By Erin Kelly
July 23, 2013
House Republican leaders appear poised to offer legislation that would provide a pathway to citizenship for some of the estimated 2 million undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.
The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security will take up the issue at a hearing today as Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., work on a bill tentatively called the Kids Act.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the immigration subcommittee, said the proposal recognizes immigrants who were brought here as children and “did not knowingly break our laws. This is an opportunity to explore solutions for these children who have contributed to our country and want to continue to do so.”
But so far the proposal isn’t gathering support among the young immigrants who would benefit from it or from Democrats who have traditionally supported similar legislation known as the Dream Act.
From a political standpoint, bipartisan-reform champions realize that separately addressing the “dreamers” makes it less likely that Republicans would also agree to legalize the status of other undocumented immigrants who do not generate as much sympathy. The Senate on June 27 passed a comprehensive bipartisan bill that included as a centerpiece a pathway to citizenship for most of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States.
The disconnect between the GOP-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate — and President Barack Obama — makes it unlikely that the House’s take on the Dream Act would ever become law and raises questions about whether it is even a serious attempt at legislating.
“It’s just not going to go,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who helped write the Senate immigration bill. “I think the president has said that. And there’s no more staunch advocate of the Dream Act than (Sen.) Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and he said flatly that it is not acceptable just to do the Dream Act.”
The dreamers themselves say they would not support an immigration overhaul that fails to include a pathway to citizenship for their parents, aunts, uncles and the other 9 million undocumented immigrants who came to this country as adults.
“We want to send a clear message that they (House leaders) are not going to divide our families,” said Greisa Martinez, 24, who was brought to the United States by her parents when she was 2 months old and is now the Texas organizer for United We Dream. “I will not accept anything less than citizenship for my mom as well as myself.”
Maria Castro, treasurer and board member of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, agreed.
“House Republicans are doing this because they feel the heat from the electorate and they don’t want to be seen as insensitive,” Castro said. “But this is not just about dreamers. It’s about our families, and we’re going to continue to fight for them.”
Martinez, Castro and other immigrant-rights advocates want the House to pass immigration-reform legislation similar to the bill approved last month by the Senate. In addition to a pathway to earned citizenship for most undocumented immigrants in the country, that legislation also includes a Dream Act-type provision that would speed up the legalization process for those brought here as children.
House Republican leaders have denounced the Senate bill as “amnesty” for those who entered the United States illegally or overstayed their visas.
But in recent days, House leaders have been talking more about helping the children of those immigrants. The children have long been viewed in public opinion polls as the most sympathetic group of undocumented residents.
“People expect that there should be fairness for children who came to this country illegally, but through no fault of their own,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said at a recent press briefing.
The current debate highlights how far support for young immigrants has come.
In late 2010, lame-duck House Democrats, who were then in control of the chamber, passed the Dream Act with almost no Republican support. It died in the Senate when Democrats could not muster enough votes to overcome a Republican filibuster. Republicans said the bill would lead to more illegal immigration. Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, even promised to veto the Dream Act if it ever crossed his desk as president.
Now, in the wake of last year’s election, in which Obama and congressional Democrats won the overwhelming majority of Latino votes, many of those same Republicans are seriously considering citizenship for undocumented immigrants who came here as children.
But immigration-reform advocates say it may be too little too late — especially now that the Senate has offered a pathway to citizenship for almost all undocumented immigrants.
“The House proposal is landing with a thud,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, which supports the Senate bill. “The dreamers themselves are saying, ‘No, thanks, we don’t want to be pitted against our parents. We’re not going to be used as a pawn.’ ”
Politically, there are two possible explanations for what House Republican leaders are trying to do, Sharry said.
“The most generous interpretation is that they’re trying to move their (Republican) caucus in the direction of a broad legalization bill by taking this first small step,” he said. “The more cynical interpretation is that they’re trying to get their caucus behind something they think it will be difficult for Democrats to vote against. And if the Democrats do vote against it, the Republicans will be well-positioned for the blame game.”
Republicans may want to show that they’re compassionate toward this particular group of immigrants, said Roy Beck, founder and CEO of NumbersUSA, which helped defeat the Dream Act in previous sessions of Congress and strongly opposes this year’s Senate-passed immigration bill.
“There are a lot of compelling cases here,” Beck said, referring to the stories of undocumented immigrants brought here as children. “Republican leaders recognize that this is just a different situation than the case of adults who knowingly broke the law.”
Beck said he could support offering legal status to young adults who came here as children, but only if Congress first approves an entry-exit visa system to help catch immigrants who overstay their visas and a mandatory E-Verify federal database system to ensure employers hire people who are legally eligible to work in the United States.
Without those safeguards in place, Beck said, any bill to help young immigrants will just encourage more parents to immigrate illegally with their children.
“I don’t know anyone who has fought amnesty harder than we have, but I believe there are times when amnesty for some people makes sense,” Beck said. “However, any bill has got to address how we’re going to keep this from happening again. So far, I haven’t heard any assurances from House Republican leaders that their bill is going to do that.”
The House bill is still being drawn up and few details have been revealed. It is not clear when the bill will be introduced, although it doesn’t appear that it will be ready until sometime after the August congressional recess.
Despite her long fight for the Dream Act Greisa Martinez said she and other dreamers will urge House members to vote against any bill that does not offer her mother a chance to become a U.S. citizen. She said lobbying efforts will take place in Arizona, California, Texas and Florida.
Martinez said her father was deported to Mexico in 2008, and her mother made the difficult decision to stay in the United States so that Greisa and her three younger sisters could go to college.
“She sacrificed being with the love of her life for us,” Martinez said. “She is the mom who sewed my Girl Scout badges on my vest and made sure we had Fourth of July barbecues. ... She deserves the chance to fulfill her American dream.”
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