WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats want to use a defense bill to put hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants on the path toward legal U.S. residency. Or at least they want to talk about it.
In a maneuver that combines election-year posturing with legislative hardball, senior Democrats will stage an effort to add a long-stalled immigration provision to a defense bill that's scheduled for Senate debate next week.
"Kids who grew up as Americans should be able to get their green cards after they go to college or serve in the military," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday.
States such as California, Texas and Florida have particularly big stakes in the so-called DREAM Act. So does the Pentagon. Not least, so do some senators who are running for re-election.
First introduced nine years ago in a different form, the legislation covers certain illegal immigrants who are younger than 35. Immigrants who were 16 or younger when they entered the United States at least five years ago and who have completed high school or attained GED certificates could attain a six-year temporary residency.
The qualified immigrants then could become permanent U.S. residents by completing at least two years of college or serving two years in the military.
An estimated half-million California residents, 258,000 Texas residents and 192,000 Florida residents could become eligible for legal U.S. status under the bill, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington research center that studies migration worldwide. The true number of beneficiaries would be lower, analysts say.
The Pentagon could gain additional recruiting power through the U.S. residency incentive, bill advocates say.
"The president was a supporter of the DREAM Act as a senator," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs noted Wednesday. "The administration is supportive of that legislation."
California's senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, are co-sponsors of the legislation, as is Florida's Democratic senator, Bill Nelson.
Still, despite the high-profile support, the bill confronts tough terrain on Capitol Hill. Motives, prospects and consequences are equally complicated.
All 39 of the DREAM Act's current co-sponsors are Democrats, giving the debate a strictly partisan hue. Some Republicans who've backed the legislation in the past, including Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and John McCain of Arizona, oppose it now.
Supporters will need at least 60 votes to proceed. It seems a very high hurdle, in part because some think that unrelated provisions have no business in the $726 billion defense bill.
In 2007, DREAM Act author Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., likewise tried to slipstream behind a defense authorization bill. He failed. In April 2005, Feinstein had argued against using a defense spending bill to secure the passage of an agricultural guest-worker and legalization provision about which she was skeptical.
"This is not the place for this bill," Feinstein said at the time. "I believe it is a mistake to pass this bill on an emergency (defense spending bill) that is designed to provide help for our military, fighting in extraordinary circumstances."
Whatever happens to the DREAM Act itself, Democrats see an advantage in jamming Republicans by forcing them either to vote against a defense bill or swallow an unwanted immigration plan. Democrats also see gain in demonstrating their own sympathies for Hispanic voters.
Reid's re-election bid, in particular, gives him an extra reason to tout immigration legalization. Hispanics account for 25 percent of Nevada residents and are a potentially invaluable resource for Reid as he faces a challenge from Republican Sharron Angle.
Even if Congress approves the defense bill with the DREAM Act attached, White House officials say, Obama would veto the whole package because it includes funding for expensive jet engines the Pentagon doesn't want. That raises the prospect that Congress will come back and pass another bill; this one, perhaps, stripped of all but the military fundamentals.
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