By Mike Lillis - 12/08/10 05:28 PM EST
With both the House and Senate poised to vote on the DREAM Act Wednesday, Democratic leaders are making an 11th-hour pitch for the 10-year-old proposal.
In an emotional Capitol Hill press conference Wednesday morning, Democratic leaders from both Congress and the White House argued that the proposal — creating a pathway to legal residency for hundreds of thousands of illegal-immigrant students — would benefit not only those children, but the whole country.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan echoed that message. Citing a new report ranking the U.S. 25th of 34 nations in math, Duncan said the DREAM Act would help the country "educate ourselves to a better economy."
"We need their ingenuity; we need their creativity; we need their entrepreneurship skills," Duncan said. "To have them stay on the sidelines at a time when we're being outcompeted by the rest of the world educationally makes absolutely no sense."
Democratic leaders say they don't know if they have the votes to pass the bill in either chamber. But simply staging the votes marks a victory for immigrant-rights advocates, who have long argued that the children of those who have entered the United States illegally shouldn't be punished for the actions of their parents.
The votes will also send a message to Hispanic Americans, an ever-growing group of voters that both parties are racing to bring into their fold.
"It's an uphill struggle in both the House and Senate," said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the sponsor of the Senate bill. "But it's worth the fight."
A similar measure was shot down in the Senate in 2007, though the language has changed since then, leaving a number of votes uncertain. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), for instance, opposed the bill three years ago, but says he's not so sure he'll do the same this time.
Pulling a summary of the changes from his breast pocket Wednesday morning, Conrad pointed out that beneficiaries of the new DREAM Act won't be eligible for Pell grants or other federal tuition assistance. He also noted that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has estimated the bill would cut deficit spending by $1.4 billion over the next decade.
The changes, he said, "have made a strong impression on me."
"This is very substantially different” from the 2007 bill, Conrad told The Hill, without saying how he'll vote.
Other senators have blasted the changes, however. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who voted in favor of the 2007 bill, said this week she won't be doing the same this year. The latest version, she said, "goes too far."
Also threatening the bill's success Wednesday, Senate Republicans have vowed to oppose anything that hits the floor before the upper chamber finalizes the Bush tax cuts and a bill to fund the government.
If the DREAM Act doesn't pass this week, Durbin said, it's not likely to resurface later in the lame duck, even if those other issues are settled.
"We are down to a handful of days left," Durbin said.
First introduced in 2001, the bipartisan DREAM Act offers a way to legal residency for illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. before the age of 16 if they meet certain conditions. They must have lived in the U.S. for at least five years; they must have a high school diploma, or its equivalent; and they must enter an institution of higher education or the military.
Critics of the bill, including most Republicans, argue it will simply provide amnesty for thousands of people who broke the law when they entered the country undocumented. Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to colleagues last week warning that the bill could benefit illegal immigrants who've been convicted of certain misdemeanors.
The DREAM Act, Sessions wrote, "is an affront to the rule of law we have been elected to uphold."
Speaking at the Capitol on Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano rejected that argument, saying those committing "any kind of serious crime" won't be eligible under the bill.
"These are not the individuals who are a threat to our public safety," Napolitano said. "Let us focus our law enforcement efforts on those who really are a danger to security."
DREAM Act critics are also challenging the cost estimate, claiming the CBO failed to take into account a number of hidden costs.
The Center for Immigration Studies, a group advocating for stricter immigration controls, estimates the bill would cost taxpayers $6.2 billion annually when costs like in-state tuition rates at public colleges are considered.
DREAM Act supporters have a different take — they say the bill will actually save much more than CBO estimates, as beneficiaries enter the workforce and begin paying taxes above the table.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a vocal backer of the bill, noted that it's up to states to determine which residents are eligible for in-state tuition rates — a dynamic that doesn't change under the bill. The idea that motivated students shouldn't qualify for in-state tuition, Gutierrez contended, is absurd.
"They graduated with my daughter — with better grades," Gutierrez said. "And [critics] are trying to say that that's a gift, that they'll pay the same tuition as my daughter?
"They should be getting a discount," he said. "We should be helping them."