The Dream Act, which provides a path to citizenship for those children who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents, passed the House by 216-198 this week, but will likely die in the Senate for lack of bipartisan support. Democrats knew they have no chance of passing the Dream Act, but tried to force the issue to a vote so they could hammer home their message to Hispanics: Democrats are your friends; Republicans are not. When it became clear Thursday they didn't have the votes in the Senate to block a Republican filibuster, they tabled the measure.
It was pure cynicism on the part of Democrats, who have done little to advance immigration reform in the two years they've controlled both Congress and the White House. But Republicans may, nonetheless, be walking right into their trap.
For all the loose talk of "amnesty" in the immigration debate, proposals to grant a path to legalization for adult immigrants who entered or remained in the United State illegally were never true amnesty. The Bush plan included hefty fines for all transgressors -- which, by definition, is not amnesty -- as well as requiring them to pay back taxes, undergo criminal checks, learn English, and go to the back of the citizenship line. As conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin notes, the definition of amnesty is to "exempt from punishment."
But the Dream Act is amnesty in the most meritorious sense. Many of those eligible to participate came as babes in arms or as young children. While their parents committed a civil offense -- not a criminal one, as many people seem, wrongly, to believe -- the kids had no choice in the matter. Nonetheless, this amnesty would not be automatic; it would be earned. Only those who successfully completed at least two years of college or military service would be eligible-and they would have to demonstrate good moral character.
Do Republicans really want to tell young people who've lived here most of their lives, who may speak no other language but English, and who are even willing to sacrifice themselves on the battlefield for the protection of all Americans: "We don't want you"?
What are the alternatives -- let them continue to live in the shadows or deport them? Not even the most aggressively anti-immigration groups are calling for the latter.
A number of Republicans who previously supported the legislation -- including one of its chief authors, Sen. Orrin Hatch -- have decided it is too risky to vote for it now. But the real risk is to the future of the Republican Party.
Republicans should have hoisted the Democrats on their own petards by passing the Dream Act. This is not about border security -- which is much improved. There are fewer illegal immigrants coming into the United States now than at any point in almost 40 years, according to the Department of Homeland Security. This is largely a symbolic issue -- only about a million of the nearly 12 million illegal immigrants in the country would be eligible to benefit from the Dream Act because of the education and other requirements of the bill.
But it is important symbolism. It says to these stateless children, in the words of Ezekiel, "The son will not bear the punishment for the father's iniquity." It also says to the more than 35 million Hispanics who are U.S. citizens or legal residents, Republicans have a heart and don't want to punish those who've done everything in their power to serve the only country they've known as home.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently called for a "zone between deportation and amnesty" for illegal immigrants, which would allow them to work in the country. Gingrich is a rock-hard conservative, but he recognizes that the hard-line that has come to dominate the GOP's stance on immigration poses problems for the future of the party, and he's recently launched an outreach to Hispanics. That zone should encompass a path to legalization for the most worthy among illegal immigrants.
The refusal of all but a tiny handful of Republicans to vote for the Dream Act will become a future nightmare. Hard-line anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric has already cost Republicans at least two U.S. Senate seats, Nevada and Colorado, even in a GOP landslide election. It could well cost Republicans the White House in 2012 -- the Democrats are betting on it.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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