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'Dream Act' Defeat Leaves Mess for Immigration Policy

Julia Preston|The New York Times
Sunday, 19 Dec 2010 | 9:28 AM ET

The vote by the Senate on Saturday to block a bill to grant legal status to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrant students was a painful setback to an emerging movement of immigrants and also appeared to leave the immigration policy of the Obama administration, which has supported the bill and the movement, in disarray.

The bill, known as the Dream Act, gained 55 votes in favor with 41 against, a tally short of the 60 votes needed to bring it to the floor for debate. Five Democrats broke ranks to vote against the bill, while only three Republicans voted for it. The defeat in the Senate came after the House of Representatives passed the bill last week.

The result, although not unexpected, was still a rebuff to President Obama by newly empowered Republicans in Congress on an issue he has called one of his priorities. Supporters believed that the bill — tailored to benefit only immigrants who were brought here illegally when they were children and hoped to attend college or enlist in the military — was the easiest piece to pass out of a larger overhaul of immigration laws that Mr. Obama supports.

His administration has pursued a two-sided policy, coupling tough enforcement — producing a record number of about 390,000 deportations this year — with an effort to pass the overhaul, which would open a path to legal status for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

Now, with less hope for any legalization measures once Republicans take over the House in January, the administration is left with just the stick.

"Part of the administration’s strategy has been to ramp up border and workplace enforcement to attract Republican votes for the overhaul. The vote on Saturday made it clear that strategy has not succeeded so far."

Part of the administration’s strategy has been to ramp up border and workplace enforcement to attract Republican votes for the overhaul. The vote on Saturday made it clear that strategy has not succeeded so far.

Mr. Obama will now face growing pressure from immigrant and Latino groups to temper the crackdown and perhaps find ways to use executive powers to bring some illegal immigrants out of the shadows. Latino voters turned out in strength for the Democrats in the midterm elections, arguably saving their majority in the Senate.

The Republicans in the new Congress are especially keen on tough enforcement. The presumed incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on immigration is Representative Steve King of Iowa, a vigorous opponent of legalization measures, which he rejects as amnesty for lawbreakers. Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, who will be chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is also an outspoken and well-versed opponent of such proposals.

Groups favoring reduced immigration cheered Saturday’s vote as a watershed victory marking the end of a period when they have been on the defensive. Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, which lobbied hard against the bill, said the new Congress “has the strongest pro-enforcement membership” in at least 15 years.

“Now, we look forward to moving aggressively to offense,” Mr. Beck said.

During the last year, administration officials considered proposals to allow immigration authorities to use administrative powers to halt deportations of illegal immigrants who might have been eligible for legal status under the student bill. They also sought ways to ease deportations for other illegal immigrants with no criminal record.

Republican lawmakers criticized those proposals as “backdoor amnesty” and pledged to stop the administration from carrying them out.

The administration’s efforts to manage its policy dilemma played out this week. Speaking on Friday before the vote, John Morton, the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the agency would continue the brisk pace of deportations, focusing on immigrants convicted of crimes.

On the same day, the agency released from detention an 18-year-old Guatemalan student from Ohio, Bernard Pastor, granting him a one-year reprieve from deportation to continue his education.

Despite the defeat, Democrats who supported the bill said they would continue to push for it. “As long as these young people are determined to be part of this great nation, I am determined to fight for them to call America home,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the bill’s main champion.

Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, another sponsor, said Latinos would remember in the elections in 2012 how senators had voted.

“This is a vote that will not soon be forgotten by a community that is growing not just in size, but also in power and political awareness,” Mr. Menendez said.

Yet much pressure on the administration may come from immigrant organizations. Despite their illegal status, several hundred immigrant students watched the vote in the Senate gallery. Afterward, they held a somber prayer vigil in the basement of the Capitol, but moved on to a news conference that turned into a pep rally.

“They did not defeat us, they ignited our fire,” said Alina Cortes, a 19-year-old Mexican-born immigrant from Texas who lacks legal status. A self-described conservative Republican, she campaigned for the student bill, saying she hoped to join the Marine Corps.

The movement has been driven by thousands of students who “came out” to reveal that they did not have legal status, and to recount their academic achievements and the barriers they faced. Now that their status is public, they have nowhere to hide. Meanwhile, an estimated 65,000 illegal immigrants are graduating from high school each year.

“We have woken up,” said Carlos Saavedra, national coordinator of the United We Dream Network, a student group. “We are going to go around the country letting everybody know who stands with us and who stood against us.”

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