The DREAM Act is on the move this week, and as members of Congress file back into Capitol Hill after the Thanksgiving break, D.C. is bracing for an onslaught of lobbying and behind-the-scenes work to get the bill passed before the year is over and the House changes hands in January.
According to the DREAM Act’s most visible congressional allies, advocates have reason to be cautiously optimistic about the bill’s prospects in the House. "The core group of House members who support immigration reform and the DREAM Act have been reaching out throughout the Democratic House caucus," Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez told ColorLines. "From what we are hearing back, I am encouraged by the breadth of Democratic support."
Gutierrez, who has long pushed for more comprehensive immigration reform solutions, has emerged as the DREAM Act’s most visible House advocate since joining advocates who called for a piecemeal approach in the face of comprehensive immigration reform’s sour prospects this year.
Congressional insiders indicated that a version of the DREAM Act could come up for a vote in the House, where it has more reliable support than in the Senate, as early as Wednesday or Thursday. House Democrats are currently conducting counts to determine the bill’s exact numbers–it needs 218 to pass the House–but insiders say that the numbers look good so far.
Still, Gutierrez said that the next few days will be hectic on the Hill.
"We have a lot of work remaining to convince fence-sitters, but I am encouraged and optimistic about House passage if leadership calls a vote."
The DREAM Act would allow undocumented youth with a clean criminal record who were brought to the country before the age of 16 the right to apply for permanent residency if they commit two years to the military or higher education. The Migration Policy Institute estimated that the bill would benefit about 825,000 undocumented youth who’ve been raised and educated in the country but are ineligible to work because of their immigration status.
One possible scenario could be the DREAM Act’s addition as an amendment to Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s Help HAITI Act, which would grant adopted Haitian orphans permanent residency, a congressional insider said. Fortenberry has voiced his opposition to such a tactic; he does not want the DREAM Act to interfere with his own bill’s chances, despite the many parallels between the DREAM Act and his own bill for Haitian adoptees.
The House would have to vote first on whether to allow the DREAM Act to be attached as an amendment to the Help HAITI Act, which the House passed earlier this year. The Senate attached amendments to it and sent it back to the House where it awaits approval. Should the House approve attaching the DREAM Act to the Help HAITI Act, it would allow the DREAM Act to be sent back to the Senate without additional risk of Republican stalling–by recommitting the bill to committee, for instance.
The DREAM Act faces potential compromises as it inches toward becoming a reality. There are several versions of the bill floating around Congress right now. Some have toyed with cutting the age limit down in order to win enough support; under the most generous proposals, an undocumented youth who entered the country before the age of 16 and commits two years to the military or college is eligible to apply for citizenship up to the age of 35. Supporters may have to lower the age ceiling for qualification, or make compromises in other areas, to get enough votes.
Should it pass in the House, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will have the option of taking up the DREAM Act in a package along with the HAITI Act, or introducing a stand alone bill. Congressional insiders who spoke on background believe that if enough Democrats come around to support the DREAM Act, even if Republican support is nowhere to be found, Reid will call for a vote on the bill to get everything on record, and show the nation where each party stands.
This week, DREAM Act activists are ramping up their advocacy again for a week’s worth of phone calls, lobbying and public actions. Today in Texas, DREAM activists are on the twentieth day of a hunger strike aimed at winning Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s endorsement for a bill she once supported. They are putting the most pressure on fence-sitting Democrats and sympathetic Republicans in the Senate, and have released a list of the legislators they’re targeting in both chambers.
"If you look at the whole time with this Congress," Matias Ramos, a founding member of United We DREAM said, "the House has been effective as far as whipping the votes and moving votes forward, whereas the Senate is where all bills go to die."
And that’s with a Democratic majority in both the House and Senate. The stakes are high for the DREAM Act, never more than right now. The 112th Congress will look very different, with Republicans taking a new majority in the House and gaining six seats in the Senate.
"We’re hoping the DREAM Act won’t have the same fate," Ramos said.