DREAM Act On Hold, For Now

As we noted last week (See Immigration Reform on the Installment Plan?, MurthyBlog, 22.Sep.2010), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) was hoping to reinvigorate the Democratic political base by forcing a vote on a piece of pro-immigrant legislation – the DREAM Act – by attaching it to a pending defense authorization bill. The DREAM Act would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who were brought here as children, if they go on to college or serve in the military. In the event, this measure – along with an effort to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that bans homosexuals from serving openly in the armed forces – went down in defeat when GOP members prevented the defense bill from coming up for a vote. (See Sen. Harry Reid’s Gay Rights, Immigration Boomerang?, by Frank James, NPR blog It’s All Politics, 22.Sep.2010.)

As NPR reports, Senator Reid’s failed attempt to “energize the base” may have precisely the opposite effect, leading to further disillusionment among the key Democratic constituencies it was designed to excite. Although Democratic prospects are looking pretty grim for the moment, the DREAM Act could live to fight another day. According to USA Today, the Pentagon is looking favorably on the DREAM Act as a possible way to meet its recruiting needs in the future. (See Alien Minors Act Could Boost Military Ranks, by Alan Gomez, USA Today, 24.Sep.2010.)

USA Today reports that the Defense Department is hoping for – even planning on – the DREAM Act becoming law, and has already listed the DREAM Act in a three-year strategic plan as “a way it could replenish its ranks.” A retired Army lieutenant colonel, Margaret Stock, told USA Today that America faces “‘a crisis in military manpower’ as the population ages and the economy improves,” and that “DREAM would give us the ability to tap into a huge number of people who grew up in the United States, were educated here, they talk like Americans, they look like Americans and their loyalty is with America.”

Perhaps the DREAM Act will look more attractive if it is framed as a national security issue; this might make it more acceptable to conservative members of the GOP, who otherwise have roundly criticized it. Indeed, this is a time-honored political strategy, one that dates back at least as far as the Cold War, when ordinary domestic programs could be made to sound more appealing – compelling, even – by adding “National Defense” to the bill’s title. (One thinks, for instance, of the National and Interstate Defense Highways Act of 1956 – a worthwhile public works project that gained an extra gloss of urgency as a defense-related project.)

That said, the focus on the defense-related benefits of the DREAM Act may alienate some on the other side of the debate. USA Today spoke to an immigrant advocate – Jorge Mariscal of the University of California at San Diego – who expressed concern that poor immigrants will be “trapped for economic reasons into the military.” Still, it seems likely that most supporters of the DREAM Act will not abandon the measure if it suddenly gains a groundswell of GOP support. It could turn out to be a rare patch of common ground in the immigration debate, and that would be a shame to squander.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.