Latino voters -- the fastest-growing group of swing voters in the country -- are a key constituency both for Democrats and the Obama administration. But Latino voters are increasingly disillusioned by President Barack Obama's failure to deliver on comprehensive immigration reform even as Arizona and other states take matters into their own hands. That could help spell doom for the Democrats in the upcoming midterms and in 2012.
"There is major frustration with the failure of the president and both parties in Congress to move anything forward that would provide humane relief," said Gabriela Villareal, policy coordinator for the New York Immigration Coalition's 200 member organizations.
But the Obama administration has a good solution waiting for it, one that appeases Latino voters but is more politically feasible than an overarching reform bill and still provides real relief to at least a segment of the undocumented population. The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act would grant as many as 2.1 million undocumented young people legal status if they arrived in the United States before they turned 16, have lived here for five years, and enroll in college or enlist in the military. It would also do away with a federal law that requires states that provide in-state tuition to undocumented students to offer the same discount rate to U.S. citizens from other states.
The president campaigned on passing an omnibus immigration-reform bill in his first year and gave his first major policy speech on the issue this month. But partisan gridlock in the Senate and the upcoming midterm elections have all but assured the divisive issue will not be on the agenda this year. Passing the DREAM Act would be an easy legislative win before the November elections and a way for Obama to show he is committed to issues that are important to the Latin community.
Unlike comprehensive immigration-reform bills that have been proposed in the last few years, the DREAM Act stands a better chance at actually passing in the current political climate. Since it was first proposed, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have openly backed it. It's hard to believe, but portions of the DREAM Act offering in-state tuition to undocumented students were first passed in Texas in 1998 under then-Gov. George W. Bush, and it has been introduced at the federal level every year since 2001 with bipartisan support. It currently has 39 co-sponsors in the Senate and 124 in the House. Republican Sen. Richard Lugar was one of the first co-sponsors. Even Sen. Joseph Lieberman has signed on.
"If they've lived good lives, if they've done good things, why would we penalize them and not let them at least go to school?" asked Sen. Orin Hatch during a recent town hall meeting with his constituents.
Hatch's statement drives home a major selling point of the DREAM Act: Whereas critics of comprehensive immigration reform say granting undocumented workers citizenship is tantamount to rewarding illegal behavior, the 2.1 million young people who would benefit from the DREAM Act were brought to the United States by their parents through no fault of their own. They have grown up as Americans; the DREAM Act simply rescues them from a purgatory in which they watch their peers become active members of society while they stay behind in the shadows.
Instead of accepting this opportunity for a victory, key Democratic players, like Sen. Chuck Schumer, who chairs the Senate's immigration committee, have refused to push the DREAM Act forward as a stand-alone bill. Schumer says he wants to include it as part of comprehensive reform legislation, which he has yet to introduce. Rep. Luis Gutierrez made a similar argument for focusing on a broad overhaul bill (HR 4321) that he presented in the House, telling The New York Times, "If we stumble, if somehow we fail, let's fail together." But this is hardly the result voters are looking for. Meanwhile, the millions of students whom DREAM could help are left without any relief.
"For [Schumer] it's a game for his own advancement in the world of politics," says Yadira Alvarez, an undocumented woman in her 20s who recently graduated from Columbia University with an architecture degree she can't use in the United States until she achieves legal status. "For us, it's about being able to get a job and support ourselves."
If getting the DREAM Act through the legislature proves more difficult than anticipated, Democrats could pass it as part of a budget-appropriations bill, which does not require a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority. To sweeten the deal for Republicans, Democrats could tack on enforcement trade-offs like more funding for border security. Supporters of the DREAM Act say they will simply back away if the concessions go too far, perhaps offering an incentive to keep things simple.
In addition to pushing Congress on the DREAM Act, there are other measures the Obama administration can take to benefit young immigrants living in legal limbo. Sens. Richard Durbin and Lugar recently wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asking her to "halt the deportation of immigrant students who could earn legal status" under the DREAM Act. Obama indicated support for their effort in his otherwise vague speech on immigration last month. Stopping deportations of immigrant students could grease the wheels for the DREAM Act to pass in the future -- and signal that Obama is serious about passing it.
At the very least, passing the DREAM Act could shift the conversation on immigration back to humane legislation and away from the debate over how to fight laws such as SB 1070 in Arizona. It would show the Obama administration isn't limited to taking a reactive approach to dealing with immigration. The Department of Justice's lawsuit to stop Arizona's controversial "show me your papers" law just isn't enough for Latino voters who expected more from the president.
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