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Pass the DREAM Act

By Ruben Navarrette, Jr., Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette says politics, strategy have split immigration reformers on DREAM Act
  • Act would give kids in U.S. illegally conditional residency if they join military or go to college
  • Harry Reid plans to add to defense bill, unlinking it from comprehensive reform, he says
  • Navarrette: À la carte approach to reform better than nothing; deserving kids need a chance
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Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist, an NPR commentator and a regular contributor to CNN.com.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- The single most divisive immigration reform proposal out there isn't what you think it is.

It isn't what restrictionists call "amnesty" -- what the rest of us, who can think beyond sound bites, understand to be earned legal status for illegal immigrants. That concept gets the headlines, but it's not the one splitting allies down the middle in the immigration reform community.

That distinction goes to the DREAM Act, a bill that was first proposed back in 2007 but now seems headed to a vote in the Senate next week, thanks to a better-late-than-never push from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

DREAM stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, and it's the brainchild of Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana. The bill targets young people who are in the country illegally, offering them "conditional permanent residency" if they arrived before they were 16 and if they attend college or serve in the military.

Once they graduate or complete their enlistment, they would get permanent legal residency with a chance to eventually apply for U.S. citizenship. Anyone who didn't participate by enrolling in college or joining the military would be subject to deportation.

In a surprise move, Reid said Tuesday that he plans to add the DREAM Act to a defense policy bill which the Senate is scheduled to take up next week and which is expected to have strong bipartisan support. Calling the DREAM Act "really important," Reid framed the issue as settling for half a loaf, since Republicans wouldn't agree to the whole thing on immigration.

"I know we can't do comprehensive immigration reform," Reid said at a news conference. "But those Republicans we had in the last Congress have left us."

Oh brother. Is this broken record playing again?

While I commend Reid for finally stepping up and putting the DREAM Act in play, I'm wondering why -- if it was this easy -- he didn't do it last year, or the year before. Maybe it was because he wasn't facing a tough re-election fight back home in Nevada, a state with a sizable Hispanic population that one might assume would look favorably on the DREAM Act.

And my main quibble with Reid is that he insists on engaging in revisionist history. A hyperpartisan, he reflexively blames Republicans for killing immigration reform.

Reid ought to tell the story right and just admit that it was he and other Senate Democrats -- including a certain Illinois freshman senator who went on to bigger and better things -- who killed immigration reform at the behest of organized labor, because union leaders opposed any compromise that included guest workers.

In fact, Democrats pulled this stunt twice -- once in 2006 when they were in the minority and again in 2007 when they controlled both houses.

Still, partisan politics and creative storytelling aside, what's even more interesting than the split between Republicans and Democrats is that -- when it comes to the DREAM Act -- there is also a noticeable split between immigration reformers.

In one corner are those, like Reid, who think that Congress should pass the DREAM Act to solve at least a portion of the immigration problem by changing for the better the lives of as many as 700,000 young people. In the other are those -- like Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus -- who claim they want to stay focused on the crusade for comprehensive immigration reform and change the status of more than 10 million people.

In that face-off, I side with the pragmatists who want to deal with the DREAM Act à la carte. Who are we kidding? And what are we waiting for? In the last few years, Democrats have shown pretty clearly that they're no more interested in passing wholesale immigration reform than Republicans were when that party controlled Congress. This is probably as good as it gets.

Besides, all the Schumer camp is dreaming about is the votes of the millions of illegal immigrants they hope to convert to U.S. citizens -- something that could have long-term benefits for the Democratic Party. That's shrewd but cynical politics, the kind practiced by elected officials who always put their personal and partisan interests ahead of the folks they claim to be helping -- and then hope no one calls them on it.

When those hundreds of thousands of deserving young people get to college, and take their first steps to legal status, they can take a course and learn all about it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.