Democrats in the U.S. Senate are launching another effort to pass the "DREAM Act", which would create a pathway to U.S. citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. Under the proposed law, the young immigrants could become citizens if they maintain a clean legal record, graduate from high school and plan on attending college or joining the U.S. military. But Republican support for the measure appears to be lacking, making it unlikely to become law any time soon.
The Senate hearing room was packed with young people, many of them undocumented immigrants who may face deportation unless Congress passes the Dream Act. Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois has been trying unsuccessfully to get the legislation through Congress for ten years.
'When I look around this room, I see America's future - our doctors, our teachers, our nurses, our engineers, our scientists, our soldiers, our congressmen, our senators and maybe our president. I ask my colleagues to consider the plight of these young people who find themselves in a legal twilight zone through no fault of their own. They are willling to serve the country they love. All they are asking for is a chance," Durbin said.
Ola Kaso of Michigan, who was born in Albania and just graduated from high school, spoke for many young undocumented immigrants across the country who have excelled at American schools and would like to study in the United States or to serve in the U.S. military.
"I am a Dream Act student. I was brought to this country when I was five years old. I grew up here. I am an American at heart. There are thousands of other dreamers just like me. Look around the room, and you will see hundreds of them today. All we are asking for us is a chance to contribute to the country that we love," Kaso said.
Kaso explained that she faces deportation in less than a year, even though she has been offered a number of scholarships at U.S. universities and plans to become a surgeon to remove cancerous tumors.
President Barack Obama strongly supports the Dream Act, and several of his top officials appeared at Tuesday's hearing. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Under Secretary of Defense Clifford Stanley said the Obama administration fully supports the Dream Act because it would widen the pool for military recruits, encourage talented immigrants to pursue a college education and allow law enforcement officials to focus their efforts on dangerous undocumented immigrants.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said President Obama decided two years ago to focus limited government resources on catching criminal illegal aliens, and that the Dream Act would provide a legal option for those young people who want to contribute to American society.
"The Dream Act supports these important priorities, because only young people who are poised to contribute to our country and have met strict requirments regarding moral character and criminal history would be eligible. These individuals do not pose a risk to public safety. They do not pose a risk to national security," Napolitano said.
Education Secretary Duncan said the DREAM Act would generate $1.4 billion more in revenue than it would cost over the next decade, money that could go toward reducing the current $14 trillion deficit. He said many of the country's most talented entrepreneurs are immigrants.
"I have seen numbers that show that of all the start-up companies that are coming out of Silicon Valley, about a fourth are started by immigrants. We need that talent. We need them to drive our country forward. They can be the fuel for our economic engine," Duncan said.
But the Republicans on the Senate panel were skeptical, saying Democrats are using the Dream Act as a political tool to win over Hispanic voters. Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas said Democrats have not kept their promises to tighten border security.
"This bill, sadly, does nothing to fix our broken immigration system. It's a band-aid, and maybe worse, it will provide an incentive for future illegal immigration," Cornyn said.
Some Republicans lawmakers have also voiced concern that the bill will give more undocmented workers the legal status to take spots at universities and potentially jobs away from U.S. citizens.
The Dream Act passed the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives in December, but fell short of the 60 votes necessary to clear the Senate. Now with a Republican-controlled House, the bill has even less chance of becoming law. But Democratic Senator Durbin told the young immigrants in the room not to give up hope, saying it might take awhile, but he believes the bill will eventually pass.