The Dream Act Is Dead, at Least for Now

September 21, 2010

Democrats' dreams of passing an immigration bill before the midterm elections died Tuesday, when Senate Republicans blocked a measure that could have carried legislation benefiting undocumented college students.

Senate Democrats had planned to offer the bill, known as the Dream Act, as an amendment to a measure reauthorizing Defense Department programs. But Republicans thwarted that plan, gaining enough votes to defeat a motion to proceed to debate on the defense bill.

The vote also doomed efforts to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which bars openly gay individuals from serving in the military. That policy has created tensions at some law schools between military recruiters and faculty members who oppose the rule. Law schools that have barred recruiters from their campuses have been threatened with the loss of federal funds, and two—the Vermont Law School and the William Mitchell College of Law, in Minnesota—have been stripped of that aid.

A repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," which Democrats also included in the defense bill, would have helped end the fight over military recruiting on law-school campuses.

But Tuesday's vote may not have been a complete loss for Democrats, who are fighting to retain control of Congress in the midterm elections. Even though the bill failed, the fact that Democrats sought to advance the legislation could increase Hispanic turnout in the elections. If it does, those voters could help Democrats hold on to the Senate and maybe even the House of Representatives.

The Dream Act, which was first proposed 10 years ago, would create a path to citizenship for undocumented students and make them eligible for some federal student aid. Advocates see it as the solution to many barriers facing illegal immigrants who want to enroll in college and go on to well-paying jobs and productive lives in the United States. But critics say it would reward illegal behavior and encourage more immigration.

The Latest Hurdle

Tuesday's vote was the latest setback for the Dream Act, which enjoys bipartisan support but has never made it through both chambers of Congress. The last time the bill was on the Senate floor, in 2007, 12 Republicans crossed the aisle to support the measure, and eight conservative Democrats broke rank to oppose it.

This time around, Democrats needed only one Republican vote to marshall the 60 votes necessary to take up the defense bill without threat of filibuster. Their hopes were pinned on Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who voted for the defense bill in the Armed Services Committee and was the only Republican who supported repealing "don't ask, don't tell." But Senator Collins ultimately voted with her party, saying she was concerned that Democratic leaders would limit Republican amendments. In the end, three Democrats—Sens. Blanche Lincoln, Mark Pryor, and Harry Reid, the majority leader—also voted against the bill. (Mr. Reid's vote was a procedural move that will allow him to bring up the bill for another vote.)

The bill's failure came as a disappointment to Senator Reid, a Nevada Democrat who is locked in a tough re-election battle and needs the support of Hispanic voters. Sen. Reid promised Nevada voters that he would make immigration reform a priority this year and had presented the Dream Act as a down payment on a broader overhaul. After Tuesday's vote, he promised that the Senate will "vote on the Dream Act. It's only a matter of when."

Supporters of the measure say they're undaunted by the setback. In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday afternoon, undocumented students vowed to find another legislative vehicle for the bill.

"This is not a defeat," insisted Gaby Pacheco, an undocumented immigrant who has earned three degrees at Miami Dade College. "The vehicle that the Dream Act was on got a flat tire, so now we're getting off that vehicle, and we're going to find the next vehicle that will make the Dream Act happen."