By Mike Lillis - 05/11/11 05:09 PM EDT
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Wednesday vowed to hold a vote on legislation creating a route to legal residency — and ultimately citizenship — for illegal-immigrant students.
Reid declined to say when the DREAM Act might reach the floor, but he nonetheless urged lawmakers to support the bill, if only for the economic benefits he said it would bring.
Democrats are hoping to capitalize on the momentum provided by President Obama's immigration-reform speech delivered a day earlier. Appearing in El Paso, Texas, Obama urged Congress to get busy on comprehensive reform – including the DREAM Act.
"We should stop punishing innocent, young people for the actions of their parents," he said. "We should stop denying them the chance to earn an education or serve in the military."
But supporters of the DREAM Act have a long road ahead. Although the House passed the proposal in December, it fell five votes short of defeating a largely Republican filibuster in the Senate. Those hurdles are even higher in the 112th Congress, with Republicans controlling not only more seats in the upper chamber, but also the House gavel.
Reid said he is not discouraged and called on Republicans to rethink their opposition that sunk the legislation in December — particularly those who've supported similar legislation in the past.
"We ask the Republicans of good will to step forward and work with us on this," he said.
The latest version of the DREAM Act, introduced Wednesday by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), is nearly identical to last year's House-passed proposal. The eligibility standards remain largely unchanged, offering a pathway to citizenship for between 1 million and 2 million illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. before the age of 16, have lived in the country at least five years, have a high school diploma or the equivalent, and enter college or join the military.
Like the House-passed bill, beneficiaries would be ineligible for Pell grants and must be able to read, write and speak English. Those stipulations were added last year to attract support from Republicans, most of whom characterize the DREAM Act as an amnesty bill that rewards those who broke the law when they entered the country.
Durbin has tweaked the bill a bit, raising the eligibility age from 29 to 35. The latest version would also offer beneficiaries in-state tuition rates, whereas the House-passed bill explicitly banned that benefit.
The bill’s supporters say it will provide opportunities for ambitious students who are in the country through no fault of their own.
"The only national anthem they've ever sung is The Star-Spangled Banner," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).
Menendez noted that the first U.S. soldier to be killed in Iraq, Jose Gutierrez, was not a U.S. citizen, but a Guatemala-born Marine who entered the U.S. illegally when he was 14.
"And people wonder," Menendez said, "about the loyalty and patriotism of these students."
Despite the seemingly long odds, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) suggested Wednesday there's a chance immigration reform could happen soon.
"I don't put it at a majority chance, but there's a chance. We're still talking — I'm talking to both business and labor about this bill," Schumer told Bloomberg. "I'm talking to my Republican colleagues, and I think the Republican Party realizes that the position of doing nothing on immigration doesn't help them."
Daniel Strauss contributed.
This post was most recently updated at 1:41 p.m.