By Molly O'Toole
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Strong words and hundreds of students, a number of them undocumented immigrants, kicked off the first Senate hearing on the DREAM Act on Tuesday.
Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and experts from the Department of Defense, military, and outside groups testified in support of the immigration bill at the hearing Tuesday morning.
Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, a long-time DREAM Act supporter, chaired the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security hearing. He noted estimates that passage of the act could make some 2 million people eligible for citizenship.
The bill would give young people who are illegal immigrants but have lived in the United States for at least five years, graduated from high school, and are of "good moral character" a path to citizenship by pursuing higher education or serving in the military.
Candidates would have to undergo a several-year process of background checks and other requirements.
Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn, ranking minority member of the Subcommittee, pushed Napolitano on the long-term impact of the act as well as broader immigration issues.
The Development, Relief, and Education for Minors (DREAM) Act passed the House but fell short in the Senate -- where it was considered without hearings in the closing days of the 111th Congress last year.
Durbin re-introduced the bill last month. It has 34 co-sponsors thus far, according to Napolitano's testimony.
TESTIFYING TO THE "DREAM"
Napolitano, formerly a two-term Arizona governor, said the act would promote Homeland Security's mission.
"Without the DREAM Act, young people will continue to be caught up in the immigration removal system, siphoning resources from other, more pressing needs," Napolitano said.
Cornyn questioned what he called the administration's "selective" enforcement policy and whether the bill's passage would encourage illegal immigration.
"You're here under oath ... I think it's appropriate to ask you questions," Cornyn addressed Napolitano.
Napolitano answered, "Removal of everyone in the country -- it's obvious those resources are not available ... We're really dealing with the young people here in this room who are no risk to public security."
Duncan testified that the U.S. will need to fill 2.6 million job openings in fields of science and math by 2018, jobs that DREAM Act students could fill.
He cited a 2010 study from the University of California Los Angeles that the DREAM Act could generate up to $3.6 trillion in total career income for those eligible.
A 2010 Congressional Budget Office report found passage could represent a $1.4 billion deficit reduction, he said.
"I am a DREAM Act student," said Ola Kaso, an Albanian, pre-med University of Michigan student who testified before the subcommittee. "I am American in my heart." Kaso's deportation was deferred by Homeland Security for a year last March.
The hearing was moved to a larger room due to the number of students and supporters in attendance. Outside, they lined the halls. Inside, they wore graduation gowns and four-cornered caps, matching T-shirts and yellow safety vests as a show of support for the immigration bill.
Lucy, 19, and her 12-year-old brother Raul, declining to use their last name due to their status, came to the United States from Peru a decade ago due to a period of upheaval there.
"I want my brother to be here for this action for change, so he knows he's ... not alone."
Lucy and Raul came from New York to attend the hearing.
"I wanted to do what she was doing," Raul said. "So I could have the chance for a dream for me too."
(Editing by Jerry Norton)