DREAM Act Passes! Moving Rhetoric, Ugly Race-Baiting in House Debate

Julianne Hing Dec 9, 2010

Portland Latino youth celebrate as they hear the results of the Dream Act vote in the House. Photo: Kim Nguyen Last night the immigrant rights movement won its largest victory in decades when the House of Representatives passed the DREAM Act, 216 to 198. It is the first time since 1986 that any pro-immigrant legalization bill has made it through a chamber of Congress. But the victory may be short-lived. The bill moves on to the Senate where it faces a much more daunting task of garnering enough votes to pass today. [Follow live blogging of the day’s Senate action here.]

“After a grueling year of organizing where we heard many times that it couldn’t be done, we are now closer than ever,” said Carlos Saavedra, national coordinator for the United We Dream Network.

Thirty-eight House Democrats voted against the DREAM Act and eight Republicans voted for the DREAM Act.

Today’s looming Senate vote promises to be much closer, though. While many DREAM Act advocates feel certain that the bill has the majority of votes it needs to pass, it needs 60 to clear cloture, a motion to end debate on the bill and move to a vote.

The DREAM Act would allow undocumented youth an earned path to citizenship—they must have a clean criminal record and commit two years to the military or higher education and meet a host of other requirements. The bill has been around for a decade, and won bipartisan support and the endorsement of university presidents, business leaders and the military but never passed a filibuster threat.

On Wednesday night it passed, but not without a day of nail-biting anxiety and the suspense of a narrow test vote earlier in the day, and plenty of drama on the floor, where DREAM Act supporters and critics were split exactly along party lines. The appeals for the bill were moving and impassioned. “The time is always right to do what is right,” the civil rights leader Georgia Congressman John Lewis said, urging his colleagues to pass the DREAM Act.

“These children have not broken they law,” Texas Rep. Shirley Jackson-Lee said, her booming voice chastising Republicans. “These are are not criminals. The only nightmare I can imagine is the nightmare of violating the rights of these individuals who want an opportunity to serve America.”

Through the night Republicans took turns offering different versions of their classic arguments against the DREAM Act, and indeed any kind of pro-immigrant bill. Last night, the anti-immigrant rhetoric that dominated many midterm elections was again on full display. Republicans went back to the old standby of fear-mongering and demagoguery, igniting people’s racial and class anxieties, but with a recession twist.

“This bill prevents Americans from getting jobs since millions of illegal immigrants will be eligible to work legally in the U.S.,” said Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, who through the night criticized provisions of the DREAM Act that were not actually in the bill. “American workers should not have to compete with illegal workers for scarce jobs.”

“It is not being cold-hearted to acknowledge that every dollar spent on illegal immigrants is one dollar less than our own children, our own senior citizens, and for all those who are in this society who played by the rules, who paid their taxes and expect their government to watch out for their needs before it bestows privileges and scarce resources on illegals who have not played by the rules,” said California Rep. Dana Rohrbacher. He later called the DREAM Act “affirmative action amnesty” because it would allow immigrant youth privileges that “non-minority citizens” would not be allowed to access.

Georgia Congressman Phil Gingrey said the DREAM Act would encourage fraud, exploitation and “chain migration,” where young DREAM Act youth could sponsor family members for immigration “with no numerical cap.”

“In fact, they could each bring in something like 179 other individuals.”

Except that under the current bill, DREAM Act-eligible youth would have to wait a dozen years before they could sponsor immediate family members. They must already wait 10 years under a “conditional immigrant status” before they get green cards, and then another three years before they’re eligible for citizenship. It would be 25 years before any DREAMer could sponsor any family member. It was an argument that Democrats made sure to get on record.

“In the end, this bill is less about the kids who deserve to benefit from the legislation than the country that will get the benefit of having them use their skills and their talents on our behalf,” said California Rep. Howard Berman, who spent his floor time listing and then dismissing his Republican colleagues’ criticisms of the DREAM Act. Berman sponsored last night’s version of the DREAM Act.

“I was pleasantly surprised that we had eight Republicans in to vote for it,” DREAM Act activist and founding member of United We DREAM Matias Ramos said. “I think it’s a miracle of God or something, I don’t know.” Behind him, DREAM Act supporters burst into shouts, chanting: “DREAM Act! DREAM Act! DREAM Act!”

This article was originally published on ColorLines.

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