Congress to 'Dreamers': Choose College or Military to Stay in U.S.

The last time immigration was reformed, many immigrant Millennials weren't born yet.

Congress to 'Dreamers': Choose College or Military to Stay in U.S.

Eddie Alberto (center) waits in line at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles in Los Angeles for assistance with paperwork for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. (Photo: Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)

A former journalist for the Associated Press and the Miami Herald, she reported from Latin America for Time, Business Week and the Financial Times.

House Republicans say “dreamers” should get a chance to become citizens—but only if they earn a college degree or serve in the military.

But they say undocumented adults—i.e., their parents—shouldn’t get a chance at all if they can’t pass a series of financial and cultural hurdles.

The position, released last week as part of the GOP’s immigration reform “principles,” showed only a minor softening in the Republican hard-line stance against creating a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants residing illegally in the country.

Nevertheless, Hispanic advocacy groups are encouraged.

The GOP’s movement is a good signal of its intent, said Laura Vazquez, immigration legislative analyst for the National Council of La Raza.

“There’s movement in the House to complete the job the Senate started,” she said.

In the one-page document, the Republicans largely stick to their position that allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens would be tantamount to rewarding lawbreakers and unfair to those who came to the country legally.

But they offered an exception: The estimated 1.4 million young people who were brought to the United States illegally as children, known as “dreamers,” could become citizens if they met certain conditions and either served honorably in the armed forces or got a degree.

A bill pending in the House, the Military Enlistment Opportunity Act, is similar to the Republicans’ proposal. Opponents have decried it as exploiting immigrants’ hopes by using them to fight wars.

Legal immigrants currently can earn citizenship through service in the armed forces. Some 30,000 foreign nationals serve in the military, and some 8,000 foreign-born people, mostly permanent residents, enlist every year. A new program allows people with temporary visas to join up and earn citizenship too.

The college path for dreamers, meanwhile, would entail significant expense for a largely low-wage population. The average annual tuition this year at a state college is $22,826, and it's $44,750 at a private school, according to collegedata.com.

The Dreamer Advocacy Coalition said in a statement that all illegal immigrants should be offered “clear channels” to citizenship.

The Republicans say, in the one-sheet, that they’re open to allowing other adults to reside in the country legally, but only if those immigrants are willing to admit their culpability in living in the U.S. illegally, pass background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, learn English and American civics, and support themselves and their families without public assistance. Ex-cons need not apply.

Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, praised the Republicans’ citizenship path for dreamers. She said she was dismayed by other proposals, however, noting that the suggested path to legalization would be “unaffordable and attainable” for many.

“Unfortunately, too many of the proposals outlined today remind us only of ghosts of anti-immigrant bills past,” Hincapie said. “The GOP has begun the conversation. We hope it grows into a dialogue.”

Immigration laws have not seen a major overhaul since 1986, and many of the GOP’s demands are familiar, emphasizing border security and visa enforcement and tracking, and favoring a package of laws addressing individual issues rather than one comprehensive bill.

The GOP is being spurred by one of its key constituencies—the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has been advocating immigration reform for years.

“This is a very encouraging sign that House lawmakers are serious about fixing our broken immigration system,” said Tom Donohue, chamber president and chief executive officer.

Business is also finding an unusual ally on the issue—the powerful and traditionally Democratic organized labor lobby, including the AFL-CIO and SEIU, which count many immigrants among their ranks.

“This is one of few interests that they’re working together on and pushing forward,” said Vazquez.

That double-barreled support will be needed to keep immigration reform on the front burner because it remains a lukewarm topic with many voters. Immigration could easily lose steam with elected officials if other issues arise and are perceived as more pressing, observers say.

A Pew Research Center poll found last week that immigration lags behind other national concerns, including the economy, terrorism, and education. But a Pew poll found last year that 54 percent of Americans favor allowing a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Advocates hope Republicans are serious about moving ahead and negotiating in good faith to reach a compromise, said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a group that advocates citizenship and legalization. 

“Now it’s time for them to translate these vague principles into a legislative proposal,” he said.

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