Flanked by 100 so-called “dreamers,” Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) expressed confidence that their long-dreamed-about DREAM Act will become law.
The two in past years have sponsored the bill, formally called the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act. They renewed efforts last month after President Donald Trump set a March 5 date for ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which the previous administration created to protect illegal immigrants brought to America as children.
"So here's the deal — I've never felt better about the DREAM Act than I do right now," Graham said. "The March 5 deadline is going to make us act. Failure is not an option. I've never seen more bipartisan support for the idea than right at this moment. The American people have heard you. They share your dreams and overwhelmingly support your dream."
Durbin, who has been pushing the issue for 16 years, credited the young illegal immigrants with sharing their stories and changing their minds.
"As soon as this stopped being a discussion about theory and numbers and became a discussion about real people and their aspirations and their talents and what their lives mean, we started seeing a shift in public opinion," he said.
With momentum rising — and Trump sending repeated signals that he is open to amnesty for DACA recipients — immigration hard-liners are divided over how to approach the issue.
Williams Gheen, president of the Americans for Legal Immigration political action committee, urged no-compromise opposition.
"I'm very confident we can beat it, but it all depends on how many Americans we can mobilize and how fast," he told LifeZette.
Gheen said what is needed is more unity from people and organizations opposing illegal immigration. He lamented that some groups appear more interested in striking a deal than fighting it.
He said anyone concerned about illegal immigration should be leery about trading amnesty for pledges of stronger enforcement.
"None of these promises will happen if this amnesty goes through," he said.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, said momentum seems strong for congressional action.
"I think there will be an amnesty," she said. "But the question is how many people will be covered and what conditions will be placed on getting a green card, and what will Republicans be able to extract for it?"
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services statistics indicate that there are about 690,000 people enrolled in DACA, which protects beneficiaries from deportation as long as they meet certain conditions and offers them permits to work legally in the United States.
But the DREAM Act would apply to a much larger population. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that 3.338 million illegal immigrants would be eligible.
It would offered lawful permanent residency — and eventually citizenship — to longtime residents who came to America before the age of 18, as long as they graduate from high school or obtain a GED; pursue higher education, serve in the military or work for at least three years; pass a background check and pay an application fee; demonstrate English proficiency and knowledge of U.S. history; and have not committed a felony or other serious crime.
"I think there will be an amnesty. But the question is how many people will be covered and what conditions will be placed on getting a green card, and what will Republicans be able to extract for it?"
Other lawmakers have sponsored similar bills. Three Republican senators last month introduced the Solution for Undocumented Children through Careers, Employment, Education and Defending our nation (SUCCEED) Act, billed as the conservative alternative to the DREAM Act. Some 2.5 million illegal immigrants would be eligible under that legislation, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Vaughan said the most important concession Republicans should demand is a reform of "chain migration" that allows green card holders and citizens to sponsor relatives for immigration. She estimates that if 700,000 illegal immigrants became citizens, it would trigger another 1.4 million immigrants. NumbersUSA estimates that the DREAM Act could eventually lead to an additional 14.02 million immigrants because of chain migration.
Congress should balance that, she said, by eliminating or restricting categories of family migration like siblings and their children. She said Congress also could eliminate the diversity visa lottery, which each year brings in roughly 50,000 immigrants chosen randomly from the millions of people who apply for permanent residency under the program.
If that is not politically feasible, Vaughan added, Republicans at least ought to insist that Congress require all businesses to use the now-voluntary E-Verify system to confirm the eligibility of workers they hire. That ought not be a heavy lift for Senate Democrats, many of whom voted for it as part of the "Gang of Eight" comprehensive immigration bill in 2013.