WASHINGTON — Inspired by a discussion about immigration during Monday night's Republican presidential-candidate debate, Rep. David Rivera, R-Fla., has filed his own bill that would give young people who serve in the military a path to U.S. citizenship.
"If somebody is willing to die for America, then certainly they deserve a chance at life in America," Rivera said.
Rivera's plan is called the Adjusted Residency for Military Service Act. It's a variation on the DREAM Act, which would grant legal status to some children of undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally.
The DREAM Act passed the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives in 2010 with the support of only a few Republicans, including Florida Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who's since left Congress. But it failed in the Senate, and the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who took charge last year, has said the DREAM Act won't get another hearing on his watch.
Rivera said he'd been working quietly on immigration since he came to Congress a year ago. He said he'd decided to go with the military-only piece because it had the support of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — the GOP presidential candidate whom Rivera is backing in Tuesday's Florida primary. It also got a nod Monday from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney during the debate in Florida.
"With the presidential debate ... and with Romney's support, that means the two front-running candidates are supportive of it, and that could help these kids," Rivera said. "Then Republicans in Congress (might) say: 'If our two presidential front-runners are fine with it, most Americans would be fine with it.' "
Romney had said previously that he'd veto the DREAM Act, but he's recently endorsed the part of it that gives young people a path to citizenship in return for military service.
"I would not sign the DREAM Act as it currently exists," Romney said during the debate. "But I would sign the DREAM Act if it were focused on military service."
That was a centerpiece of Gingrich's immigration position at a debate Nov. 22, where he also said that some law-abiding longtime illegal immigrants with roots in the community should be given a path to residency — but not citizenship.
Rivera said he'd added some measures to his legislation that might sway skeptics, including a provision that required applicants to have been in the country not only since before they turned 16, but also for five consecutive years.
Applicants would need to meet a set of preliminary criteria to be considered for the program, and, once accepted, demonstrate good moral conduct and a record of service in the U.S. military to be eligible for legal status.
Since the full DREAM Act won't pass, Rivera said, why not bite off a piece that might be achievable?
"There's also a lot to be said for victory by victory, year by year," he said. "Laying the groundwork could very much expedite those reforms in the future."
A Pew Research Center survey released Monday in advance of the president's State of the Union address found that illegal immigration isn't as important as it once was to people, compared with concerns about the economy, jobs, education and the environment.
The share of Americans who rank it as a top priority has fallen to 39 percent from 46 percent a year ago and from 55 percent in 2007, Pew found. The decline occurred across party lines, most notably among Republicans.
Today, just 48 percent of Republicans rate illegal immigration as a top priority.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2012