In a significant win for supporters of equitable treatment of immigrants—and for smart startegies to assure that America's best-and-brightest young people have a chance to pursue higher education—the House voted 216-198 late Wednesday to pass the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. Written to address the challenges faced by young people who arrived in the country without proper dicumentation but who have excelled in high school, the legislation extends conditional legal status for five years to students who were younger than 16 when they entered the country, have lived in the US for at least five years and have earned a degree from a US high school, or the equivalent.
In other words, it's a path to citizenship for immigrants who entered the country as children. But it's hardly an easy path. All the DREAM Act really does is remove barriers to smart, highly-motivated young people who want to pursue advanced degrees and then start giving back to the country that in many cases is the only home they have ever known.
As such, the DREAM Act does not begin to resolve all of the bitter debates over immigration policy. But it does represent a sincere attempt, in the words of American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel Joanne Lin, to "help young people achieve their dreams and pursue a better future for themselves and for their families."
Lin describes the DREAM ACT as a "quintessentially American bill that stands for fairness, equality and opportunity for all.”
Unfortunately, in the Senate, where there is majority support for the "quintessentially American" position, there may not be the necessary super-majority support.
As with so many bills, this one will only advance if 60 senators back cloture.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, had planned a Thursday vote on the bill. But Republican opposition meant he lacked the 60 votes necessary to open debate.
Right now, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber and one of the most ardent backers of the DREAM ACT on the Hill, says the measure faces "an uphill struggle" in the Senate. But Durbin still says, "it's worth the fight."
Durban's argument was echoed by a fellow Illinoisan, Congressman Luis Gutierrez, who noted before the House vote that one of the bill's primary goals is to clear the way students who qualify for higher education—based on high grades in high school—can receive in-state tuition breaks.
Referring to students who have been denied equal treatment, Gutierrez said: "They graduated with my daughter—with better grades. And [opponents of the legislation] are trying to say that that's a gift, that they'll pay the same tuition as my daughter?"
It's not a gift, the Chicago Democrat argued, it's equal shot at the American dream.
Nor is the DREAM Act a burden for taxpayers. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the legislation would save taxpayers $1.4 billion over the course of the coming decade.
These arguments proved to be a convincing in the House. The vast majority of Democrats backed the bill, as did eight Republicans. That made for a majority.
But the super-majority barrier in the Senate will be a harder one to cross.
The challenge has not deterred activist groups such as the Reform Immigration FOR America Campaign, which promise to keep the DREAM alive.
"The Senate vote is about America’s future," says Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum and chair of the Reform Immigration campaign. "There are some in the Senate who will try to hold the future hostage by shamefully hiding behind process in an attempt to deny an up or down vote. That will put them on the wrong side of history, and on the wrong side of the nation’s fastest growing segment of the electorate: Latino and immigrant voters. Voting for the DREAM Act isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s smart politics. We’ll be watching.”