By Alexander Bolton - 02/03/12 11:00 AM EST
Democrats face a politically tricky choice over whether to pursue a compromise with Republicans on immigration reform that was recently floated by Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.
The Republican presidential contenders are willing to grant illegal immigrants legal status if they came to the country at a young age and served in the military.
It’s a tough election-year call for Democrats for several reasons.
Hispanic voters helped Democrats win tough Senate races in Colorado and Nevada in 2010. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) bolstered his standing among Hispanic voters by claiming immigration reform as one of his highest priorities.
During his State of the Union address last month, President Obama called for Congress to resurrect the DREAM Act, even though lawmakers say there is virtually no chance of it passing the GOP-controlled House.
Striking a compromise would allow Republicans to earn some points with Hispanic voters and lessen pressure on Republican lawmakers to support more comprehensive immigration reform.
Walking away from possible common ground, however, could leave Democrats open to criticism that they missed a chance to make incremental progress.
At a debate in Florida last week, Romney and Gingrich said they could support a scaled-down version of the DREAM Act.
The DREAM Act, which Democrats have tried unsuccessfully to pass the last several years, would grant legal status to illegal immigrants who crossed the border at a young age if they meet certain conditions. The legislation, which has previously gotten a few Republican votes, has been criticized by many in the GOP for granting “amnesty.”
Romney and Gingrich, the two front-runners for the 2012 GOP nomination, say they could support it only if it were scaled back.
“I wouldn’t sign the DREAM Act as it currently exists, but I would sign the DREAM Act if it were focused on military service,” Romney said.
That clarification came soon after Romney had vowed to veto the DREAM Act, triggering criticism from prominent Hispanic Republicans. During the presidential debates, Romney hammered Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) for signing into law a version of the DREAM Act in the Lone Star State.
Gingrich and Romney would lop off part of the DREAM Act that would grant legal residency to alien minors who came to the country at age 15 or younger, live in the country for at least five years and complete at least two years of higher education.
Some Democrats are unsure whether they will embrace the Gingrich-Romney approach.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a co-sponsor of the DREAM Act.
“If you are willing to accept that military service is the kind of bona fide that credentials a young person to take advantage of college benefits, I’d want to explore what other kinds of service might also qualify with them before I wrote off drawing the line there. I’ll do a bit more exploring but it’s a good start,” Whitehouse added.
Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), a leading Democratic voice on immigration reform, said he would prefer to pass the DREAM Act in its entirety, but would not rule out a compromise.
“My belief is we should try to pass the whole DREAM Act. As for what compromise might come about, that’s down the road,” said Schumer.
Other Democrats reject out of hand the GOP proposal to rewrite the DREAM Act.
“I don’t support that,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the lead Senate sponsor of the DREAM Act. “That will literally mean that those who came to this country at an innocent situation early in life have only one way to become legal, and that’s to join the military. I want men and women to join the military out of a sense of duty and patriotism, rather than to feel they are desperate and have no other place to turn.”
The day after the GOP presidential debate in Tampa, Fla., Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.) introduced the Adjusted Residency for Military Service (ARMS) Act, which followed the outlines set by Romney and Gingrich.
Rivera said he first talked to Gingrich about the bill in November.
He said Democrats should support it because it’s the only immigration reform proposal that has a chance of passing Congress this year.
“Any Democrats who take a reasonable approach to immigration reform understand the realities we’re facing in the 112th Congress. If we want to do something to help young people in this Congress, this is the only option,” said Rivera, who has endorsed Gingrich.
“If Democrats want to take an all-or-nothing approach, there will be nothing. If someone is willing to die for America, we can give them a chance,” he said.
“I’m comfortable with that [the Romney-Gingrich position] and I think most Republicans are,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who backs Romney and is seen as a possible running mate.
Even if the Romney-Gingrich compromise passed the Senate, it’s unlikely it would pass the House because most Republicans in the lower chamber say the top priority on immigration is securing the borders.
Politically, the scenario of House GOP leaders breaking from their White House nominee would play well for Democrats just months before the election.
Meanwhile, immigration experts say Pentagon officials have tightened their application processes in recent years.
Gregory Chen, the director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), said illegal immigrants are currently prohibited from serving in the military.
He said military recruiters now carefully check Social Security numbers to make sure inductees are legal residents, a precaution not always taken in the past.
Chen noted that non-citizens receive expedited processing for citizenship if they serve in the military. He also noted that legal residents can win citizenship posthumously if killed in the line of duty, which can benefit surviving relatives.
“AILA would generally support providing a path to legal status, but this bill is very small in the sense that it will enable very few people to qualify,” he said of Rivera’s legislation.
Chen estimated that the Gingrich-Romney plan would only affect 1,000 people a year.
Rivera disputed that assertion.
“It’s impossible to estimate,” he said.