting political considerations which go with the DREAM Act. Although Democrats control Congress and the presidential office, initially many pro-immigrant Democrats were reluctant to introduce the law. They viewed the DREAM Act as a popular piece of legislation which would help public support for comprehensive immigration reform – which conservatives generally denounce as “amnesty”.
This view is no longer held by most Democrats. Comprehensive immigration reform has not been able to get past the ground with 59 Democratic Senators. Democrats will not have a majority this size for a long, long time – and if immigration reform cannot pass with 59 Democratic Senators, then it will likely never pass. Thus the decision to separate the DREAM Act from overall immigration reform.
There is another Democratic consideration, of course. Mr. Reid is facing a very difficult re-election campaign; his state Nevada is 24.9% Hispanic. Boosting Latino turn-out – which the DREAM Act is hoped to do – would be a badly needed assist for him (and for Democrats throughout the nation facing tough elections).
What about Republicans? Well, a number of Republicans, believe it or not, actually supported versions of the DREAM Act in the past. When the DREAM Act was proposed in 2007, 10 Republican Senators voted for it (in 2007 it got 52 votes but failed to break a filibuster). These were Senators Bob Bennett (R-Utah), Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Larry Craig (R-Idaho), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). Five – Mr. Bennett, Mr. Brownback, Ms. Collins, Mr. Hatch, and Ms. Snowe – are still serving.
Many of these Republicans came from surprisingly conservative states: Utah, Kansas, Idaho, Nebraska, and Mississippi. One would not expect them to support the DREAM Act – but they did. This was because of former President George W. Bush. Mr. Bush was a strong backer of comprehensive immigration reform and enjoyed substantial Latino support because of this. Indeed, on immigration affairs Mr. Bush was probably more liberal than any Republican today.
These Republicans will probably not vote for the DREAM Act today. The current Republican Party is dominated by red-hot anger against undocumented immigrants, in the vein of Governor Jan Brewer rather than Mr. Bush. At least one moderate Republican – Senator Scott Brown – has announced his opposition to the DREAM Act as “amnesty.” If Mr. Brown will not vote for the DREAM Act, more conservative Republicans such as Senator Orrin Hatch will not either.
The DREAM Act’s chances of passing are therefore slim, according to most in the Washington Beltway. It needs 60 votes, and if Republicans won’t vote for it, then it won’t pass. Moreover, there will probably be at least one conservative Democratic Senator who won’t support the DREAM Act.
Democrats have therefore pulled a clever trick: they have attached the DREAM Act to a military appropriations bill. If Republicans want to vote against the DREAM Act, they will also have to vote against funding the military. Democrats can then accuse Republicans of not supporting the military. This is a common tactic used by the party in control, and it has understandably angered Republicans, who want a straight vote (which would fail) on only the DREAM Act.
There is also the rather important matter of what the American public actually thinks about the DREAM Act. In general, the public always supports less immigration and more enforcement, which is true for almost every country in the world as well. It is difficult to find a restrictive immigration measure that Americans will not support, not matter how extreme it is (this is also true for other countries throughout the world). Japanese internment camps, after all, were quite popular with the American public during WWII. Today Arizona law SB1070 is just as popular.
The DREAM Act goes against this strain of thought. Nevertheless, there is some reason to think that it might have a higher level of support than the usual pro-immigration bill.
For one thing, the beneficiaries of the DREAM Act – undocumented college students – look really good on television. Unlike the average undocumented immigrant, an undocumented college student speaks perfect English, knows to wave the American flag, and doesn’t look fresh-off-the-boat. Moreover, politicians love to talk about their support for college students; college students come just one level below soldiers in the military (whom, it just happens, the DREAM Act will also benefit.)
The DREAM Act’s supporters have the unusual characteristic of being more passionate than the Republican base. Undocumented college students have participated in a number of public protests, from sit-ins at Senate offices to spelling out messages on the South Beach, Miami. Their noise may have some influence on the debate.
Finally, proponents of the DREAM Act are in a far better position in the immigration debate than advocates of immigration usually are. Opponents of immigration reform generally label immigration reform as amnesty. The argument goes that law-breakers – i.e. undocumented immigrants – should not be rewarded for breaking the law. This is a quite effective argument, and something most Americans buy into.
But DREAM Act supporters have much better response than immigration proponents normally have: it was the parents of these undocumented college students who broke the law by bringing them into the United States, not them. They were children when they came here – and the government shouldn’t punish children for the crimes their parents made.
Whether this argument works will probably determine the fate of the DREAM Act.