For immigrants, a dream bill

Battle brews over Senate measure offering citizenship to young people living illegally in U.S.

In Focus -- Education

October 11, 2007|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO --Everything about Rosa screams overachieving high school senior: her 3.7 grade-point average, her hectic schedule of cross country practices and community theater rehearsals, her hopes of working her way through college to become a registered nurse.

But Rosa, 17, a soft-spoken honors student, worries every day about something the typical American teenager never has to think about: being deported because she is an undocumented immigrant.

"Some days I feel overwhelmed by it - just hopeless," said Rosa, who came to Chicago with her parents at the age of 7. "But other days I have a lot of hope that things will be OK, that everything will work out somehow."

Under new and controversial legislation championed by Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, Rosa's dreams - graduating near the top of her class and attending college - could change her status as an illegal immigrant. Her surname is not being published because she is a dependent minor.

Known as the Dream Act, or Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, the bill would provide hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship if they were brought to the U.S. as children, are under the age of 30, have graduated from a U.S. high school and either enroll in college or enlist in the military.

"This bill means a lot to me," Durbin said. "But it means even more to a lot of young people across this country."

Yet the Dream Act, which Democrats have vowed to bring to a full Senate vote in November, faces an uphill fight.

It was withdrawn last month as an amendment to a defense bill in the wake of intense public criticism. It has even raised the ire of a number of traditionally pro-immigration groups that view the military-service component of the bill as a means of strong-arming desperate young men and women into uniform in a time of war. And it has infuriated anti-amnesty groups who say it has no safeguards against fraud, rewards those who have broken the law and does nothing to address future immigration enforcement.

"Listen, I agree that these individuals would be at the top of my list for legalization - but only after we have dealt with the problem of future enforcement," said Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates lower rates of immigration.

The Dream Act, which has been introduced in various forms since 2001, has significant bipartisan support; Durbin's co-sponsors are Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana. Yet it comes in the wake of last summer's Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, which crashed and burned in Congress, and at a time when much of the American public has expressed disapproval of any legislation that could be interpreted as amnesty for immigrants here illegally.

The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute has estimated that the Dream Act would allow about 279,000 currently illegal residents to attend college or join the military. Further, about 715,000 illegal immigrants between the ages of 5 and 17 would become eligible in the future, according to the research group.

Advocates laud the Dream Act as a way to grant legal residency to educated young men and women who have the potential to contribute to the country by continuing on to college. Even more, they say, the bill would funnel a pool of enlistees into the armed services at a time when the military is facing severe recruitment challenges in the wake of the war in Iraq.

"We see in these people a generation of young people who are honor students, valedictorians, young men and women with a lot to contribute to this country," said Josh Bernstein, federal policy director at the National Immigration Law Center. "These are kids who grew up here, who went to our schools, who are poised to repay the investment we've already made in their education."

A number of high-level Army officials have come out in favor of the bill. Durbin has publicized the fact that those eligible for the Dream Act must have graduated from high school, in contrast with a large number of military recruits today. The senator last week cited statistics that, in 2006, one-fifth of Army recruits did not have a high school degree, the highest dropout enlistee rate for the Army since 1981.

Yet the military portion of the bill has fueled much criticism.

"The military option right now isn't just any other option," said Jorge Mariscal, director of the Chicano-Latino Arts and Humanities program at the University of California, San Diego. "It's an option where you can be killed or seriously wounded, or where you will have to do killing yourself.

"The carrot of citizenship is so attractive to these kids who are so desperate for legalization," he continued. "But the problem is that during this time of war, there is a huge stick behind that carrot."

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