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GOP version of Dream Act holds promise

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
updated 7:36 AM EDT, Thu April 5, 2012
Young Latino protesters hold placards outside Mitt Romney' s Nevada campaign headquarters in Las Vegas in February
Young Latino protesters hold placards outside Mitt Romney' s Nevada campaign headquarters in Las Vegas in February
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: GOP plan to float new version of DREAM Act a step in right direction
  • He says plan would let kids who are undocumented be legal but not citizens if in college, military
  • He says Dems don't like this, as they want to claim DREAM Act and loyalty of Latinos
  • Navarrette: Some Dems faltered on pushing issue through; time to give new plan a chance

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN.com contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist

San Diego (CNN) -- You may have heard that a group of Republicans in Congress -- including GOP rock star and possible vice presidential pick Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida -- are getting ready to introduce their version of the DREAM Act.You also may have heard that Democratic lawmakers and liberal advocacy groups despise the Republican alternative and derisively label it "DREAM Act Lite."

As someone who has written about immigration for more than 20 years and hammered Democrats and Republicans (including Rubio) when appropriate, I call the GOP approach to the DREAM Act something else: A common sense solution. It could break a stalemate and improve millions of lives. And it could only be opposed for ugly partisan reasons.

While it's not perfect -- and no piece of legislation is -- it is better than nothing, which is all the critics have been able to offer, even when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House.

Like the bill that has been kicked around in Congress for more than a decade, and which met its demise in December 2010 when five Senate Democrats effectively killed it by voting against cloture on the debate, the Republican plan would give undocumented students a path to legal status in exchange for going to college or joining the military.

But unlike the earlier version, it would not include a path to citizenship. Students could become citizens later. It's not like they'd be barred from the citizenship process. But they would have to take the initiative. It would be on them, as it should be.

Of course, Democrats hate this idea -- for three reasons.

1. Some of the 50 Senate Democrats who voted in favor of cloture in support of the original DREAM Act may have been moved by the humanitarian argument that young people brought here by their parents shouldn't be forced to languish in the world of the undocumented.

But for others, it is likely that their vote was a political calculation. If hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrant students could gain legal status, many of those people would become loyal Democratic voters for life. But if citizenship isn't in the mix, and there are no votes to be had, why bother?

2. Rubio is attached to the bill, and, in fact, seems to have been put front and center by Republican colleagues such as Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. Democrats know that the Cuban-American senator is on the short list of likely running mates for GOP nominee Mitt Romney. And that has to terrify them.

Rubio has skills. Besides, they know that putting him on the ticket could lure some Latino support away from Democrats -- especially given that, according to polls, a majority of Latino voters disapprove of President Barack Obama's handling of immigration. If they can torpedo the GOP DREAM Act, they might just hobble Rubio. But if they can't, and Rubio uses the bill to score points with Latino voters, it could be a nightmare for Democrats in November.

3. Many Congressional Democrats, and for that matter, most of the other critics of the Republican bill, don't really understand what is at stake in the debate over illegal immigration.

They approach the issue of what to do with the undocumented in the third person, like rich folks who talk about poverty over lunch. If you want to know what the immigration debate is really about, you need to get out of the Washington echo chamber and ask an illegal immigrant. Why would you ask a U.S. citizen who takes for granted all the benefits that come with citizenship?

Take it from me. I was born in the United States, as were three of my four grandparents. So while I care about the immigration debate, the truth is that my destiny, and that of my family members, doesn't rise and fall on whether Congress stops passing this hot potato and finally tackles immigration reform.

I can sympathize with the undocumented, but I can't empathize. So when they talk, I shut up and listen. What I'm hearing from the illegal immigrants I've interviewed -- who also happen to be parents of teenagers who are also undocumented -- is emphatic support for a bill like this. They don't care about citizenship, and they care even less about voting. All they care about is putting their kids in a lifeboat.

Many of those kids are planning to go to college and start lives of their own like their classmates, and the last thing their parents want to do is explain why that is impossible.

While Congress dickers on this issue, all these people hear is the ticking of the clock. They understand the value of a solution, even if Democrats in Congress don't.

Of course, there is always the possibility that those who are so quick to criticize a bill they have not even seen yet may not be interested in solutions at all. Maybe what they really want is the problem -- something to hurl at their opponents at election time to rile up Latinos so they turn out and vote for Democrats. If that is the case, then shame on them. This isn't a game. This is about peoples' lives and finding the best way to enrich them without turning our country's principles inside out.

We tried the Democrats' approach. Many of them backed the original DREAM Act, but the leadership couldn't even convince every Democrat in the Senate to support the bill. Now let's give the Republicans a chance. And give politics a rest.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion.

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

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