Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and congressional Democrats plan to add legislation creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented youth in college or the military, as part of the $725 billion defense authorization bill.
The Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act) and a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," the military's restrictive policy toward openly gay service people, will be included as amendments in the defense bill. The measure is expected to come to a vote next week.
Republicans have indicated their intent to oppose both issues.
"We're going to address two issues that are long overdue," said Reid.
The DREAM Act would provide thousands of undocumented youth who were brought to the U.S. as children with an opportunity to earn legal status.
"This amendment will ensure that millions of children who grow up as Americans will be able to get the education they need to contribute to our economy," added Reid.
Nearly 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school nationwide each year. With little financial support they don't qualify for most college loans or scholarship programs, and many are forced to pay out-of-state tuition for higher education.
Throughout the year hundreds of undocumented youth have staged "coming out" actions and risked arrest during sit-ins at Sen. John McCain's, R-Ariz., office and at the offices of five senators in Washington D.C., including Reid's. After months of intense pressure, most agree, these actions have paid off. Yet there is still much to be done, say immigrant youth.
Ireri Unzueta, 23, was born in Mexico and brought to the U.S. with her parents at age seven. She grew up in Chicago and recently graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a degree in gender and women's studies. These days she's a full-time activist and leader with the Chicago-based Immigrant Youth Justice League. Their main goal is mobilizing support to pass the DREAM Act, she said.
"We have been trying real hard to make it happen for years and although some Republicans argue the DREAM Act has nothing to do with the defense bill, we say it does," she said. "How can they say we don't belong here when we are clearly part of our community and this country?"
Unzueta said people should know that most youth of all backgrounds work real hard to improve their communities and give back to society.
"How are undocumented youth any different?," she asks. "Immigrant youth come to the U.S. because our parents want us to have better opportunities, but we realize despite some benefits there are many roadblocks along the way."
"No matter what happens, we are in this struggle for everybody and to help all families including those outside the immigrant community," added Unzueta. "We are not separated. We are all part of society and we need to work together for change."
Unzueta said her group, along with countless others, has been working hard to pass the DREAM Act and that it is important to stay positive at this point.
Immigrant rights activists are urging supporters to call their senators today and tell them to vote for the DREAM Act amendment next week.
It has been a decade since the DREAM Act was first proposed. The bill has 40 co-sponsors and is backed by labor unions, major businesses, universities and religious and civil rights organizations nationwide. President Obama backed the bill as a senator and continues to support its passage.
Janet Murguía, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza said, "The DREAM Act will help our country prevent the loss of another generation of young people who stand to contribute to the economic, social, and national security interests of the nation." She notes, "While not a substitute for a comprehensive solution, this is a key step in making progress on broader reform. This vote presents a watershed opportunity for members of Congress, and Latino voters will be watching closely."
Meanwhile New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, Illinois Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez and Congressional Hispanic Caucus chairwoman Nydia Velasquez of New York met with President Obama Thursday to discuss immigration reform.
Menendez has promised to introduce a major immigration reform bill this month that sources say would include border security provisions, employment verification, a temporary-worker program and a path toward citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Gutierrez said the Menendez legislation would be a companion bill to the one he introduced in the House last year, which has more than 100 co-sponsors, all Democrats.
If the Senate fails to pass the DREAM Act amendment, Menendez said it could be included in his bill.
Photo: Members with the Immigrant Youth Justice League stage a Chicago rally in March for the DREAM Act. (Pepe Lozano/PW)