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The debate over immigration was revived by President Barack Obama’s announcement of a reprieve for the children of illegal immigrants. So, too, was talk of the DREAM Act.
In a speech to Hispanic elected officials in Orlando on June 22, 2012, Obama criticized Congress’ inaction on the bill.
"We should have passed the DREAM Act a long time ago," he said. "It was written by members of both parties. When it came up for a vote a year and a half ago, Republicans in Congress blocked it. The bill hadn’t changed. The need hadn’t changed. The only thing that had changed was politics."
We decided to check Obama’s history on the DREAM Act.
The federal Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act pertains to children brought to the U.S. illegally by parents or relatives. If the young people have stayed out of trouble and were in school or the military, the legislation would allow them to move to legal status and not be deported. It has been proposed every year for more than a decade but never passed Congress.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, introduced the original bill in 2001, along with Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. It drew 18 co-sponsors, Democrats and Republicans.
Obama was correct that the legislation was written by both parties.
The more recent vote he referred to took place in December 2010. The House passed the DREAM Act by 216-198. Only eight Republicans voted for it; 160 voted against. In the Senate, it could not garner the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster and died 55-41 on Dec. 18, 2010, largely along party lines.
The Republicans who voted for it were Richard Lugar, R-Indiana; Bob Bennett of Utah, who had already lost his Senate seat; and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, who kept hers by running as a write-in candidate after losing in the primary.
But we should also note that five Democrats voted against it. Those five votes could have gotten the DREAM Act to a floor vote.
So how much has it changed in all this time?
Durbin’s office provided us with a list of revisions, which were made at the request of Republicans. They included:
• Lowering the age cap from 35 to 30 on who could be eligible.
• Specifically excluding anyone who has committed one felony or three misdemeanors; has engaged in voter fraud or marriage fraud; or has abused a student visa.
• Requiring a medical exam and background check.
• Requiring applicants to speak, read and write English.
In other words, the changes tightened eligibility standards and made the law stricter overall, which would support Obama’s point.
Roy Beck, president and founder of Numbers USA, which advocates for the interests of American workers in immigration legislation, acknowledged that changes to the law over time addressed "loopholes."
"I think it’s correct there were some improvements in that area," he said.
But Beck also noted that the original version of the bill set the age cap at 21. It was raised to 35 in subsequent years, then lowered back to 30.
"The age limit has varied quite a bit, and that’s not small," Beck said. "How many people are you going to be adding to the workforce to compete with Americans?"
Frank Sharry of America’s Voice, a group that favors comprehensive immigration reform and passage of the DREAM Act, agreed that there were "small changes" to the bill.
Sharry pointed out that the age limit has been raised to accommodate immigrants who were 21 when the bill was first introduced, so they would still be eligible. He said Durbin then lowered the cap to try to attract more votes in Congress.
As for the politics surrounding the bill, that has certainly changed.
Some Republicans who supported the DREAM Act are no longer in the Senate or have lost primaries, including Indiana’s Richard Lugar and Bob Bennett of Utah, swept out by the tea party movement, which generally shows little tolerance for any form of amnesty and advocates deporting illegal immigrants and building a border fence.
Others who supported the bill early on have now backed away, including Hatch, the original sponsor. When the Senate bill was introduced in 2011, not a single Republican signed on.
Depending on your point of view, that could be good or bad.
Said Beck: "They have changed their mind on some of these things, but good for them."
He argues that the economic downturn was the driving force for many Republicans’ change of heart.
In 2001, "we we didn’t have 20 million Americans who were unemployed or forced into part-time work," Beck said. "I think through the years as the numbers got larger, they became aware of how out of sync an amnesty like this is with high unemployment."
Obama said the DREAM Act was written by members of both parties and since then has been blocked by Republicans, even though "the bill hadn’t changed, the need hadn’t changed. The only thing that had changed was politics."
The president is correct that Democrats and Republicans worked on the original bill and it had bipartisan support in Congress for several years, though never enough to pass. In 2010, most of the opposition was on the Republican side, but five Democrats helped sustain the filibuster in the Senate.
And there have been minor changes to the legislation, most importantly an increase in the age cap from 21 to 30. Other revisions made the bill more restrictive, and thus in theory more appealing to conservatives.
Finally, there’s no question that the political debate about immigration has evolved, with the tea party surge crowding out more moderate viewpoints and even pushing some Republicans out of office.
Obama’s comment glosses over some of the details, but his statement is largely correct. We rate it Mostly True.
WhiteHouse.gov, "Remarks by the President at the NALEO Annual Conference," June 22, 2012
THOMAS, DREAM Act of 2001, accessed June 22, 2012
THOMAS, DREAM Act of 2010, accessed June 25, 2012
U.S. House, Roll call vote 625, Dec. 8, 2010
U.S. Senate, Roll call vote 278, Dec. 18, 2010
Interview with Frank Sharry, president of America’s Voice," June 25, 2012
Interview with Steven A. Camarota, director of research at Center for Immigration Studies, June 25, 2012
Interview with Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, June 25, 2012
Email interview with Kara Carscaden, Obama campaign, June 25, 2012
PolitiFact, "Mitt Romney said he would veto the DREAM Act, says David Plouffe, June 22, 2012
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