On Wednesday the Senate and House are expected to take up the DREAM Act for a vote in what will likely be the bill’s last chance to be passed before a new, more right-wing Congress begins next year. The DREAM Act’s advocates have spent the precious remaining hours waging a furious battle for the bill that would allow a narrow slice of the nation’s undocumented youth who commit two years to the military or higher education a pathway to citizenship.
Today Defense Under Secretary Clifford Stanley told reporters on a phone conference that he considered the DREAM Act the "sweet spot." "It’s so common sense," Stanley said. "It’s so obvious, you have so many children out there, who were brought to the U.S. because their parents brought them here … and this gives them a clear path to U.S. citizenship."
Stanley said even though the U.S. military is currently enjoying a period of strong recruitment, recruitment rates go through cycles, and that the DREAM Act would help increase the numbers of those who would be eligible to serve the U.S. military in the future. His press conference was organized by the White House as part of an organized push to sell the DREAM Act before it comes up for a vote tomorrow. It’s unclear whether key senators will be swayed by this appeal.
The White House wants America to know it supports the DREAM Act, and has sent out members of President Obama’s cabinet–including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke–in recent weeks to make it known.
Stanley said he "clearly [saw] an opportunity that we can provide citizenship for people who simply are talented but the circumstances are beyond their control, they have to be here."
"To ignore that is unconscionable," he said.
Stanley’s appeal was an eloquent one, based on practical national defense needs, and basic moral arguments. But whether the White House’s final appeal will be enough to sway Republicans and Democrats, many who face tough re-election bids in 2012 and the binds of partisan politics, is unclear.
Last week, Republicans sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid telling him they would block any cloture motion until the Bush-era tax cuts were extended, and the government was funded. Obama and Republicans reached a tax deal yesterday, but Republicans are not likely to be swayed, and the climb to reach 60 votes remains steep.
"It’s one of those things where every hour matters and every hour can make a difference," said Mary Giovagnoli, the director of the Immigration Policy Center, a view that was echoed by many congressional insiders who, like Giovagnoli, said: "There’s no way to read the tea leaves."
Tea leaves aside, right-wing Republicans’ positions on the DREAM Act are well-known. On Monday, Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions took to the Senate floor to again lay into the bill. "Americans are willing to consider some form of regular status for those who have peacefully lived and worked here for an extended period of time–but only after the border is secure," Sessions said.
"This is because the passage of an amnesty bill such as the DREAM Act is an immediate reward for illegal entry, and there is no serious plan to stop the illegal flow–indeed, the legislation incentivizes it." Sessions later dropped another oft-repeated lie about border violence: "Phoenix, the capital of Arizona," Sessions said, "is now known as one of the kidnapping capitals of the world." Incendiary, and untrue.
"We disagree with Sessions that this is amnesty," said Cecilia Munoz, the White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs. "It is very, very far from an amnesty. It is one element helping to get the immigration system under control."
Many of Sessions’ other claims about the DREAM Act have turned out to be false; the new version of the bill that Sessions will be voting on tomorrow makes citizenship available only to undocumented immigrants who came to the country before they were 16 and have already lived in the country for more than five years, but who are today under the age of 30. On top of that, those who want to benefit from the DREAM Act must jump over numerous hurdles: they must have a clean criminal record and submit themselves to background checks and submit to the country’s biometric data.
There are currently an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. The DREAM Act, using estimates that were made before the bill’s recent revisions, would immediately benefit fewer than a million.
There are more Border Patrol agents stationed at the borders and within the nation’s interior than ever before. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection commission Alan Bersin, Customs and Border Patrol is the largest uniformed federal law enforcement agency in the country, with more than 58,000 staffers. In May, President Obama ordered another 1,200 National Guard troops to the border, and several months after that Congress would approve another $600 million for another 1,000 Border Patrol agents and military surveillance equipment at the border.
Such facts tend to mean little to those opposed to the DREAM Act. "What we’re seeing from Sessions and others is an escalation of the standard arguments that those who oppose any kind of immigration reform trot out any time there’s any chance of advancing any positive changes in the law," said Giovagnoli.
"All the statements that are coming from educators, religious and military leaders, indicate that we definitely need immigration reform, particularly with the DREAM Act–and that there’s no real downside to passing it."
DREAM Act advocates are ready for anything at this point, except for more excuses to delay a vote. "We want to see where people stand," said Matias Ramos, a DREAM Act activist and founding member of United We DREAM. "This vote will allow us to look at the merits without allowing the opposition to blur the line about what’s there and what isn’t."
Tonight DREAM Act supporters across the country will be holding vigils, and actions are planned in over 30 states today and tomorrow in support of the DREAM Act, said representatives from Reform Immigration for America, an immigration reform advocacy group.