Messaging on the Dream Act, a bill giving teenage illegal immigrants the opportunity to go to college and earn legal status, is a tough prospect for supporters. It's not about immigration, they say, even though it is. And it's not a substitute for a broader bill to legalize some 12 million illegal immigrants. But in a way, it is.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan is the latest high-profile Washington official to weigh in on the measure, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants to put up for a vote before the end of the year.
The chances for a Dream Act vote are slim, given the limited Senate floor schedule, packed agenda, and general bickering among lawmakers over more-immediate concerns, such as how to fund the federal government. If nothing else, Reid's dogged attempts to push the Dream Act have immigrant-rights activists in a near frenzy after three years of little congressional attention to their issues.
Duncan said on Monday that the issue isn't immigration but education. President Obama has said he wants the United States to lead the world in college graduates by 2020. Yet, more than 50,000 students in this country illegally want to go to college but can't. These kids came to the United States with their parents years ago. If they have a 3.5 GPA and a 98 percent attendance record in high school, for example, "Is it the right thing to do to tell them that they can't go to college?" Duncan asked. "Is that really what we stand for?
"We have to educate ourselves to a better economy. I think all of us should be doing everything we can to increase educational opportunity, not deny it," he said.
It's a tough sell to conservatives who view any legalization opportunities for illegal immigrants as amnesty, a big no-no for anyone hoping to win reelection in bright-red states. Even Republicans who have previously supported the Dream Act don't want to see Reid bring a major policy bill to the floor, let alone one touching the volatile topic of immigration, in the waning days of the 111th Congress.
On top of that, there is the question of broader immigration policy. For lawmakers, the Dream Act is the easiest of the immigration reform measures to tackle because it involves young people who did not come here on their own. What happens to the much thornier problem of the adult illegal-immigrant population—the nannies, roofers, and fruit pickers who arguably did break the law when they entered the country without papers?
"We're very clear that this is not a substitute for comprehensive reform," said former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who was at the heart of the negotiations on a comprehensive immigration bill in 2006 and '07. "We need to be ready to answer, 'Why are you taking this piece only?' "
The answer, according to Juan Hernandez, the founder of Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, is that a comprehensive bill can't make it through Congress before the end of the year. (It ate up months of Senate floor time in both 2006 and '07, and even more months of committee deliberations and backroom negotiations before the floor debate.) The Dream Act has a slim but at least plausible chance now. More important, it may be all that immigrant-rights activists can get for several more years as they confront new conservative members of Congress who won't tolerate any form of legalization for illegal immigrants.
Duncan, for his part, isn't engaging in that conversation. "I don't understand all the politics. I don't understand all the ideology. I do know there’s a lot of young people out there desperately trying to improve their lives," he said. "Anything's possible. We create possibility. If there's a chance here to give 55,000 young people each year the chance to go to college that isn't possible today, why wouldn't we do that?"
This article appears in the November 29, 2010, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.