Moving to try to steal the immigration spotlight from Democrats, top Senate Republicans on Tuesday introduced their own version of the Dream Act to grant young illegal immigrants legal rights — though it wouldn’t give them a special path to citizenship.
Sens. Jon Kyl, John McCain and Kay Bailey Hutchison, all senior Republicans, introduced the bill as a way to restart the immigration debate and to carve out a middle ground between sending illegal immigrants home or granting them green cards, which is the intermediate step to citizenship.
"We have got to get this ball rolling," Mr. Kyl said. "We have to have a discussion that is sensible, that is calm."
Their bill would give young illegal immigrants a chance at legal status as long as they are earning a college degree, serving in the military or, having completed those steps, are holding down a job.
But reaction from those on both sides was swift and negative.
Immigrant rights advocates said the senators' legislation, without a pathway to citizenship, would create a group of second-class Americans. Those who favor a crackdown on illegal immigration said any legal status would reward lawbreaking and that it is essentially an amnesty.
Even if its chances are iffy, the legislation is symbolically significant on several fronts.
It marks the return of Mr. McCain to the immigration debate after a four-year hiatus; it was written with the input of Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who Republicans hope will spearhead outreach to Hispanics; and it underscores the GOP plan to tackle immigration piece by piece.
Immigrant rights advocates said all illegal immigrants deserve a full solution that includes a real pathway to citizenship, rather than a piecemeal bill that stops short of citizenship rights.
"It's a little bit just stunning how tone-deaf they are to the lessons of the election just three weeks ago," said Angela Maria Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. "This bill is frankly disrespectful to the notion that we want to have people become citizens, and become full members of the American family. They’re creating a second tier for them to belong in, indefinitely."
Indeed, Democrats who two years ago pushed for the Dream Act as a stand-alone bill now say all parts of immigration reform should be tied together.
"Here is the problem: We can pick off elements of immigration reform that are popular with business groups and others, but if we are going to have true immigration reform we need to keep the package together, and that includes the Dream Act. You know how I feel about that," Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, told reporters.
That runs up against House Republicans, whose leader, Speaker John A. Boehner, has signaled that he wants to tackle the issue in chunks. The House begins that effort this week with a vote on a bill to end the diversity visa lottery and grant the 55,000 annual green cards to foreign students who get high-tech doctoral degrees from universities in the U.S.
Illegal immigrant youths who were brought to the U.S. by their parents are among the most difficult cases. President Obama announced this year that he would stop deporting such immigrants and instead would grant them work permits — though they wouldn’t have permanent legal status.
He has called for lawmakers to follow up on his policy by passing the Dream Act, which would grant them full citizenship rights.
The Senate Republicans' bill is an alternative that would apply to those brought to the U.S. before age 14 and would allow applications for those 28 and younger. Their requirements are stricter than those under Democrats' Dream Act.
The Republican bill would create a three-tier visa system that would depend on an applicant’s length of education or military service. Those who earn visas would not be eligible for welfare or federal education benefits, nor could they gain federal health care benefits under the Affordable Care Act.
Cesar Vargas, who runs the Dream Action Coalition, a network of youths and young adults seeking legal status, said the Republican bill amounts to a permanent probation status, which he said isn’t much of an answer to his situation.
"I think what they're doing now is less of a solution and less of a legislative accomplishment and more trying to achieve a legacy that they’re doing something," he said of Mr. Kyl and Mrs. Hutchison, both of whom are retiring from Congress at the end of the year.
Mr. Vargas said the Dream Act, with a full pathway to citizenship, is a bipartisan proposal and there is no need to water it down to attract more support.
From the other side, the Federation for American Immigration Reform said the legislation amounts to amnesty for lawbreakers.
"We hoped we'd find an ally in the GOP. Instead, we see many are willing to sell out the principles of true immigration reformers," federation President Dan Stein said in a fundraising letter to supporters Tuesday.
Mr. Kyl said the Republican senators are leaving the prospects for citizenship vague in the hopes that they can win middle-ground support.
But he said he expects most of those who would earn visas under his program to end up with citizenship — chiefly by living and working in the U.S., where they are likely to marry citizens.
The senators said they worked on the legislation with Mr. Rubio. He is not a co-sponsor, though his spokesman Alex Conant said he approves of it even as he works on his own bill.
"I think we're supportive of their efforts, but we’ll have our legislation in the new year," Mr. Conant said.
χ Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.
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