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Durbin revives DREAM Act, but outlook for immigration reform seems dim

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 11, 2011 WASHINGTON - Renewing a decade-long quest, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., re-introduced the DREAM Act on Wednesday -- a day after President Barack Obama's trip to El Paso to try to revive stalled efforts to reform the nation's immigration system.

"We're not giving up," Durbin, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, said at a Capitol news conference. He was accompanied by a Nigerian-born engineer who, though she grew up and was educated in the United States, might face deportation without the bill. Also there were Democratic senators, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who vowed to bring the bill to a vote in this Congress.

The legislation would offer a possible path to citizenship for undocumented young people who meet certain conditions; it is also regarded by some as a political bellwether for gauging support for wider immigration reform. The DREAM Act was approved by the U.S. House last fall and got a majority of Senate votes in December -- but failed to attract the 60 votes needed to overcome a threatened Republican filibuster.

Undeterred, Durbin promised shortly after that vote to revive the DREAM Act this year. "This is a matter of justice," the Illinois senator said Wednesday. "We should not punish children for the actions of their parents."

Reflecting that position, Obama, who had cosponsored the DREAM Act with Durbin as an Illinois senator, said at a speech Tuesday in El Paso, near the U.S. border with Mexico, that his administration will "keep up the fight for the DREAM Act" -- as the first step toward wider immigration reforms.

"It was a tremendous disappointment to get so close and then see politics get in the way" of approving the DREAM Act, Obama said. "These are kids who grew up in this country, love this country and know no other place as home. The idea that we would punish them is cruel and it makes no sense. We are a better nation than that."

But as Congress remains gridlocked over pressing budget and deficit-reduction debates, the prospect -- especially in the Republican-controlled House -- for approval of either the DREAM Act or wider immigration reform appears dim.

Even so, leading Democrats regard the immigration issue as giving them a political advantage among the growing number of Latino voters nationwide, many of whom back reform. Reid said that "allowing these students to become productive citizens is not only good for them— it makes economic sense, would reduce our deficit by $2.2 billion in a decade and would strengthen our military and national security."

The Pentagon has backed the bill because it would boost military recruiting efforts. In fact, the Defense Department's strategic plan included the DREAM Act as a means to help "shape and maintain a mission-ready All Volunteer Force."

To qualify under the DREAM Act for a path to citizenship, young people would have had to arrive in the United States by age 15 or younger, have been in the country continually at least five years, have "good moral character," graduate from high school or obtain a G.E.D., and complete two years of college or military service in good standing.

(For a history and detailed description of the DREAM Act, click here.)

Opponents, who include most Republicans in Congress as well as some Democrats, contend that the DREAM Act represents a form of amnesty. Many Republicans say they would prefer to focus on strengthening border security and cracking down on U.S. employers who hire illegal immigrants.

In December, Durbin told the Beacon that he hoped to work with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on a bipartisan approach to overhauling the immigration system. But McCain issued a statement Tuesday, along with Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., that called on Obama to support their border security-enforcement bill before he presses for immigration reform.

The Arizona senators also questioned why Obama chose to give his speech in Texas instead of Arizona, where far more illegal immigrants are apprehended trying to cross the border. Saying that "the Tucson sector remains the most trafficked sector," McCain said: "It is no wonder the president chose El Paso and not Tucson as a backdrop to talk about immigration reform."

Obama, in his El Paso speech, argued that border security has been greatly strengthened, and he contended that Republicans will never be satisfied. He said the Border Patrol now has 20,000 agents -- more than twice as many as in 2004. The number of intelligence analysts at the border has tripled; unmanned aerial vehicles now patrol the skies from Texas to California; and U.S. officials are now screening all southbound rail shipments, to seize guns and money going south.

"So, we have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement," Obama said. "But even though we've answered these concerns, I suspect there will be those who will try to move the goal posts one more time. They'll say we need to triple the border patrol. Or quadruple the border patrol. They'll say we need a higher fence to support reform. Maybe they'll say we need a moat. Or alligators in the moat.

"They'll never be satisfied. And I understand that. That's politics."