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Government, Politics & Issues

'Dreamers' pack Senate hearing room to back DREAM Act

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 1, 2011 - WASHINGTON - Some wore graduation caps and gowns. Others passed out invitations to a fictional "Dream University" commencement. Still others stood against the back wall or waited patiently in line to get a glimpse of the events in the packed hearing room.

On Tuesday, hundreds of those "Dreamers" -- young people brought to this country illegally who could gain a path to U.S. citizenship if the DREAM Act (or the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act) ever becomes law -- and sympathetic allies packed a hearing room, an overflow room and hallways outside to show their support during the first Senate hearing on the bill.

"When I look around the room, I see America's future," said the bill's main sponsor and decade-long champion, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "I ask my colleagues to consider the plight of these young people who find themselves in a legal Twilight Zone through no fault of their own."

The DREAM Act, which would offer a possible path to citizenship for undocumented young people who meet certain conditions, was blocked by the Senate in December and -- facing continued Republican opposition -- its prospects for approval this year appear slim.

But Durbin is waging a relentless campaign that has included rallies, a Facebook page, dozens of Tweets and organization by student groups across the country. And today he rolled out some impressive pro-DREAM artillery at the hearing: Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who said the DREAM Act would be "an investment, not an expense" to this country; Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who said "it's important to our law enforcement effort" to pass the bill; and a Pentagon official who said the legislation would boost military recruiting efforts. A Pentagon 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 under, 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.

Despite the backing of the White House and a groundswell of support by many Hispanic voters, Republican opposition to the DREAM Act remains strong, unless the bill is tied to a wider immigration bill that further tightens border security and makes other changes to limit illegal migration. At Tuesday's hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security, Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, contended that separating the DREAM Act from a wider immigration overhaul is a political ploy.

"This bill, sadly, does nothing to fix our broken immigration system," said Cornyn, who added that he backs its essential elements but won't support it unless loopholes are closed and it is tied to wider immigration reform. "It's a Band-Aid, and maybe worse, it will provide an incentive for future illegal immigration."

Both Cornyn and Grassley quizzed Napolitano with questions about a recent memo from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director John Morton that has been interpreted by critics as giving the green light to ICE agents to avoid initiating deportation proceedings against illegal aliens who would qualify to remain in this country under the DREAM act. The memo suggested that field agents focus on the agency's top priorities for deportation, such as illegal immigrants convicted of felonies.

Questioning whether that memo meant that ICE was trying to bypass Congress, Grassley asked whether President Barack Obama's administration is planning to offer some sort of administrative relief to young people who would be eligible for DREAM Act provisions.

Dream Act Requirements

The DREAM Act (bill text) would grant conditional non-immigrant status after two years to people who are younger than 29 years old, arrived in the US before the age of 15 and lived here continually for 5 or more years and who meet several other requirements, including:

  • Graduation from a high school in the US or equivalent GED
  • Display of "good moral character" from date of entry to the US
  • Submission of biometric information and other information to undergo law enforcement background checks
  • Completion of medical exam
  • Registration with Selective Service (if applicable)

The DREAM Act explicitly excludes those who:

  • Have committed a felony or three or more misdemeanors
  • Are likely to become a public charge
  • Have committed voter fraud
  • Have committed marriage fraud or abused student visas
  • Have engaged in persecution
  • Are considered a public health risk

But Napolitano dismissed those concerns, noting that more than half of illegals deported last year were convicted criminals. She said Morton's memo merely set out such priorities. "The policy of the department is there can be no categorical amnesty and there will not be -- and that is why Congress needs to act," Napolitano said.

As for the Dreamers, Napolitano said: "These people do not pose a risk to public safety [and] they do not pose a risk to national security."

'Dreamers' Gather, Testify at Hearing

The only Dreamer to testify at the hearing was Ola Kaso, a pre-medical student at the University of Michigan who was brought from Albania to this country as a child by her parents without documentation.

"I was brought to this country when I was 4 years old. I grew up here. I am an American at heart," she said. "There are thousands of other Dreamers like me. All we are asking for is a chance to contribute to the country we love."

As the hearing began, Durbin also asked all of the "Dreamers" in the audience to stand, more than half of the room did. He introduced several of them, including:

  • Tereza Lee, a young musician brought illegally to Chicago at age 2, whose story inspired Durbin to first introduce the DREAM Act a decade ago. Still awaiting word on her status, she is working on a Ph.D. at the Manhattan School of Music, with a debut concert in Carnegie Hall.
  • Tolu Olubunmi, brought illegally to this country by her Nigerian parents as a child, she graduated at the top of her high school class and went on to earn a college degree in chemical engineering. Because of her status, she has been unable to work in her field.

(After the hearing, Durbin came under fire from some conservative groups for mistakenly implying in his opening statement that Dreamers who might eventually gain citizenship could one day become president. "When I look around this room, I see America's future. Our doctors, our teachers, our nurses, our engineers, our scientists, our soldiers, our congressman, our senators and maybe our president," he said. Article II, Section 1, clause five of the U.S. Constitution states that only "natural born citizens" are eligible.

A spokesman says Durbin later admitted in interviews that he had gotten "carried away" and misspoke on that point. As edited later on the senator's website, that part of the revised statement read: "When I look around this room, I see the future doctors, nurses, scientists, and soldiers who will make this country stronger." )

Also invited by the committee to attend the hearing was Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose vivid account of working as an illegal immigrant -- brought to America as a child from the Philippines -- was published in Sunday's New York Times Magazine.

The Democratic senators who spoke at the hearing backed the DREAM Act, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., dismissing Cornyn's complaint that U.S. border security must be further strengthened before such a measure can be approved. "To use border security as a reason not to give these youngsters a chance makes no sense to me," she said.

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

After the hearing, Durbin, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, met with Dreamers and pledged to keep up his efforts to pass the legislation, saying "I'm going to look for the right opportunity to pass this bill."

During the decade he has worked on the DREAM Act, he said, "it's been reported out of committee by a large bipartisan margin, passed the House of Representatives and received a bipartisan majority vote in the Senate, only to fail because of a filibuster."

Added Durbin: "Sometimes it takes a long time to reach fairness and justice, but we do get there."

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