Debate over the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) is far from over despite its failure in the Senate over a year ago. Along with the DREAM Act, Hispanic voters are receiving more and more attention as the 2012 elections approach. Latinos are the nation’s fastest growing group of voters, with an estimated 12.2 million set to vote in the 2012 general election. Both Democrats and Republicans realize that they cannot win in 2012 without the Hispanic community’s support. As such, immigration issues like the DREAM Act remain in the spotlight.
The DREAM Act offers undocumented immigrants, who were brought into the U.S. when they were children, a pathway to citizenship by earning a college degree or serving in the military. First introduced in 2001, it was never passed by Congress. Although it applies to all immigrants, the legislation would affect the Latino community the most due to the sheer number of undocumented Latino children who have been brought into the U.S. The latest version of the DREAM Act was passed by the House in December 2010 but failed in the Senate after it was tacked onto a defense-spending bill. Introduced through a bi-partisan effort, the legislation is now backed almost exclusively by Democrats, including President Obama who received 67% of the Hispanic votes in 2008 compared to 31% for John McCain. Recent bold comments by likely Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and a new Republican version of the DREAM Act have Latinos pushing politicians once more for immigration reform and passage of the original DREAM Act.
Romney’s comments that have Latinos fired up occurred during a recent campaign event, when he publicly declared his opposition to the DREAM Act and stated that if he were President he would veto the federal DREAM Act. As governor of Massachusetts, he vetoed a similar state law. He argued that the DREAM Act is a “handout” and that immigrants instead need more economic opportunity. Rather than provide a path to lawful residence for young, undocumented immigrants, Romney would support more employment-based immigration by raising the number of high-skill visas available and providing green cards to eligible graduates with advanced degrees in math, science or engineering.
Many political analysts and even some Republicans say that opposition to the DREAM Act and what it stands for might play well to the party base, but that it is politically short sighted and ill advised. Ruben Gallego, state representative in Arizona, said that the DREAM Act will be a particularly emotional issue for the Hispanic community in the 2012 election. He noted, “This is about our kids. Attacking the DREAM Act, and attacking our kids, is really not a wise political move for Republicans.”
Alberto Gonzales, former U.S. Attorney General and a Republican, stated in an interview with National Public Radio: “I do not believe that any Republican candidate…can win the White House without Hispanic support.” Regarding Republican talk on immigration, Gonzalez stated: “It’s mean spirited. I think it’s a turn off. It doesn’t really offer, it seems to me, a picture of opportunity for Hispanics in the Republican Party…And I think it’s been harmful to the party.”
Adding to the debate over immigration reform, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) announced his own version of the DREAM Act, which would allow young, undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. legally at least for a time, but deny them a pathway to citizenship. While the details of his plan are still unclear, it appears it allows young, undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. with their parents to either attend school and receive a student visa, or enlist in the military and apply for a non-immigrant visa. Those who choose the military may be able to obtain permanent residence, but not citizenship. Although it is uncertain whether those who choose to study would be offered permanent residence, it is clear they would not have a path to citizenship. Therefore, some call Rubio’s version the DREAM Act without a dream.
For Republicans, striking a compromise with Senator Rubio’s watered-down version of the DREAM Act could earn them some points with Hispanic voters and lessen pressure on Republican lawmakers to support more comprehensive immigration reform. For Democrats, walking away from possible common ground could leave them open to criticism that they missed a chance for incremental progress. Some Democrat lawmakers say that they would prefer to pass the DREAM Act in its entirety, but would not rule out a compromise. Others say they will not support a bill that stops short of providing a path to citizenship. They argue that it could create an apartheid-like system in the U.S. with a permanent group of second-class individuals who can never obtain citizenship.
Showing some support for Rubio’s DREAM Act, Romney said he is “delighted with the idea that people who come to this country and wish to serve in the military can be given a path to become permanent residents of this country…I respect and acknowledge that path.” According to Romney’s campaign aides, he specifically opposes provisions in the original DREAM Act that would open a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants who complete high school and two years of post-secondary education and that would allow states to grant them in-state tuition to public colleges. Interestingly, Rubio recently joined Romney on the campaign trail, with speculation that he could be chosen as a running mate in order to gain Latino votes if it appears that the Hispanic electorate and immigrant community approve of Rubio and his version of the DREAM Act.
Despite the Republicans’ offered compromise on the DREAM Act, however, Hispanics remain skeptical of Rubio’s proposition and of Romney. A recent survey by the Pew Hispanic Center found that President Obama leads Romney 68% to 23% among Hispanic voters, and there is still widespread non-partisan support for the original DREAM Act. A February 2011 impreMedia-Latino Decisions tracking poll found that over 47% of Hispanic voters believe that immigration is the one most important issue facing the Latino community. More impressively, 85% said they support the DREAM Act. Among Obama voters, 79% strongly support and 14% somewhat support the DREAM Act (93% support seeing the bill passed). Among undecided voters, 62% strongly support and 23% somewhat support (85% total support). Finally and most notably, among Republican candidate voters, 52% strongly support and 23% somewhat support the bill (75% total support).
While Hispanics might be upset over Romney’s comments and unsure about Rubio’s DREAM Act, they have been disappointed with the lack of immigration reform under the current Administration. In the past couple of years, the Obama Administration has created a process to focus immigration enforcement resources on high-priority cases (individuals who pose a threat to public safety and national security, as well as repeat immigration law violators and recent border entrants). It has also approved $600 million for enhancing border security. While President Obama has stated that immigration reform is still a top priority, he has not offered a specific plan to get legislation through Congress.
Torn between disgust with the Republican rhetoric and disillusionment over President Obama’s limited follow through on comprehensive immigration reform, Hispanic voters are sure to arrive at the polls en masse this election year.