Marcelo Ballvé, New American Media
WASHINGTON - Eighteen-year-old Francisco Curiel was present in the U.S. Senate chamber as the votes were tallied. His hopes alternately surged and crashed as each of the powerful legislators made their choice, “yea” or “nay,” on the DREAM Act.
The DREAM Act—or Development, Education, and Relief for Alien Minors Act—would have provided a chance at legal residency for young undocumented immigrants like Curiel who want to finish high school and go on to college or the military.
Curiel’s presence in the ornate Senate gallery the morning of Dec. 17— his hands clenching those of other undocumented immigrant students sitting with him— marked the culmination of a huge push to pass the DREAM Act this year.
But, in the end, the DREAM Act failed to win enough support to advance.
In a Saturday morning session as Congress raced to finish business before the holidays, it fell five votes short of the 60-vote “supermajority” needed to stave off a filibuster threat.
Thirty-six Republicans and five Democrats voted against advancing the DREAM Act.
Fifty Democrats, three Republicans, and two Independents voted in favor of it.
So the “DREAMers,” as the bill’s student supporters call themselves, were left asking, “Why?” and wondering what comes next.
“What is it that makes the legislators unable to see that this isn’t a favor we’re asking, but an opportunity to be allowed to contribute something?” asked Curiel after filing out of a Senate news conference.
At the conference, the DREAM Act’s proponents, including Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, had expressed their own disappointment over the act’s defeat.
“What happened today, to me, is beyond sad, because it’s a lose-lose for everybody,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the Senate’s only Latino member, pointed to the disproportionate number of “nay” votes coming from Republicans, and said he was “disheartened” by this partisanship.
But what Menendez failed to mention was that if all Democrats had voted to advance the act, it would have reached the needed 60 votes required to cut off a filibuster. Partisanship was not the whole story.
However, even in the midst of the legislative post-mortem, there were signs of hope for a new DREAM Act in the future— perhaps even in next year’s Congress.
The act did pick up Republican support, including votes from outgoing Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, Sen. Lisa Murkoswski of Alaska, Indiana’s Dick Lugar.
Sen. Bennett has even said recently that Republican colleagues in the lower house (where Republicans will have a majority beginning next year) are unhappy with the “specifics” of current DREAM legislation but might write their own version of the bill and send it up to the Senate next year.
"And as I've talked, particularly to my Republican friends, I've said we really need to do this,” Bennett said in a Dec. 10 news conference. “Their reaction has been to me, privately, 'You're right. We do really need to do it.'"
In other words, Republicans might line up behind a version of the DREAM Act if it is not identified with the Democrats and they can attach the Republican “brand” to it, winning over Latinos and immigrant votes as a result. The DREAM Act could also return as part of a larger comprehensive immigration reform package, which is what some Republicans said they would like to see.
The current DREAM Act attaches a series of conditions to granting legal residency to undocumented immigrant high school graduates.
The act gives students an incentive to pursue higher education or military careers. But it also makes it more feasible, since legal residency will allow them access to scholarships and loans that they are not currently eligible for, even if they excel academically.
The act requires that qualifying young people establish that they were younger than 16 years old when they entered the country, a way of determining that it was their parents’ decision to bring them into the country illegally, not their own. Only those 29 years of age or younger at the time of the bill’s passage would benefit.
Finally, the bill requires a clean criminal record, and a high school diploma or GED equivalent in order for legal residency to be awarded.
If all of these conditions are met, then, under the program, undocumented immigrants who enroll in college (including community college and vocational schools) or enlist in the military would be granted conditional legal residency for 10 years.
After that conditional period, they could apply for citizenship.
The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C. think tank, estimates that roughly 800,000 young people would benefit from the current version of the bill.
Those who oppose the DREAM Act give various reasons. Some say that it’s an attempt to pander to Hispanics with a watered-down immigration amnesty that rewards illegal behavior -- even if the young immigrants were not responsible for it. Others argue that it is undesirable because it would enlarge the pool of those eligible for U.S. citizenship, since any student who gains citizenship could apply for relatives to enter the country legally under family reunification policies.
Supporters insist that the immigration status of the “DREAMers” is no fault of their own, and argue that the act would help boost the country’s economy and security by allowing a diverse set of educated youth to contribute fully.
Outside of the political wrangling in Washington, D.C., the larger question is what the next steps should be for the “DREAMers.”
Curiel, who attends high school in Queens, New York, says they should embrace the 55-vote result as a milestone, and keep working.
“We have the power. We just need to keep moving forward,” said Curiel, who is a youth organizer at Make the Road New York, an immigrant advocacy group in Queens.
Saturday’s vote was not just a peak moment in Curiel’s journey, which began when he arrived in the United States, and continued through years of schooling in New York’s immigrant-filled public classrooms.
The DREAM Act vote was also a high-water mark for a movement. Over the last year, immigrant rights grassroots organizations at the state and local level have pushed a great deal of money and time into helping student groups and youth organizers build a base for the legislation.
The DREAM Act has become a household word in immigrant communities and multilingual media.
Immigrant youth groups and allied organizations have flooded Capitol Hill switchboards with messages in favor of the DREAM Act, while young activists have risked arrest and deportation in public demonstrations around the country.
The DREAM Act constituency vows to press on with such actions.
“Today we mourn, but tomorrow we shift back into gear to fight for justice and inclusion in America,” said a prepared statement from Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, the act’s main backer in the lower house, who is a hero to the “DREAMers.”