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Senate rejects DREAM Act student amnesty bill

The 2011 defense authorization bill, which included the provisions of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, failed to pass through the Senate yesterday with a vote of 56 to 43.

The DREAM 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.

“To me, the bill is about giving opportunity to undocumented immigrants so they can be productive members of society,” said Benjamin Eagles, a senior and Vanderbilt Students of Nonviolence representative.

The “opportunity” Eagles refers to applies specifically to high school graduates of “good character” who were brought to the U.S. as minors and have lived in the States continuously for at least five years prior to the bill’s enactment.

Critics say there are serious problems with the bill, pointing to the potential for fraudulent claims and a chain-amnesty effect, in which eligible students would then be able to petition for the green cards of relatives.

“The DREAM Act is nothing but a thinly veiled attempt at amnesty, and will do nothing but add millions more to the mounting debt we face as a nation,” said President of Vanderbilt College Republicans Stephen Siao. “The bill will create endless potential for fraudulent claims and do nothing to solve our current immigration problem.”

Earlier this year, Rep. Lamar Smith (R- Texas) described similar concerns in a blog post for The Hill, calling the bill a “nightmare.”

“As we witnessed in the aftermath of the 1986 amnesty, thousands of illegal immigrants will resort to fraud to gain citizenship,” Smith said. “The DREAM Act does nothing to prevent this from happening again.”

After a six-year period of conditional permanent residency, DREAM Act students can petition for full citizenship if they meet certain criteria outlined in the bill. According to Smith, once citizenship is granted, under current immigration laws these students can apply for green cards for their relatives.

Stephen Fotopulos, executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, claims that the idea of chain amnesty and overwhelming fraudulent claims are “scare tactics” used by the opposition.

“Truthfully, this bill doesn’t do enough for the millions of undocumented immigrations living in the shadows of the country,” Fotopulos said. “The DREAM Act is just one important step in our attempt at making sense of America’s failing immigration policy.”

The DREAM Act sparked debate at Vanderbilt University after the Vanderbilt Student Government tabled a resolution endorsing the bill last week.

“Vanderbilt as a whole can benefit from this bill because we are not a very diverse university,” said Brian Moraguez, the Advocates for the Immigrant Community representative at the senate meeting. “Vanderbilt can impact thousands of students and give them a future by endorsing this bill.”

The overruling position, however, was that an endorsement was too political.

“I feel like this was the most appropriate outcome,” said Senator Susan Gleiser. “VSG shouldn’t lobby congress on behalf of the student body, especially on such an overtly political issue. This was the most neutral outcome we could take.”

Public support from colleges has been fairly broad for the bill, however. University presidents at schools like University of Pennsylvania, the University of Texas and Cornell University endorsed DREAM this year. Vanderbilt Chancellor Nick Zeppos has not made a statement regarding the bill, though he has weighed in on political issues in the past. Earlier this year, he wrote a letter endorsing the health care reform legislation.

Monday night, student activists gathered on campus for “Stand Up, Stay Up for the DREAM,” an all-night event in support of the legislation, sponsored by the Vanderbilt Students of Nonviolence, Nashville DREAM Act Committee and TIRRC.

At the event, Amelia Post, an organizer for TIRRC, said 70,000 undocumented immigrants are graduating from the U.S. each year without the ability to further their education.

“We are wasting away generations while we wait for this bill to pass,” Post said.

Still, any immigration reform involving amnesty for illegal immigrants is a highly partisan issue, and contributed to the failure of the act as a provision in the defense authorization bill.

“This is an all-time low for me being in the Senate, and that’s saying something,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told the Washington Post. “The one area that has been kept off-limits from partisan politics has been the defense of our nation.”

It remains to be seen whether Congress will address this issue again in a lame-duck session following the midterm elections.

UPDATE: Sen. Richard Durbin announced plans to reintroduce the DREAM Act on the Senate floor Wednesday, so that it will be “poised and ready to be called” as an amendment or a standalone bill.

Kyle Blaine is the news editor of the Vanderbilt Hustler and a sophomore at Vanderbilt University. He is a member of the Student Free Press Association.

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