Pieces of Immigration Bill Reassembled
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Immigration is back on Congress' agenda, although on a much smaller scale than this weekend measure that lawmakers voted down last June. The new approach is piecemeal with Senate Democrats trying to revive individual parts of the bill. One would put illegal immigrants who come to the U.S. as children on a path to citizenship if they enroll in college or join the military.
NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Democrat Richard Durbin of Illinois is planning to offer his so-called DREAM Act as an amendment to the defense policy bill now under debate in the Senate. For more than four years, he's tried unsuccessfully to open the door to citizenship for this particular group of illegal immigrants.
Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): If they graduate from high school, if they came here before the age of 16, if they've been here at least five years, no criminal record, good moral character - they're put on a conditional status - serve two years in the military, finish two years of college, then they have their chance to become citizens.
ELLIOTT: The Migration Policy Institute estimates that about 360,000 high school graduates between 18 and 24 would immediately become eligible for a conditional legal status if the DREAM Act becomes law.
One of them would be an 18-year-old Jamaican immigrant I met recently at Covenant House, New York, a non-profit that serves homeless and at-risk youth and is among the group supporting the DREAM Act.
This young man doesn't want NPR to use his name, given his status. He's got a preppy look, decked down in a pink oxford button down and a blue and green argyle sweater. He graduated from high school in June with honors and is a college freshman today.
Unidentified Man: Right now, I'm taking core courses, but I want a major in accounting. Yeah, my dream job is to work in Ernst & Young.
ELLIOTT: But even getting an accounting internship will be hard because he doesn't have a Social Security number.
When he was one, his mother left Jamaica for the U.S. and overstayed her work visa. He stayed behind in the care of his grandmother and first visited the U.S. when he was 10 years old. A year later, he returned for good.
Unidentified Man: And I came back to visit the following summer and then I stayed to go to school because the education system is better here. My mom made the decision - like, she knew the consequences, but since really wanted me to just excel in school and hope everything would fall into place.
ELLIOTT: Things went well until they got a little older and realized he couldn't get summer jobs as his friends did. He didn't think he could afford college so he looked into joining the army - same problem with his legal status. Now, he's in a leadership program at Covenant House that comes with a stipend and a scholarship. And the state of New York gives him and other undocumented residents instate tuition. Ten states have similar programs, even though it runs contrary to federal law.
Senator Durbin's measure would make it legal for states to give such tuition breaks. That's something immigration opponents say is unfair and rewards illegal behavior. They're also labeling the legislation: amnesty.
Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): It will indeed provide amnesty -the full panoply of rights that we give to any citizen who comes here lawfully - provide a full citizenship track and full rights for a quite a number of illegal aliens.
ELLIOTT: That's Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions, denouncing the proposal on the Senate floor last week.
Senator Durbin rejects the amnesty argument because he says his plan requires students to earn their way into citizenship through college or military service. He thinks this will be less controversial than the broader immigration package that fell apart.
Sen. DURBIN: This approach is the only thing that has a chance. We're about to go into an election year, and in an election year, it's unlikely we'll ever return to the issue of the immigration.
ELLIOTT: Durbin does have some bipartisan support. But one key Republican who pushed for the larger immigration bill is not on board this time - Florida Republican, Mel Martinez.
Senator MEL MARTINEZ (Republican, Florida): I don't think it's appropriate to mix the immigration issue, as volatile and controversial as it is, with the very important work of authorizing the Department of Defense. I'm also very reticent to do any piecemeal immigration reform. I really don't think it makes much sense.
ELLIOTT: Back in New York, the young man from Jamaica says he'll continue with his college courses in the hope that the DREAM Act will find some traction in Congress.
Unidentified Man: Especially people in my situation, where, you know, I didn't make the decision to stay. You know, because it's, like, not everyone is just here like idling, you know. Like, I actually want to pursue a higher education and just move on and get a piece of the American pie.
ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News, the Capitol.