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Controversial DREAM Act amnesty bill headed for a vote this week

Few pieces of federal legislation are as popular on campuses across the country than the controversial DREAM Act, likely set for a vote this week in the U.S. Senate.

In Texas, students at the University of Texas-San Antonio went on a hunger strike last week to convince Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison to vote for the bill. Other undocumented students have visited politicians’ offices. University presidents at schools like University of Pennsylvania, the University of Texas and Cornell University endorsed DREAM this year.

The DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act would allow undocumented immigrants to attend institutions of higher education by providing conditional permanent residency to illegal aliens up to the age of 35. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that up to 2.1 million people will be eligible, although they anticipate that only about 38 percent would take advantage of the amnesty, if the bill were passed.

“They didn’t decide, when they were six, seven or eight years old, to come here [illegally],” said Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, in a recent interview. “Should we hold children responsible for the actions of their parents?”

But it’s not just children who are eligible under DREAM — a major source of consternation for DREAM detractors. The bill, which in original form had no age limit, now cuts off eligibility at 35 on the day of the bill’s enactment.

Sen. Jeff Sessions has led the charge against DREAM, circulating a document outlining 10 aspects of the bill that he views as problematic.

Among them: The bill does not require applicants to graduate from any level of higher education, just that they attend two years of post-high school education. DREAM would also provide safe harbor from deportation to all applicants during the application process, which could be lengthy. DREAM Act aliens will also be able to sponsor family members for legal immigration, and could receive in-state tuition.

The in-state tuition issue is still unresolved.

Some, like Sessions, say DREAM removes the legal barriers to in-state tuition for aliens because it repeals a section of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 that prohibits giving education benefits to undocumented immigrants unless that same benefit is offered to all U.S. citizens.

Others say the matter is unresolved, and depends on state decisions about in-state tuition. Currently, eight states including Texas and California allow undocumented students access to in-state tuition. California’s Supreme Court recently affirmed the legality of that program in the state.

Regardless, whether the bill can pass in the lame duck session is another question.

The last time the bill came to a vote in 2007, when the vote failed 52-44, seven GOP senators broke party lines and voted yes on cloture, while seven Democrats voted no.

Their votes are not a sure thing in 2010, however, when many of the group and a few other moderates face potentially difficult reelection contests in 2012 (this group includes Sens. Hutchison, Olympia Snow, Orrin Hatch, Jim Webb, Jon Tester and newly elected Joe Manchin). Hatch, for instance, has recently expressed reservations about border security despite being a long-time supporter of the bill.

A vote on the bill is expected sometime this week, possibly as early as Monday.

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