STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Hold a presidential debate in Arizona, as Republicans will today, and you make it likely that immigration will come up. The state has one of the nation's more fiercely debated immigration laws. For presidential candidates, this tangled issue includes, among other things, the proposed DREAM Act.
That proposal, which has been before Congress for years, would grant citizenship to certain undocumented children of immigrants. At least three of the presidential candidates have said they would not support that unless the young people joined the military. NPR's Teresa Tomassoni reports.
TERESA TOMASSONI, BYLINE: A week before Arizona's GOP debate, Mitt Romney rallied supporters inside the Mesa Amphitheater just outside Phoenix. Another group rallied outside.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Veto Romney, not the DREAM Act.
TOMASSONI: The small group of immigrant students are protesting Romney's vow to veto the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, more commonly known as the DREAM Act. The bill would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented youth under 35 who serve in the military or go to college.
Here's Romney at a debate last month in South Carolina.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)
MITT ROMNEY: I absolutely believe that those who come here illegally should not be given favoritism or a special route to becoming permanent residents or citizens, that's not given to those people that have stayed in line legally.
TOMASSONI: Romney says he would only support the military portion of the DREAM Act. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich agree.
But activists like 25-year-old Daniel Rodriguez say that's offensive to Dreamers who want to go to college.
DANIEL RODRIQUEZ: That's telling me that I'm good enough to go die for this country, but I'm not good enough to study for it, right, and to help it through my knowledge.
TOMASSONI: Standing outside a fundraiser for fellow Dreamer students in Phoenix, Rodriguez recalled coming to the U.S. at the age of six with his mother who was fleeing domestic violence in Mexico.
RODRIQUEZ: I'm told everyday that I'm not American, but that's all I know, and that's all I consider myself to be.
TOMASSONI: The Migration Policy Institute in Washington estimates at least two million undocumented youth like Rodriguez could benefit from the DREAM Act. But immigration analyst Margie McHugh says many fewer would qualify for the military, because of its strict educational and English-language requirements.
MARGIE MCHUGH: It's hard to imagine that it would be worth passing legislation just for that small number.
TOMASSONI: Which is why 28-year-old Cesar Vargas says he doesn't like the idea of a military-only DREAM Act, even though he does want to join the Marines.
CESAR VARGAS: It tells you, you know, forget about your friends who want to go to college. Forget about them and just, you know, you take advantage of this. And that's not how it's supposed to be.
TOMASSONI: The DREAM Act should be about more than just the military, says Dulce Matuz, from the Arizona DREAM Act Coalition. She says it's meant for students who want to fight for the country with their bodies and minds.
DULCE MATUZ: We need intelligent, talented individuals in this nation. And we've got to respect their decision whether to join the military or to be a great scientist.
TOMASSONI: Matuz says she wants candidates to know there are consequences for their statements.
MATUZ: We're going to be informing our Latino community about the facts. Even for President Obama, we're holding accountable Republicans and the Democrats alike.
TOMASSONI: If the candidates keep talking like they are now, Matuz says the Latino community won't be voting for them.
But in an interview on Univision, Gingrich said he's not worried about losing Latino voters.
(SOUNDBITE OF UNIVISION BROADCAST)
NEWT GINGRICH: I have a hunch that by this fall, we may do better than any Republican, except maybe Reagan.
TOMASSONI: That's not likely, says to Rodolfo Espino, a politics professor at Arizona State University.
RODOLFO ESPINO: I think they've pretty much blown that opportunity to cater to the Latino vote.
TOMASSONI: But Espino says that doesn't mean President Obama is a shoo-in for the general election.
ESPINO: Democrats just cannot sit there and assume that Latino voters are going to rush into the arms of the Democratic Party.
TOMASSONI: Espino says Democrats need to show Latinos they're serious about immigration reform, and passing the DREAM Act would be a good start. If they don't, Espino says Latino voters are likely to just stay home for the 2012 presidential election.
Teresa Tomassoni, NPR News.