The chances that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can deliver on his promise to move the so-called DREAM Act toward passage in the Senate this week range from slim to none.
But the announcement that it would be added as an amendment to the Defense Department authorization bill has energized pro-immigrant groups, even as it underlines the fact that there'll be no comprehensive immigration reform any time in the near future. Not this year, certainly, and probably not next year either.
The bipartisan DREAM (for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which was to have been part of comprehensive reform, would make it possible for as many as 2.1 million undocumented young immigrants to start on the path to legalization. Roughly 26% are in California. In the Senate, the leading sponsors are Republican Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Democrat Richard J. Durbin of Illinois. In the House, they are Democrats Howard L. Berman of Valley Village and Lucille Roybal-Allard of East Los Angeles and Republican Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida.
Most of the beneficiaries of the act were brought to the United States by their parents as young children and thus can't be accused of knowingly breaking any law. Unless you believe in visiting the sins of the fathers on the sons (and daughters), there's nothing to punish them for. To qualify for provisional legal residency, they must be of "good character, have lived here for at least five years at the time the bill passes, be in school or have graduated from high school and they must intend to go to college or serve in the military."
Most don't know the country of their birth and have no intention of returning there. In virtually all respects, they're Americans. But they're shut out from good jobs and can't legally drive. Although they're eligible for in-state tuition at public colleges in California and some other states, they're generally ineligible for financial aid and, in some states, shut out of public colleges altogether. They're trapped in an economic and cultural limbo.
The DREAM Act has been around for nearly a decade. The last time it came up in Congress, in 2007, it fell eight votes shy of the 60 needed to overcome a threatened filibuster. In the years since, it's been held hostage in the hope that as part of comprehensive reform, it would help generate support for the big bill.
In 2007, as now, it was tagged onto the bill authorizing funds for the Defense Department. The hope of its Senate backers is that members will be reluctant to vote against funding for the armed forces.
But because the authorization bill also includes provisions that would facilitate the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the armed forces, and that would allow abortions at military hospitals, its chances are so slim that passage, as one opponent said, "strains credulity."
And because it comes in an election year and when unemployment and under-employment run well into the double digits, anything that seems to bring yet more people into the economy, however sensible as long-range policy, is probably doomed. Some of the Republicans who supported DREAM in 2007 are gone; others, like John McCain, who've been buffeted on the right, have reversed their position.
Last week, as soon as Reid announced his intention to take up the DREAM Act, Republicans attacked it. Attaching the act to the defense authorization bill, said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, "has made it needlessly controversial." Republicans weren't afraid to block the authorization bill three years ago. It's hard to imagine they wouldn't block it now.
Is this nothing then but a bare-faced political ploy by Reid, facing a tough challenge for reelection in Nevada? Is it simply a pitch for Latino votes? Not exactly. Even for Reid, DREAM could cost almost as many votes as it gains. Yet at a time when the chances are slim that any comprehensive immigration bill can pass — or even be crafted — DREAM could be a hopeful first step, the beginning of the much more difficult debate that the nation's immensely complex immigration problems urgently require.
However it plays as politics, for all but the most adamant immigration restrictionists DREAM is eminently sensible as policy, on both humane and hard-nosed economic grounds. Not only does it begin to bring millions of young people out of the shadows, offering incentives to work hard at school — and reducing the dropout rate — it also would give the nation a chance to get a return on the billions it's already invested in their K-12 education.
As the economy revives, and as baby boomers retire, the nation will need millions of skilled, educated people to replace them. Keeping generations of near-Americans in the shadows, or pushing them out of the country altogether, falls somewhere between self-defeat and unmitigated insanity.
Peter Schrag's latest book is "Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America."