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updated: 12/9/2010 11:23 AM

Suburbs watch DREAM Act progress

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  • Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, center, accompanied by Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., left, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, speaks about the Dream Act legislation, Wednesday.

      Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, center, accompanied by Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., left, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, speaks about the Dream Act legislation, Wednesday.
    Associated Press

 
By Kerry Lester

A measure that would help millions of children raised illegally in the suburbs and around the country become citizens cleared a major hurdle Wednesday, but faces an even bigger one.

By a 216-198 vote, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, passed the U.S. House of Representatives.

Lawmakers split largely along party lines, with suburban Democrats Melissa Bean, Bill Foster, Debbie Halvorson and Jan Schakowsky voting for the legislation, and Republicans Judy Biggert, Peter Roskam and Don Manzullo voting against it.

The legislation heads to the Senate for an expected vote Thursday.

First proposed by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch in 2001, the DREAM Act would give qualifying undocumented youths a six-year-long conditional path to citizenship that requires completion of a college degree or two years of military service.

The legislation stipulates that immigrant youths taking part in the program must have entered the country before their 16th birthday, and have resided in the U.S. for five years before enactment of the law. Those who have committed felonies, voter fraud or marriage fraud would be disqualified.

The vote, supporters say, is an important step toward a bipartisan solution to the country's immigration system, which both Democrats and Republicans say needs major reform.

"Give them the chance," a passionate Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Chicago Democrat and longtime DREAM Act supporter, told his colleagues on the House floor.

"Let's say that their work, their sweat and their toil will be responded to. We know there are millions of undocumented workers their parents. They were wrong about the Irish, they were wrong about the Italians ... they are wrong about the immigrants today. Let this Congress say that they are for immigrants."

The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that the boost a crop of better-educated young people would bring to the economy would ultimately outweigh the costs of college tuition for program participants.

Opponents including Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican warned of massive fraud that might take place, and that federal government has little ability to check whether the claims of applicants are in fact true.

"It puts the interest of illegal immigrants ahead of American citizens," Smith said.

At a news conference at the Capitol building Wednesday afternoon, Durbin spoke of the impetus behind his filing of the legislation a decade ago: a local Korean mother's fight to help her undocumented daughter, who had been accepted to Juilliard, stay in the country to further her education.

Durbin said he called immigration authorities on the family's behalf and was told the only option was to send the girl back to Korea.

"These children were not driving when their parents came to America," Durbin said. "They have been trying to drive through the obstacles."

Durbin's obstacle may well be the Senate, where the 60 votes needed for the legislation's passage are not expected to materialize.

Democrats attempted to pass the legislation in September by attaching it to a defense authorization bill, which also included repealing of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on allowing openly gay troops to serve in the military. It failed, with little Republican support.

Durbin said he believes progress has been made since then.

Fanny Martinez of Addison is among the illegal immigrants who hope to benefit from the DREAM Act. Martinez is a 20-year-old honors student at Dominican University, a volunteer at a local domestic violence shelter, and a student leader who is married to a U.S. soldier now in Afghanistan. She said late Wednesday she was hopeful that "good work" would continue in the Senate Thursday.

Members of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights plan to concentrate efforts on attempting to persuade Sen. Mark Kirk to vote for the legislation, coalition spokeswoman Catherine Salgado said.

"Tomorrow morning we're going to have a delegation of youth delivering a letter asking Senator Kirk for his support," Salgado said. "We're also reaching out to all our members and also leaders to make the calls to the Senate to ask him to vote yes."

Kirk, a self-described social moderate, declined for months to reveal his stance on the legislation, first noting at an Oct. 19 debate that "this is not the time to do this."

Kirk reiterated that stance to the Daily Herald in late November.

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