The Dream Act and the Latino Muscle

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, December 1, 2010


As Congress has reconvened for a lame-duck session, Democrats hope to approve a few things before they lose majority control of the House on January 3, 2011. Among the top agenda items, a limited immigration reform called DREAM Act stands little chance of passing. The debate over the Bush administration tax breaks—set to expire on Dec 31, 2010—and the effort to repeal the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy of gays in the military will dominate the agenda before Congress breaks for the holiday season.


To be sure, the improbable approval of the DREAM act reflects the lack of bipartisanship in Congress and the anti-immigration political mood. Yet, it also reveals the limited political muscle of Hispanics in the United States. Despite having strongly voted for Obama in 2008, Latinos have failed to advance key issues in their legislative agenda. Immigration reform has been further away from being voted on in Congress than under the Bush administration. The DREAM Act—an acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors—would grant a path towards legalization to undocumented adolescents who stay in school, attend college or serve in the military. It meets all the criteria established by past Republicans and Democratic presidential candidates as it establishes strict conditions for undocumented aliens who seek a path to legalization, rewards educational achievement rather than family relations as the criteria for legalization and is very limited in scope (though some every year some 60,000 undocumented students finish High School, much fewer attend college or enroll in the military).


Yet, since it was first introduced in the Senate in 2001, the DREAM Act has been pushed back in favor of more comprehensive but ultimately futile illegal immigration legalization efforts or delayed and/or defeated because of strong anti-immigration sentiments among a strong Republican minority in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, where there is a stronger Latino presence (the Hispanic Caucus is comprised of 24 members, who make up 5.5% of the House), the DREAM Act has enough votes to pass.  In the Senate, a 52-44 vote in favor of debating the DREAM Act failed to overcome a filibuster treat by Republican senators opposed to any form of amnesty and the bill was shelved in September by Majority leader, Harry Reid, a Democratic Senator from Nevada.


Reid, who narrowly just won re-election, promised during the campaign that he would bring the DREAM Act to a vote in the lame duck session. Latinos, a small but growing voting group in Nevada, strongly supported Reid and were decisive in securing his victory. Yet, even if Reid fulfills his promise, there won’t be sufficient votes to avoid a filibuster threat.


According to the Census Bureau estimates, 15.1% of the United States population is Hispanic/Latino. Out of the approximately 47 million Hispanics, some 9.5 million are undocumented, one in every five. But the 8.8 million undocumented Latinos make up 80% of all undocumented persons in the U.S. (estimated at 11 million). Thus, the illegal immigration problem is primarily a Latino problem even though a large majority of Latinos are legal residents or citizens.


The improbable passage of the DREAM Act reflects a failure of Latino leaders to advance their agenda items. Yet, it also reflects a larger problem. As their numbers have grown, their interests, concerns, priorities and politics have also become more diversified. Amnesty for illegal immigrants would primarily affect Latinos, yet for a large majority of Hispanics, immigration is not a priority. Moreover, as Latinos come from different origins—with a commanding majority having roots in Mexico—their priorities vary depending on their educational level, income, national origin, the number of years (or generations) they have lived in the U.S., and their race (with white or light mestizos having an easier time adapting than black Latinos). 


Among the first 300 appointments requiring Senate confirmation, President Obama selected 33 Latinos, including Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar. Most recently, Obama appointed Sonia Sotomayor to be the first Latina Supreme Court Justice. Yet, for many Latino leaders, a majority of whom supported Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries, Obama has yet to embrace the community in a way that reflects the strong support Latinos gave to Obama in his election. Because Latinos are a loyal voting bock, many democrats might take their support for granted. Yet, when turnout decreases among Latinos, Democrats suffer heavy losses, as the 2010 midterm election showed.


Unfortunately, there is little chance that the DREAM Act will pass before the end of the lame duck session. Even if immigration does not top the list of Latino issues, the DREAM Act has gained traction as a sensible proposal supported by a majority of Latinos. Fortunately, the rapid increase in the number of voting age Latinos will results in having Latino issues—including a modest but symbolically significant immigration reform—play a central role in the political debate leading up to the 2012 presidential election.