Barack Obama’s presidential victory is fueling widespread optimism among student groups that Congress and the next White House will endorse long-debated legislation to help undocumented students gain legal status.
These organizations see an opportunity to pass the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, through which undocumented students who complete high school and two years of college could gain conditional legal status and eventual citizenship.
“Our strategy is to get it done in the first 100 days [of the new administration],” says Shanta Driver, spokeswoman for BAMN, the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary.
Groups such as the United States Student Association, based in Washington, D.C., also share that view. “The DREAM Act is one of our top priorities for the first 100 days,” says Angela Peoples, USSA legislative director.
Students would qualify for legal status under the DREAM Act if they came to the United States before age 16; have lived in the United States for five years; graduated from a U.S. high school or passed a high school equivalency test; have good moral character with no criminal record; and attended college or enlisted in the military for two years.
Student and civil rights groups have several reasons for their optimism:
n As a U.S. senator, Obama voted for the DREAM Act the last time it came before the Senate in October 2007. In a statement earlier this year, he also cited his support for a similar Illinois initiative when he was a state senator. “I believe that all students, regardless of national origin, deserve an equal opportunity to a high quality public education,” he said.
n Several Republican senators who were against the measure in October 2007 lost their re-election bids: Sens. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., Gordon Smith, R-Ore., John Sununu, R-N.H., and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. Another opponent, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., is retiring. All will be replaced by Democrats.
n Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Obama’s Republican opponent this year, did not vote in 2007 but is a past co-sponsor of the plan. Talks between Obama and McCain following the election led several key policymakers, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to say that Congress would act on immigration in 2009.
Obstacles remain, however. The Senate needs a filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes to clear the bill. In 2007, sponsors came up eight votes short. Conservative talk radio hosts — among the chief opponents of the plan — are likely to wage a fight, as is the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a vocal Washington, D.C., group.
Obama did not win because of his views on immigration, says Dan Stein, FAIR president. “Immigration policy was clearly not a decisive factor in the presidential election,” he says. Obama “received a mandate from the voters to fix our ailing economy, which has shed more than a million jobs so far this year, not to enact a massive amnesty.”
But supporters say the DREAM Act is essential to help thousands of undocumented students who graduate college but face restrictions on legal employment in the United States. These youth also lack legal access to driver’s licenses, credit and loans, they say.
In addition, the measure could help many students pay in-state tuition rates after their first two years of college. “It’s something that has broad popularity,” Driver says.
Supporters also are emphasizing the economic benefits of the legislation. According to Driver, college-educated students who can’t get jobs because of their legal status have cost of the state of California $11 billion alone in lost economic power. “It’s a low-cost solution. We know the cost to the economy if we don’t enact it,” she tells Diverse.
Congress in the past has considered the DREAM Act as a standalone bill and as one part of a comprehensive immigration reform package. Student groups want the former option for 2009.
“The best plan for the DREAM Act is as a standalone bill,” Peoples says. With its focus on helping children who came to the United States with their parents, the public can view it as an education access issue rather than “a large, divisive immigration plan.”
BAMN, USSA, change.org and others already are focusing on the Obama transition effort, while many blogs from students and nonprofit groups are rallying support for January. USSA also is planning call-ins, a fax campaign and a pledge card effort to inundate Capitol Hill, Peoples says. “A lot of students are mobilized,” she adds.
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