WASHINGTON — Passing the DREAM Act could be one answer to America's need to fill high-skill jobs and keep the U.S. military at full strength, Obama administration officials said Tuesday.
The DREAM Act would give children of illegal immigrants a chance at U.S. citizenship if they complete two years of college or military service, clear background checks and meet other requirements.
About 800,000 Americanized immigrants between ages 12 to 35 would be covered by the act, but it has languished in Congress for 10 years. Last year, the House of Representatives passed it, but not the Senate. The bill's chance of passing either chamber this year appear dim after Republican gains in last November's elections.
Still, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said the country needs the skills and the tax revenues that this particular group of immigrants would bring.
Duncan said it's contrary to the national interest to keep these young people in legal limbo, as there more than 2 million high-skill job openings that must be filled.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated a gain of $1.4 billion in tax revenues from the DREAM Act.
"We need to work to fill those jobs," Duncan said. "The only way to get there is to have many more people graduating from college. This is a huge number of young people passionately committed to their education."
In addition, Lt. Col. Margaret Stock told reporters that even with tens of thousands of U.S. troops poised to return from Iraq and Afghanistan, the military expects a recruiting crisis as the economy gets better. The DREAM Act could enlarge the pool of recruits, she said.
"Military officials are aware that this is a large cohort of young people highly qualified to join the army. Under current law, they are barred, but they do try to enlist, they're patriotic, and they feel that serving in military is an honorable thing," she said.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, took Democrats to task for playing "political football in a political stunt" instead of fixing a broken immigration system.
"Of course we all have compassion for these young people, and we know how
Washington has failed to deliver comprehensive immigration reform," Cornyn said. "Unfortunately, this version of the DREAM Act has several well-known problems."
Cornyn said the DREAM Act's requirements aren't sufficiently rigorous, and that a 35-year-old with a GED and multiple misdemeanors would be eligible. He said it could incentivize illegal immigration and encourage fraud.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who introduced the legislation 10 years ago and chaired the hearing, said there's no avenue for these children of illegal immigrants to obtain citizenship, even though they've grown up in the U.S.
Around 200 undocumented students crowded the room and told compelling stories. Some are studying to be engineers, military lawyers and doctors; one debuted at Carnegie Hall; another, Jose Antonio Vargas, won a Pulitzer Prize. Many came to the country as small children and have never known another country as home.
Some interest groups said the hearing was an exercise in appeasing Latino voters. Kristen Williamson, a spokeswoman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors tight immigration controls, said that while Durbin's heart is in the right place, the act wouldn't help only students with elite skills.
"Just graduating from high school and taking classes at a community college could put these students on the pathway to becoming legal, permanent residents," she said. "The requirements are low and the rewards are high."
Steve Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors low levels of legal immigration, said that the act's outlook suffers from public discontent with overall immigration.
"The single biggest impediment is the belief that the law is not being enforced," he said.
Laura Vazquez of the National Council of La Raza, which is sympathetic to immigrants, said that getting the legislation passed would be an uphill struggle, but that the hearing showed it's needed.
"It's something (Durbin) has been committed to for such a long time," she said. "Like every good fight, this (hearing) is an important step to continue to highlight the need for a solution to this problem."
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