UPDATE 5:07pm ET: After a brief conversation with DREAM Act activists in which Sen. John McCain was encouraging but noncommittal about his support for the bill, McCain left his offices, which were scheduled to close at 5pm. Police arrived shortly after, and arrests of the six activists are expected.
UPDATE 1:30pm ET: Six undocumented youth are camped out inside Arizona Sen. John McCain’s D.C. office and plan to say there until they can get a statement of support from McCain. In doing so they risk arrest, and deportation.
“Not too long ago, Senator McCain was a champion, he supported and rallied for us,” said Guillermo, one of the young people taking part in the sit-in. “I look up to him as a war hero and are only asking from him to give me the same opportunity he had to serve and protect this nation, I want to be Marine.”
The DREAM Act, which has been unable to clear filibuster threats for years, clawed its way back to life again yesterday as Democrats plotted an attempt to move the bill before a new, Republican-powered Congress takes over next year.
The day began with a White House meeting between President Obama and Congressional Hispanic Caucus leadership, and ended with the announcement from New York Rep. Nydia Velasquez that Speaker Nancy Pelosi had tentatively set Nov. 29 as the date to bring the DREAM Act up for a vote.
President Obama has been a reliable DREAM Act supporter, but has done little publicly to get the bill moving, until now. In a stark departure from his administration’s hardline stance on immigration, the White House announced that Obama promised to put his weight behind passing the DREAM Act in the lame duck session.
“The President and the CHC leaders believe that, before adjourning, Congress should approve the DREAM Act,” a White House statement read. “This legislation has traditionally enjoyed support from Democratic and Republican lawmakers and would give young people who were brought as minors to the United States by their parents the opportunity to earn their citizenship by pursuing a college degree or through military service.”
New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez and Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez, both of whom have been vocal proponents of focusing on a more comprehensive immigration reform bill, were also in the White House meeting, which Gutierrez said was productive.
“Passage of the DREAM Act is achievable right now,” Gutierrez said in a statement. “With the White House, Majority Leader Harry Reid, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and every Democratic Leader in the House and Senate pulling in the same direction, we can pass the DREAM Act before the end of the 111th Congress.”
Reid vowed during his hard-fought re-election campaign to bring the bill up for a vote after the election. Latino voters are widely considered to have made the difference in Reid’s narrow victory over tea party-backed challenger Sharron Angle.
The DREAM Act would give nearly a million undocumented youth with a clean criminal record a green card if they committed two years in the military or college. After a contentious year of aggressive organizing, the immigrant rights movement has coalesced behind the bill, which is considered low-hanging fruit in the decades-long fight to get immigration reform passed.
President Obama’s support of the bill is not new, but his willingness to take on a public role to fight for the bill is. Politico reported that Gutierrez said Obama was prepared to pick up the phone to urge senators to vote for the bill when it comes to a vote.
“We feel it’s a positive step that Obama is coming out,” said Matias Ramos, a DREAM activist and founding member of United We Dream. ”It’s fantastic,” echoed Gaby Pacheco, a DREAMer and an organizer with Presente.org. “We are really excited to finally see some leadership, but at the same time we know that we’ve heard this before.”
Pressure is high for Congress to deliver the DREAM Act now before the new class of Congress steps in next year. Democrats lost six seats in the Senate and gave up their majority in the House during the midterm elections. Many immigration advocates worry that if the DREAM Act doesn’t happen now, the immigrant community will have to wait a long time before it has the chance to see the light of day again.
Even though DREAM Act activists continually boast about the bill’s bipartisan support, many of its Republican cosponsors have abandoned the bill, and even conservative Democrats appear to be skittish in today’s anti-immigrant climate.
“There are senators that were co-sponsors of the DREAM Act before who are so far away from us now,” said Ramos, citing Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo and Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley among Republicans who cosponsored the DREAM Act in 2003. “Their absence in this movement symbolizes the rightward shift on the Republican party and that’s something that’s going to hurt them in 2012 if they don’t get their act together. We’re hoping it’s enough.”
In the coming days DREAM activists will be pushing hard to win back former cosponsors of the DREAM Act, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, whose dramatic re-branding of himself as a hardline anti-immigrant foe makes him an unlikely ally. “We’re going to try to bring him back to the table,” Ramos said.
Pacheco said that Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who has so far refused to meet with DREAM Act activists who are on the ninth day of a hunger strike to gain attention for the bill, would be a crucial vote. “Not only did she vote for it in 2007, but she’s retiring this year,” Pacheco said. “She has the opportunity to support the DREAM Act.”
Pacheco imagined the script Obama should use to sway hesitant Democrats: “Every Democrat needs to vote for this. This is something that’s important to the immigrant community. If I’m going to ask them for my vote in 2012 we need to deliver for them now.” She suggested that Obama turn to Republicans and remind them that the Defense Department fully supports the DREAM Act.
Several key Democrats owe their jobs to Latinos, who turned out in support of them during the midterms, and many see this as Democrats’ only chance to fulfill promises of immigration reform before 2012.
In September, as campaign season heated up, Reid attempted to attach the DREAM Act and a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal to the defense authorization bill. Both failed to make it to the Senate floor by a 56-43 vote, with not a single Republican voting for in favor. Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat who lost her seat in the midterms, sided with Republicans as well.
Pacheco said that DREAM activists are using the September vote as a road map for who they need to target in the coming days.
“But the line that’s also going around right now is that we might run out of time,” said Ramos. “The only certain things we know are that we’re going to have to keep pushing and holding their feet to the fire, and telling them what the DREAM Act means to so many young people who are caught in the middle.”
And what happens if the DREAM Act doesn’t make it through during this lame duck session?
“We’re in the mindset that that’s beyond our level of consideration right now,” said Ramos, adding that a group of leaders is, however, already strategizing for the next Congress. “Right now we are ready to mobilize to make our presence felt on Capitol Hill.”