Reporting from Washington — Tolu Olubunmi was brought to the United States from Nigeria when she was 14, graduated from college seven years later with a chemical engineering degree, and couldn't get hired because of her status as an illegal immigrant.
"It was heartbreaking," she said.
For Olubunmi, passage of the DREAM Act, which would establish a path to citizenship for some young illegal immigrants, is especially urgent.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this story said Tolu Olubunmi was brought to the U.S. illegally from Nigeria. Olubunmi was brought here legally by her family, but she later became undocumented.
But the act — and her plight — are mired in the national debate over how to deal with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country. The debate itself is embroiled in a political battle to capture the Latino vote, the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population.
The DREAM Act, which has been reincarnated in various forms over the years but has never passed in Congress, faces dim prospects again this session. It suffered a stinging defeat in a lame-duck session in December, when it passed the House but fell five votes short in the Senate.
With Republicans now in control of the House, longtime supporter Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who on Tuesday held the first-ever Senate hearing on the bill, acknowledged a "long, long journey" ahead.
The hearing featured a cadre of Obama administration officials who testified that passing the legislation would allow law enforcement to focus on illegal immigrants convicted of crimes, while infusing the ailing economy with well-educated talent.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel endorsed the measure Monday, saying it "reinforces the values of citizenship."
Supporters are not expecting victory. But experts say that for Democrats, it's a matter of "waving the flag" of Latino issues leading up to the 2012 election, while also forcing Republicans to take a position.
"Think of it as production material," Bruce Cain, director of the University of California's Washington Center, said in an interview, adding that such issues could provide fodder for political ads across the country.
Critics of the measure accuse the Obama administration of using politics to tug at heart strings. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the proposal had become "a cynical effort to use the hopes and dreams of these young people as a political wedge in the run-up to the 2012 election."
Cornyn said President Obama had not taken the lead on broader immigration reforms that address border security and visa overstays, calling the DREAM Act merely a Band-Aid. The administration has repeatedly responded that the U.S. border is more secure than ever and that deportations are at record levels.
Experts who study immigration policy say Republicans' enforcement-heavy stance carries a risk. Angela Kelley of the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank with ties to the administration, said the long-term trend of Latino population growth would hamper Republicans if they did not embrace a more balanced approach.
"They're sitting on a demographic time bomb," Kelley said in an interview.
For people like Olubunmi, now 30, the wait goes on.
"It's scary at times because you realize that folks think in the legislative cycles of two years," she said after the hearing. "It doesn't work for us that way."