A Piece Of Immigration Debate Returns To Senate

The issue of immigration reform has been dormant of late on Capitol Hill, and a lack of bipartisanship has been keeping it and some other matters from moving anywhere.

An April 2004 rally in support of the DREAM Act, in Washington

The DREAM Act has been talked about for more than a decade. At this 2004 rally in Washington, D.C., supporters held a mock graduation ceremony. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images

But this week, Democrats are seeing if they can open a window of opportunity — one that could quickly close because of the looming midterm elections.

They're looking to attach the DREAM Act to the annual defense policy bill that the Senate is scheduled to take up Tuesday. The measure would put illegal immigrants who come to the United States as children on a path to citizenship if they fulfill several requirements. (DREAM stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors.)

It's one of two high-profile issues that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said will be voted on when senators take up the defense legislation. The other, which is already a part of the defense measure, is repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bars openly gay Americans from serving in the military.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), has been trying for 10 years to get the DREAM Act through Congress.

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"Here is how it works," says Durbin. "The student would have the chance to qualify only if he or she meets these requirements: came to the United States as a child; lived here for more than five years; has good moral character; has not engaged in criminal activity; does not pose any threat to national security; passes a thorough background check; and graduates from an American high school."

If they meet those tests, young people would qualify for temporary legal status. They would have to go to college or join the military in order to get a green card.

The proposal had been floating around Congress without much momentum until last week, when Reid raised eyebrows with the announcement that he wants the DREAM Act added to the annual defense policy bill.

Republican Sen. John McCain, his party's 2008 presidential nominee and the ranking minority member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, says this is all about politics.

"This is turning legislation related to our national defense into a vehicle to force a partisan agenda through the Senate — often on a party line vote," he says. According to McCain, the Democrats' "desperation" about what could happen to their numbers in Congress this November "is palpable."

Reid, who's locked not only in a tight re-election race for his own seat but also has to consider whether his party will still have control of the House and Senate after November, objects to such characterizations.

"I don't think we should talk about how beneficial the Dream Act is for Democrats," he says. "I think we should talk about how fair it is to people who should be able to go to school if they want — join the military if they want to. It has nothing to do with Democrats [or] with Republicans, and everything to do with fairness."

Sweeping immigration overhaul bills are considered dead-ends on Capitol Hill because they won't get anything close to bipartisan support. The more narrowly focused DREAM Act has had Republican sponsors, and so is considered by some a foot in a door that stands some chance of passage and perhaps leads to more overhaul efforts in the future.

But Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports strict immigration control, says Democrats are going to "get pinched by that door closing on their foot."

He sees the DREAM Act firing up conservative voters. Democrats, he says, have given opponents "something specific to work against."

There will be DREAM Act supporters, though, also lobbying their senators. Carlos Coronel was among some of the hundreds who rallied on Capitol Hill with hundreds of immigration supporters last week. He says his mother, who's from Guatemala, benefited from the 1986 Immigration Reform bill, and he calls the DREAM Act a stepping stone.

"I understand a point of view that it's just a way to get voters excited," Coronel says. "But at the same time, more people are going to stand up and ... come out of the shadows and show how successful such a reform as the Dream Act can be — which will be like a sample of how great a reform a comprehensive bill would be."

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