WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats are rewriting immigration policy on the fly, in a legalization effort whose long-term consequences remain unclear.
An estimated 2 million illegal immigrants could gain legal status, and eventually U.S. citizenship, under what's called the DREAM Act. Even lawmakers and advocates, though, are still coming to terms with the bill now chugging toward an uncertain destination.
"There's been a lot of confusion about what the DREAM Act does and doesn't do," noted Michelle Mittelstadt, a spokeswoman for the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
Next week, the Senate likely will take up the immigration bill again. Its fate could rest with lawmakers such as retiring Republican Sen. Sam Brownback, now the governor-elect of Kansas and a past supporter who missed this week's vote.
Privately, even supporters acknowledge their difficulties. Failure could poison future immigration reform negotiations, some fear, as the bill loses its old bipartisan glow.
"This is nothing more than a political game by the Democrats to try and drive a wedge between the Hispanic community and Republicans," said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a past supporter.
If the bill does pass, the implications would touch some states more than others.
The bill covers roughly half a million California residents and 240,000 Texas residents who entered the U.S. illegally when they were under age 16, according to a Migration Policy Institute study.
An estimated 183,000 Florida residents, 49,000 North Carolina residents and upward of 30,000 Washington state residents would likewise be covered.
The House approved the bill Wednesday by a 216-198 margin. Even so, the bill kept evolving until the last minute, and not always in ways congenial to immigrants.
The current Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act would allow illegal immigrants under age 30 to attain temporary legal status if they have graduated from high school or earned a GED.
An earlier version covered illegal immigrants under age 35. The original bill set no age limit at all. All versions of the bill cover those who entered the U.S. prior to turning 16.
These immigrants could secure longer-term legal status if they serve in the U.S. military or complete at least two years of a community college or undergraduate program.
"They didn't possess the intention to commit a crime or to cross the border illegally. They were brought here," argued bill author Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif. "This is a universe of people who deserve special consideration because the absence of wrongdoing is so clear."
The immigrants would be eligible for certain federal student loans, but not for federal Pell grants, food stamps or Medicaid.
The latest version assesses application fees that could total $2,525. Earlier versions omitted such fees.
Earlier versions granted states the option of allowing illegal immigrants to receive the same in-state tuition breaks given to other students. The latest version of the bill drops this provision.
Last month, the California Supreme Court ruled the state could grant illegal immigrants the lower in-state tuition rate, but that ruling only affected California.
Although some 2 million illegal immigrants could be eligible for legalization nationwide, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that roughly 700,000 might meet all the requirements to attain legal status through the year 2020.
According to the Migration Policy Institute analysis, 84 percent of the eligible population comes from Mexico or other Latin American countries. The long-term costs and consequences remain uncertain, in part, because of how the bill popped up at the end of the 111th Congress.
Past Congresses have conducted hearings on similar bills, the first version of which was introduced in 2001. However, neither the House nor Senate judiciary committees approved it in this Congress, and neither committee held hearings focused on the bill in this Congress.
The latest bill language became publicly available only several hours before the House approved it, with no amendments allowed.
"Once again," complained Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the incoming Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, "we are considering a bill that members have not had adequate time to review, that has not gone through the proper committee process, and that we cannot amend."
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