DREAM Act Passes House of Representatives – What Now?

Otto von Bismarck is said to have remarked that making laws was like making sausage, because “it’s better not to see them being made… .” As the 111th Congress winds down to adjournment sine die, and members eagerly await the final gavel that will send them dashing off to BWI, Dulles, and Reagan National Airports, and on to their home districts, there remains yet a lot of business to be done, legislative sausage yet to be stuffed.

Members on both sides of aisle are surely weary of the bruising legislative season that’s almost over, but they soldier on nonetheless, knowing it’s only for a few more days. Doubtless, some are still hoping for one last chance to pass bills they have been shepherding through the legislative process for months – although the prospects grow ever slimmer as the remaining days and hours tick down to zero. Toward the end, some abandon the hope of getting their bill all the way through to the President’s desk, and settle for symbolic passage of a one-house bill.

Last week, the DREAM Act cleared a major hurdle when it passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 216 to 198. (See To Get DREAM Act Over its First Hurdle, Timing was Everything, by Mike Lillis, The Hill, 13.Dec.2010.) At this writing, it is too early to say whether the DREAM Act will be another symbolic one-house measure; in any case, the Senate vote could be a nail-biter, if indeed it comes to pass.

The DREAM Act – short for the Development, Relief and Education Act for Alien Minors – would provide a path to citizenship for young people who are here illegally, through no fault of their own, having been brought to the United States before the age of 16. The measure would provide them with conditional permanent residency and a chance to eventually apply for citizenship, if they go to college or serve in the U.S. military. (See A Cowardly Senate Fails on DREAM Act, by Ruben Navarrette, Jr., CNN.com, 09.Dec.2010.)

Many pundits have already pronounced the DREAM Act dead, but the fate of the measure remains uncertain. With the 2010 mid-term elections safely and successfully behind them, Republican strategists are already looking ahead to the 2012 presidential contest, and trying to ingratiate their party with the same Latino electorate that was alienated by the aggressive anti-immigrant tone of many GOP campaigns last fall. There certainly will be grassroots pressure to continue along these lines, but party leaders know they cannot ignore the growing importance of the Latino electorate. If a handful of Senate Republicans peel off and join the Dems in passing the DREAM Act, they can still lay “blame” at the doorstep of the Democratic Congress, while taking credit in Latino circles for making the DREAM Act possible. If they wait until January, the DREAM Act stands little chance of getting past the new conservative majority in the House.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a shrewd Washington insider who often is ahead of the curve in matters of policy and politics, has given guarded approval to the DREAM Act, calling it “useful,” and noting – contrary to extremists in his own party – that “we are not going to deport 11 million people.” (See Gingrich Joins Growing Chorus for Immigration Reform, Calls DREAM Act ‘Useful,’ by Jason Reagan, Examiner.com, 04.Dec.2010.) Critics have dismissed his statements as blatant pandering to Latino voters, a group he would like to have on his side if he decides to run for president in the near future – a move for which he appears to be positioning himself. It certainly might prove “useful” to Mr. Gingrich.

Gingrich is not without political cover for this position, because a top Pentagon official has put a national-security imprimatur on the DREAM Act. Earlier this month, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, Clifford Stanley, called the DREAM Act “a ‘commonsense’ and ‘obvious’ way to attract more high-quality recruits to the armed forces.” (See Military Chief Favors Legalizing Young Immigrants, by Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Associated Press, in The Washington Post, 07.Dec.2010.) The military-readiness argument gives Gingrich – as it would give other GOP members inclined to support the DREAM Act – the political Teflon needed to deflect attacks from inside their own party.

Where there is life, there is hope, and as of this writing, the DREAM Act lives on. Whether it survives the final hours of the 111th Congress is anybody’s guess, but the current obits are premature.

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.