ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Between the economy and the enormous effort required to pass a health-care bill, it's no wonder one key issue all but fell off President Obama's agenda: immigration. Well, Democrats are now trying to revive a measure that would put illegal immigrants who come to the U.S. as children on a path to citizenship. It's known as the DREAM Act.
NPR's Audie Cornish reports.
AUDIE CORNISH: Illinois Senator Dick Durbin has been trying for 10 years to get the DREAM Act through Congress.
Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): Here's how it works. A 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.
CORNISH: And then those 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 has been floating around Congress without much momentum until last week, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid raised eyebrows with the announcement that he wants the DREAM Act added to the annual defense policy bill. But with even that bill facing obstacles, Republican John McCain says this is all about politics.
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): This is turning legislation related to our national defense and military preparedness into a vehicle to force a partisan agenda through the Senate, often on a party line vote, in their desperation because they see the November 2nd elections coming up - is palpable.
CORNISH: Reid is locked in a tight re-election race, and he's been working hard to attract Latino voters, in particular in Nevada. But this is no election ploy, doth protests the Senate leader.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): I don't think we should talk about how beneficial the DREAM Act is for Democrats. I think we should talk about how fair it is to people who should be able to go to school if they want to, join the military if they want to. It has nothing to do with Democrats or Republicans. It has everything to do with fairness.
CORNISH: It's not clear that memo has reached the White House.
President BARACK OBAMA: Don't ever believe that this election coming up doesn't matter.
CORNISH: At the recent Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's annual gala, President Barack Obama said the Latino community has every right to hold Democrats accountable on immigration reform.
Pres. OBAMA: But don't forget who is standing with you, and who is standing against you.
(Soundbite of applause)
CORNISH: But large-scale immigration-overhaul bills are still considered dead-ends without GOP support. The narrowly focused DREAM Act has had Republican sponsors and is considered by some a foot in the door.
Mr. MARK KRIKORIAN (Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies): I think, frankly, they're going to get pinched by that door closing on their foot, but the supporters of legalization, I think, are out of ideas.
CORNISH: Mark Krikorian is director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports strict immigration control. Krikorian says firing up a debate on the DREAM Act will just as likely stoke conservative voters as well.
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Now, they have offices to call. They have places to fax. They actually have an object for their activism. So in a sense, it's almost a godsend for the anti-amnesty organizations, giving their people something specific to work against.
CORNISH: They'll have competition from DREAM Act supporters like Carlos Coronel, who rallied on the 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.
Mr. CARLOS CORONEL: I understand the point of view that it's just a way to get voters excited. But at the same time, more people are going to stand up and be able 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.
CORNISH: Either way, it's clear that this debate will not, by any means, end over this bill - or with this Congress.
Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.