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A cowardly Senate fails on DREAM Act

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette notes the House passed the DREAM Act; now it's up to the Senate
  • Bill aims to let young illegal immigrants get legal if they went to college, served in military
  • Navarrette: Congress has chance to improve lives, give opportunity

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) -- Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois, warned his colleagues in Congress on Wednesday that the vote on the DREAM Act was a test of their tolerance, fairness and sense of justice.

"Will we pass the test?" Gutierrez asked. "Will we get an 'A' or an 'F'?"

Now that the votes are in, the grades are mixed: "A's" in the House but an "Incomplete" for the Senate.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid did not have 60 votes necessary to get cloture and force a vote on the bill. Republicans made sure of that. The DREAM Act may be dead, and if so, it will have been at the hands of cowards.

At least the Republicans in the House were willing to stand up and make one ridiculous argument after another in opposition to the bill. Republican senators didn't even have the guts to do that.

But, while it's convenient for those on the left to cast Republicans as the main villains in the DREAM Act drama, it's not accurate or fair. What happened here should be viewed as an indictment of both parties.

In fact, before the vote, a frustrated Gutierrez said that if the bill didn't pass, he might leave the Democratic Party and lead a national movement in defense of immigrants' rights.

I hope Gutierrez does just that. The Illinois congressman has always been more committed to both the DREAM Act and the larger cause of comprehensive immigration reform than either the White House or his fellow Democrats in Congress. Now a divorce might be in order.

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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 in the country illegally, offering them "conditional permanent residency" if they came to the United States before they were 16 and if they attend college or serve in the military.

Once they either graduate from an institution of higher education, complete two years toward a bachelor's degree or complete their enlistment, they would have been eligible for permanent legal residency with a chance to eventually apply for U.S. citizenship. However, anyone who didn't participate by enrolling in college or joining the military would have been subject to deportation.

Ideas this good don't come around very often. When they do, they are so reasonable and make so much sense that you just know that they're going to have a tough time getting through Congress. And sure enough, that's what happened in this case.

The concept of swapping legal status for college attendance or military service was proposed in Congress in August 2001, and it quickly went on the back burner.

Conservatives winced because they feared the concept bore too close a resemblance to amnesty, and liberals cringed because they were concerned that offering legal status to college students and military enlistees could take the steam out of the broader effort to achieve comprehensive immigration reform.

Both parties failed to give this proposal a fair hearing, one that would have evaluated the idea on its own merits rather than coupling it with the immigration debate or weighing it in terms of perceived political benefit.

Both parties used the measure for partisan purposes, Democrats to pander to Hispanics with what party leaders saw as a substitute for comprehensive immigration reform and Republicans to rile up their conservative base.

Both parties made the perfect the enemy of the good, helping to undermine a measure that could have affected the lives of some 2.1 million young people because they didn't like some part of the bill or worried about the impact it would have.

Overall, there wasn't been just a lack of commitment to this bill. There was also a lack of seriousness. If lawmakers had been serious about improving the lot of a group of young people who are stuck in legal limbo through no fault of their own, they would have compromised and amended the bill to win more votes.

Even Newt Gingrich, a critic of the overall bill, suggested going down that road. Some parts of the DREAM Act were "useful," said the possible presidential candidate. He said there should be different rules for those who cross the border on their own and those who were brought here as children by their parents. The problem, Gingrich said, was that Democrats brought up the bill solely as a "political gimmick."

DREAM Act rewards illegal immigrants

Meanwhile, Republicans like Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, were more than happy to play politics from their side of the aisle. Sessions repeatedly called the DREAM Act a "mass amnesty," which showed that he either didn't read the bill or read it but didn't understand it. An amnesty is when you get something for nothing. In this legislative quid pro quo, young people who went to college or joined the military would have gotten something for something.

A mass amnesty? This kind of bumper sticker slogan tends to incite the base, but it doesn't add anything to the discussion. And it certainly doesn't do anything to make this a better country.

The House did the right thing yesterday, albeit by a narrow margin. The Senate missed an opportunity to follow suit. Reid used a parliamentary procedure to pull the bill, but he might re-introduce it next week.

Those in the upper chamber have the rare opportunity to cut through the dishonesty and noise of the immigration debate and actually do one good thing that would have helped improve people's lives in a real and concrete way.

That is the senators' test. And up to now, they're failing it with flying colors.

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