Reporting from Washington — The White House and congressional Democrats are pushing to bring to a vote a bill that creates a path to legal status for young illegal immigrants, seeking to win support from moderate Republicans in the lame-duck session before a more conservative GOP contingent arrives in January.
Senior Obama administration officials say Congress should take the opportunity to pass the bill, which was written by members of both parties, to demonstrate to Latino voters that there is bipartisan support for practical approaches to dealing with illegal immigration.
The proposed Dream Act would use fines, education or military service to allow some of the nation's 2.1 million illegal immigrants younger than 35 to legally remain in the country.
Democratic strategists also see the bill as a potential litmus test for Republican lawmakers on immigration reform well in advance of the 2012 election. In the recent midterm election, exit polls showed that Latino voters turned out in increased numbers for Democratic Sen. Harry Reid in Nevada after Republican opponent Sharron Angle riled the Latino community with political ads that showed images of menacing, tattooed Latinos.
"Every time [Republicans] talk about this issue, they drive these voters away," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.
As Latino voters become a larger part of the electorate, both parties can benefit from negotiating on immigration reforms, said Angela Kelley, an immigration policy expert at the Center for American Progress.
The bill "is not only good policy, it is also good politics for both parties," Kelley said. "I am sure this bill will be important to anyone who wants to sit in the White House in 2013."
Republicans counter that immigration reform is not the only issue Latino voters care about.
"Hispanics will vote for Republicans independent of the immigration issue if Republicans are delivering on what they said they were going to do," such as focusing on healthcare, education, jobs and securing the border, said Javier Ortiz, a longtime Republican strategist.
Reid, the Senate majority leader, said Wednesday night that he intended to bring the Dream Act up as a stand-alone measure after the Thanksgiving break. Although it is uncertain which congressional body might bring the bill to a vote first, the legislation's proponents acknowledge that passing it in the Senate is more difficult than in the House.
It's also unclear whether enough Republicans are willing to support any immigration policy beyond stricter enforcement. The Democrats' move comes a month after all seven Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asking for an estimate of how much it would cost for the U.S. to deport every illegal immigrant the government encounters.
With Republicans assuming a House majority in January, GOP members stepping into leadership positions have taken an even harder line. Rep. Steve King (R- Iowa), who is in line to take over as chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee, has praised efforts in 14 states to draft legislation to end granting automatic American citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants who are born in the U.S.
"The 14th Amendment has been misconstrued," King said last month.
Among the most hotly debated pieces of the Dream Act are the age limit of illegal immigrants who would qualify and whether the students covered under the law should be eligible for in-state tuition at public universities.
The California Supreme Court ruled this week that students who are illegal immigrants can still qualify for in-state tuition. Students at Texas A&M University protested after the school council adopted a resolution that illegal immigrants should not receive in-state tuition.
In addition, the student body president of Cal State Fresno, who has advocated in the past for the passage of the Dream Act, spurred controversy this week when he admitted he is an illegal immigrant who was brought to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 3 years old.
Some prominent Republicans have supported a more moderate approach to immigration reform. Stewart Baker, former head of policy for the Department of Homeland Security, worked on a failed immigration reform effort under President George W. Bush, and thought there had to be a path to legal status for illegal immigrants who have been in the country for decades without incident.
"But the politics of that are pretty brutal," said Baker, who believed that earlier versions of the Dream Act left the door open for too much fraud and abuse.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Thursday that about 55,000 college students per year would be eligible to use the act as a path to legal status. "This is as good a chance as any to move forward. I feel a real sense of urgency," he said.
Staff writer Peter Nicholas in Washington contributed to this report.