Senate Democrats renewed an uphill push Tuesday for legislation that would give young illegal immigrants a shot at legal status by arguing that the hundreds of thousands affected would improve the nation's economy and security.
The legislation known as the DREAM Act would allow students who came to the United States as children to gain permanent residency if they go to college or serve in the military, plus meet other conditions such as passing a criminal background check. The bill's sponsors are unlikely to gain the votes necessary to pass it, but the hearing gave lawmakers a chance to show Hispanics and other immigrant communities their support for the legislation before next year's elections.
Several dozen students in their cap and gowns attended the hearing, despite their status as illegal immigrants. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., introduced several who had demonstrated excellence in many facets of life but were unable to gain employment in their chosen field.
"They want to serve the country they love," Durbin said. "All they want is a chance."
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said that lawmakers from both parties have compassion for the students that would be helped by the legislation, but he said it was important to get the details right, and he pointed to changes that he believes are necessary for the bill before it can gain more Republican support. For example, he noted that students could eventually gain citizenship even if they committed serious misdemeanors, such as driving while intoxicated or certain drug offenses. The biggest stumbling block, he said, was the federal government's failure to do what it has promised to do in securing the borders and enforcing illegal hiring practices in the workplace.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., countered that the nation's borders are the most secure they've been over the past decade and that there are no longer thousands of illegal immigrants coming across the Mexican border on a daily basis.
"To use border security as a reason not to give these young people a chance makes no sense to me," Feinstein said.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the Senate subcommittee hearing that the students helped would help fill millions of science and engineering jobs that are critical to sustaining the economy.
"They can be the fuel to our economic engine," Duncan said.
Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, argued that the students who would be helped through the legislation pose no threat to public safety or the nation's security. Indeed, granting them legal status would help the department devote more of its resources to removing those who are a threat.