GOP opposes DREAM Act, struggles for Latino support
By Heisy Padilla / Contributing Writer
As Republican leaders rally behind presumptive nominee Mitt Romney, they still struggle to connect with a population critical for them to win the White House: the Latino vote.
During the battle for the nomination, Republican candidates openly opposed comprehensive immigration reform as well as the DREAM Act, a proposed law that would grant legal status to undocumented immigrant children if they attend college or serve in the U.S. military. The DREAM Act is supported by 91 percent of Latinos, according to a recent study conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center.
Candidate Newt Gingrich at the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) told his audience, "We have the technology… we track 24 million packages a day while they're moving and we allow you to find out where they are for free. That's the world that works. Now here is the world that fails. The federal government today cannot find 11 million illegal immigrants even if they're sitting still." Many in the Latino community find such language representative of how the Republican candidates choose to address the Latino population.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who is a Cuban-American, openly opposes the DREAM Act, calling it "too wide," and "having many problems." Rubio says he supports undocumented children, but his support seems unclear to many Latino voters.
In comments to reporters when he recently opened a new Palm Beach County office, Rubio said he is working with his Republican Senate colleagues to find a solution to the problem. The solution, he says "will be to give them some type of provisional visa that will help them study, and then work and eventually they will have access to the same system of legalization." On Thursday, a Rubio spokesman said this alternative to the DREAM Act should be ready in "a few weeks."
The DREAM Act was first introduced in 2001. Since then, it has been re-introduced every year but has always failed to become law. For the DREAM Act to pass, it would need support from both sides of the aisle.
Dr. John H. Calhoun, professor of political science and history at Palm Beach Atlantic University, said, "Demagogy politicians will use this issue because there are Americans who don't like immigrants, legal or not.
"The DREAM Act will give [The United States] people that are higher educated; this will also reduce the amount of crime, and it will give them status in the country. To me that's a win-win," Calhoun said.
The Pew study reported that 35 percent of Latino registered voters describe their political views as conservative, 32 percent as moderate, and 28 percent as liberal. Forty-five percent feel the Democratic Party is more concerned about Hispanics, while 12 percent say the Republican Party is.
Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto, a professor at the University of Michigan and a political analyst, said in a telephone interview that rather than addressing concerns of the Latino community, Republican candidates are actually distancing themselves.
"The tone of their rhetoric is just so harsh that it turns Latinos off," she said. Soto doesn't see any meaningful attempts by Republicans to connect with Latino voters.
Lucia Alain is an undocumented college student from Lima, Peru, who lives in New York. She studies broadcast journalism, and was brought to the U.S. by her mother when she was 10. Today she tells her story in hopes of reaching the American dream, and she says she has experienced rejection first-hand from a Republican candidate.
In one of the fundraising events in New York, Alain approached Romney, and while shaking his hand, she told him she was an undocumented student. She said Romney immediately pulled back his hand, turned his back on her and walked away. She recorded the incident with her cell phone, and days later the video was broadcast on national television.
Alain said she was insulted by people at the fundraiser: "People told me go back to Mexico, 'you don't belong here,' 'you are stealing from us'… I felt discriminated; I felt humiliated."
Marissa Hernandez, 22, is an undocumented student with a 3.79 GPA at the University of Kansas. She was brought to the States by her mother from Honduras when she was only 9. Hernandez will graduate in May, and she hopes to pursue an advanced degree. However, like the 2 million other undocumented students, she faces an uncertain future because there's no guarantee she won't be deported tomorrow.
"I'd call me and fellow DREAMers 'positive contributing citizens' by trying to pursue higher education," said Hernandez. "If the DREAM Act is enacted, it would unravel the potential of the educated Latinos. The realization of these dreams will have a social and economic impact in the country."
For undocumented youth, the transition into adulthood is accompanied by the fact that they have to learn that they are illegals, even though the United States is the country where they have grown up. This sets them apart from their peers, taking away many opportunities.
Many undocumented students and their families live in the shadows, because the light reveals their presence, and being seen involves the risk of being arrested and expelled from the country. Some live in silence, even when injustices are committed against them, and they don't complain because complaining risks deportation.
"You need to protect these people's human rights because they are abused all the time," Calhoun said.
Rubi Martinez, 23, is an undocumented student from Mexico who studies journalism at California State University Northridge. She was brought to the U.S. when she was 5. She said that if she had a chance to speak with Republican leaders, she would say, "Put yourself in my shoes; put your children in my shoes. What if you were forced to provide a better life for your family and were forced to go to a different country, with a different culture and different language away from your family?"
Some Republicans have countered with concerns that the DREAM Act would reward undocumented immigrants and thus encourage future illegal immigration. They worry that DREAM Act students would eventually petition residency for their families.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanics are the largest and youngest minority group in the United States. One in five students is Hispanic, and one in four newborns is Hispanic.
With stats such as these, the Republicans can't afford to ignore the basic needs of this vital voting bloc, said Soto. She believes Romney has little chance of ever sitting in the Oval Office without first addressing Hispanic voter concerns, like education and the DREAM Act, "I think it would be very difficult," Soto said.
A glance at the DREAM Act
Each year more than 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools, many at the top of their class, but after high school their options become very limited. They can't serve in the military. They can't work, legally. In many states they cannot go to college. These kids were brought by their parents to the U.S. at a very young age and have been raised like U.S. citizens. Many don't even realize their legal situation until they apply for a driver's license or college. Then they learn they lack Social Security cards and other necessary legal documents.
The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, would provide a path to legal status to approximately 2.1 million undocumented children and young adults in the United States. For these young people, the U.S. is the only home they know. Many have the potential to be future doctors, nurses, teachers, and entrepreneurs but their illegal status prevents them from pursuing education that would afford them these professional opportunities.
These students are unable to obtain any financial aid such as grants, scholarships and loans from an institution of higher education. To qualify under the DREAM Act, a student must have entered the U.S. before age 16. In addition, the student must have been admitted to a four-year university or have earned a high school diploma or a General Education Development (GED) diploma.
The DREAM Act was first introduced in 2001 by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) in the Senate, and by Representatives Howard Berman (D-CA) and Chris Cannon (R-UT) in the House. In past years, the DREAM Act has come up for a votes several times and has gathered as many as 48 co-sponsors in the Senate and 152 in the House, yet it has failed to become law. On December 8, 2010, the DREAM Act passed in the House by a vote of 216-198. However, when it reached the Senate, it fell five votes short, by 55 to 44. Activists and supporters continue their fight to reintroduce the DREAM Act in 2012; however, there is not a set date as to when will this happen.