Their chances were slim, but thousands of illegal immigrant teens and young adults saw their best opportunity to become United States citizens vanish on Saturday when the Senate rejected the Dream Act on a vote of 55-41, shy of the 60 supporters needed.
The measure, to give the students the chance to earn legal status, passed the House last week, after a frenzied lobbying effort on the part of Hispanic and immigrant activists. The activity didn’t let up since then, with White House cabinet officials, Catholic bishops, educators, and union officials, among the groups pleading with Senate Republicans to let this one bill go to the president before its window of opportunity closed.
President Obama described the outcome as "incredibly disappointing" and lamented that "common sense" did not win the day in the Senate: "The DREAM Act is important to our economic competitiveness, military readiness, and law enforcement efforts," the President said in a statment issued by the White House." And as the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office reported, the DREAM Act would cut the deficit by $2.2 billion over the next 10 years. There was simply no reason not to pass this important legislation."
Next year, the Dream Act won’t see the light of day with the House under GOP control. Republicans charged with immigration—Lamar Smith of Texas and Steve King of Iowa—are firmly opposed to legislation giving any illegal immigrant a path to citizenship until they feel the borders are under control. They want tougher enforcement of employers who hire undocumented workers and more money for border enforcement.
The immigrant advocates’ lobbying efforts weren’t enough to convince a few Senate Republicans to go against their party officials and vote for the bill. Several Republicans who supported the Dream Act in the past—like Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah, Sam Brownback of Kansas, and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas--have tacked to the right on immigration since conservative voters revolted in 2006 and 2007 when a much broader bill was being debated. (The comprehensive immigration bill died on the Senate floor in 2007.) Hutchison, Hatch, and Brownback all voted "No."
Hutchison said she she voted no because the bill grew in scope and should have been subject to more debate: "Such serious legislation should be brought up in a time frame that allows for consideration, deliberation and consensus through full debate and amendments,” she said in a statement.
Immigration has always been a tough issue for Republicans, who must grapple with constituents and fellow lawmakers who hold the “rule of law” as one of their most cherished moral tenets. In small and large ways, GOP stalwarts like Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl of Arizona, Hutchison, and Brownback have backed away from legislation giving even small groups illegal immigrants the chance to earn legal status. McCain went from sponsoring a bill giving millions of undocumented foreigners a path to citizenship to touting a U.S.-Mexico border fence in his presidential campaign.
The Dream Act also represents a fraction of what the immigration movement really wants, a chance for most of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States to apply for legal status.
Immigration advocates have learned their own lessons during the Dream Act debate, which will be useful to them over the next two years as they attempt to put the Hispanic voting bloc to use in the 2012 elections. The various factions pushing for a path to citizenship—Hispanic groups, immigrant advocates, civil rights leaders, faith groups—are more unified and more sophisticated about communicating, in English and Spanish, to a vast group of people who care deeply about immigration reform. The advocates have a network now, and they won’t be hesitant to deploy it again.
One group, the Reform Immigration for America Campaign spent a year building a text messaging campaign with 150,000 subscribers that generated 340,000 calls to Congress. The group released a report on Friday detailing how they did it—a playbook for the next round of conversation, whenever that happens.