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Protesters demonstrate as Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney attends a Get Out the Vote Rally in Mesa, Ariz.
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The run-up to Wednesday's Republican presidential debate in Arizona has highlighted immigration issues including the so-called DREAM Act, which proposes paths to citizenship for some undocumented children of immigrants. Three of the top candidates have said they support only part of the proposal — an unpopular stance among the Latino voters the candidates are courting in the border state.
A week ago, as Mitt Romney rallied supporters inside Mesa Amphitheater near Phoenix, another group rallied outside: immigrant students protesting his vow to veto the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act.
The bill would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented people younger than 35 who serve in the military or go to college. But Romney said last month in South Carolina that people who enter the U.S. illegally "should not be given favoritism or a special route to becoming permanent residents or citizens that is not given to those people who have stayed in line legally."
He said he would support only the military portion of the DREAM Act, and rival candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich agree.
That idea is offensive to "Dreamers" — undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally when they were young — who want to go to college, said 25-year-old activist Daniel Rodriguez.
"That's telling me I'm good enough to die for this country," Rodriguez said, "but I'm not good enough to study for it and to help it through my knowledge."
At a fundraiser for fellow Dreamer students in Phoenix, Rodriguez recalled coming to the U.S. at age 6 with his mother, who was fleeing domestic violence in Mexico.
"I'm told everyday that I'm not American," he said, "but that's all I know and that's all I consider myself to be."
Opposition To A 'Military Only' DREAM Act
The Migration Policy Institute in Washington estimates that at least 2 million undocumented youths like Rodriguez could benefit from the DREAM Act. But the co-director of the institute's National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, Margie McHugh, said many fewer would qualify for the military because of its strict educational and English-language requirements.
"It's hard to imagine that it would be worth passing legislation just for that small number," McHugh said.
That's why 28-year-old Cesar Vargas said he doesn't like the idea of a "military only" DREAM Act, even though he wants to join the Marines.
"It tells you, you know, forget about your friends who want to go to college and you take advantage of this, and that's not how it's supposed to be," he said.
The DREAM Act should be about more than just the military, said Dulce Matuz, president of the Arizona DREAM Act Coalition. She said it's meant for students who want to fight for the country with their bodies and minds.
"We need intelligent and talented individuals in this nation, and we've got to respect their decision to join the military or become a scientist," she said.
The Latino Vote
Matuz said she wants candidates to know there are consequences for their statements.
"We're going to be informing the Latino community about the facts," she said, "even for President Obama — we're holding accountable the Republicans and Democrats alike."
If the candidates keep talking like they are now, she said, the Latino community won't vote for them.
But in an interview on Univision, a media outlet that serves a Hispanic audience, Gingrich said he's not worried about losing Latino voters: "I have a hunch that by this fall, we may do better than any other Republican, except maybe Reagan."
That's not likely, according to Rodolfo Espino, a professor of political science at Arizona State University.
"They've pretty much blown that opportunity to cater to the Latino vote," Espino said. But that doesn't mean President Obama is a shoo-in for the general election, he said. "Democrats cannot just sit there and assume Latino voters are going to rush into the arms of the Democratic Party."
Democrats need to show Latinos they're serious about immigration reform, Espino said, and passing the DREAM Act would be a good start.