WASHINGTON – Politicians supporting the DREAM Act — a path to citizenship for immigrants who came to the U.S. as children — should actively promote the legislation, not just vote for it, a Maryland advocate said.
Congress could debate the act as early as this week, before a less friendly Republican majority takes over the House in January.
Under the DREAM Act, eligible immigrants must have entered the country before their 16th birthday, have lived here for at least five years, have a high school diploma or equivalent, and must attend college or serve in the military for two years. They also can’t be eligible for removal for any other reason.
Opponents say it grants amnesty to unauthorized immigrants, while supporters consider it the first step to overreaching immigration reform.
Maryland Democratic Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin co-sponsored last year’s version of the bill, as did Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, Donna Edwards, D-Fort Washington, and John Sarbanes, D-Towson, in the House.
These and other members of Congress say they support the measure, but many don’t speak out about it because they’re reluctant to put themselves on the line, said Roberto Juarez, co-founder and community organizer of the Maryland DREAM Youth Committee.
“We’re trying to get them to fight for the students in our state and to get their colleagues to vote for the DREAM Act,” Juarez said.
There is enough pressure from people around the country to force Congress to act now, he said.
Maryland DREAM Youth Committee, made up of about 30 middle school, high school and college students, has been collecting index cards with students’ written stories and praise for the DREAM Act to give to members of Congress, said Victor Benitez of Silver Spring, a senior at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington.
Benitez, who came to the country from Paraguay at age 7, is a permanent legal resident and will be eligible for citizenship in 2012. But he wants to show his support for students who would be affected by the DREAM Act.
Benitez and Juarez were to deliver the index cards Tuesday to Mikulski and Cardin, who have a tougher road in the Senate, where the Democratic majority is slimmer than in the House.
Benitez collected about 500 index cards at his school, he said. Towson University and the Baltimore County and College Park campuses of the University of Maryland are also participating, he said.
Maryland students have contacted others across the country and have established a nationwide goal of 10,000 index cards, Benitez said.
“We were telling people that education should not only be for the documented,” he said. He said he is seeing increased interest in the DREAM Act, which he hopes translates into passage of the legislation.
There are no more excuses for inaction, said Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, a large Latino civil rights and advocacy organization.
“For nearly a decade, we have waited for Congress to do the right thing,” Murguia said at a news conference with DREAM Act supporters and several undocumented students. “Every year the DREAM Act doesn’t pass, these students lose their chance at the American dream.”
Those politicians keeping their seats come January must consider the repercussions if they vote against the DREAM Act, Murguia said.
“There will be no place to hide in the eyes of Latino voters,” she said.
Although the measure has some bipartisan support, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid may just be playing politics by attempting to fulfill a promise for immigration reform, said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
“Whether this is a political ploy so they can say, ‘Hey, look, we tried,’ or a sincere effort remains to be seen,” Mehlman said.
Deciding the fate of the DREAM Act should be left up to the new Congress, Mehlman said.
But this is probably the bill’s only chance of passing, at least for a few years, because of the imminent Republican takeover of the House and increased numbers in the Senate, said Joel Grossman, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor.
“I don’t think it has much chance now and I think it has zero chance after January 3,” he said.
Congress has a full calendar, and debate on the DREAM Act now would make it impossible to get to legislation that may be more important, Grossman said.
Funding the federal government for another year, passing the defense authorization bill that stalled in Congress last month, and preventing tax cuts are all more important, said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, in a written statement to Capital News Service.
“Failing on three national emergencies while trying to ram through other substantive legislation like the Dream Act does great damage to the integrity of our constitutional republic,” wrote Bartlett, now Maryland’s only Republican U.S. representative.
Immigration is one of the country’s great strengths, he said, but he considers the DREAM Act to be mass amnesty.
“I oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants because it is counterproductive,” he wrote. “Amnesty rewards illegal immigration which will only encourage more illegal immigration. The Dream Act would be a slap in the face of American citizens and legal immigrants.”