Does the DREAM Act Have a Future?

During the 111th Congress’s lame-duck session, President Obama defied expectations by racking up several important legislative victories, such as the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Unfortunately for the hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States, the DREAM Act was not one of them.

The Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act, as it is formally known, would provide a path to citizenship for individuals between the ages of 12 and 35 who meet certain requirements and enable them to attend college or serve in the military.

In the days following the bill’s passage in the U.S. House of Representatives, by a vote of 216-198, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was not able to muster the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster and bring the measure to the floor. And, with a newly empowered Republican majority ruling the House, its fate is uncertain. What went wrong?

“Unfortunately, anything immigration related, especially anything dealing with the relief of any segment of the undocumented population, is extraordinarily difficult because [immigration reform opponents] have scared a lot of lawmakers into believing that it’s a politically challenging vote to take,” says Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. Despite an outpouring of support from advocates, educational leaders, editorial boards and others from around the country, he adds, the politics are slow to catch up.

Obama has described the failure as “heartbreaking” and perhaps his “biggest disappointment” but remains resolute in his determination to get the bill passed in the 112th Congress. In his final press conference of 2010, the president pledged to convince Republicans who’ve reversed their support for the bill and the American public of the critical need to pass the DREAM Act as well as comprehensive immigration reform. According to a Gallup Poll survey taken in December, a slim majority (54 percent) of Americans favor the DREAM Act.

“Clearly the environment on this issue is very difficult. There’s a case to be made that it’s consistent with all of the work we’ve been doing to build a robust economy of the future to make sure that we have an immigration system that functions properly,” said a White House official, speaking on background. “We’re going to keep at it and keep looking for partners who are interested in and serious about getting the job done, and we’re going to insist that this be on the agenda.”

It will be a daunting task, say Fitz and other immigration experts. House Republicans are now responsible for moving immigration legislation forward in their chamber and key members have been very vocal in their opposition to the DREAM Act. After the House passed it, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who now chairs the Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee, said that the bill rewards millions of undocumented immigrants for their presence in the U.S., using the terms “nightmarish” and “amnesty” to describe it. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, described the DREAM Act as a proposed law “that at its fundamental core is a reward for illegal activity.”

Meanwhile, according to a report published by the National Immigration Forum at the end of December, several states in which power also shifted to the GOP are considering enacting harsh immigration enforcement laws, similar to the Arizona controversial law giving police the authority to check immigration status of individuals they stop, even though that state lost millions in revenues and suffered damage to its reputation as a result of the legislation. Georgia is among the states expected to consider restrictive immigration bills, including one that bans undocumented students from all public higher education institutions.

“States must ask themselves whether it’s good policy to pursue costly anti-immigrant measures or whether it makes more sense to use their powers to urge the federal government to finally fix the broken immigration system,” the report says. Republicans will have to decide whether to use their new power to pursue policies that “will result in costly lawsuits, undermine local economies, and turn off a key and growing voting demographic” or seek practical solutions that could actually help them increase their political gains in 2012.

Some states including Massachusetts and Maryland are considering whether to follow nearly a dozen others that have passed in-state tuition measures for young people whose parents illegally brought them into the United States when they were children. Instead of pursuing those measures in additional states, Fritz says DREAM Act advocates will likely expand their mobilization efforts to launch a more coordinated defense against efforts to restrict eligibility of undocumented immigrants to attend school.

According to the White House official, immigration reform, a responsibility of Congress, cannot realistically be achieved on a state-by-state basis. It’s too early to tell what the future holds for the DREAM Act, but Fitz and others will be keenly observing lawmakers’ actions during the next six months as the new Republican House leadership begins grappling with immigration issues.

“The most important thing is that the issue is going to stay very much alive and there will be a lot of emotionality around it,” Fitz says. “That doesn’t mean that delayed justice is satisfying; it’s clearly cruel.”