Wading directly into the thorny immigration debate, a key House Republican on Wednesday introduced the GOP’s first version of the Dream Act in this Congress in a bill that would give a select group of high-achieving illegal immigrants the chance to become U.S. citizens.
Rep. David Rivera, Florida Republican, said his bill is designed to help students who likely had no say in their family’s decision to come to the U.S. illegally but who have studied hard enough to get into college.
He said his inspiration was one of his constituents, Daniela Pelaez, who was brought to the U.S. from Colombia at age 4, is graduating as valedictorian of North Miami Senior High School and has been admitted to Dartmouth College, but who is also facing deportation.
“This legislation can make the American dream a reality for young people like Daniela who through no fault of their own are prevented from realizing their full potential in this land of opportunity,” Mr. Rivera said.
His legislation marks the first Republican entry into a raging debate over immigration and the status of illegal immigrant students and young adults, who are considered among the most sympathetic cases. In many cases, they were brought to the U.S. as very young children and grew up with no knowledge of their parents’ home countries.
Democrats have pushed for years to legalize them and put them on a path to citizenship under bills they named the Dream Act.
In the past, some Republicans have joined in pushing for passage of the Dream Act — but GOP support cratered after 2010, and Republicans interested in working on the issue instead have vowed to come up with their own versions.
The key question has always been how broadly to draw up the law.
Mr. Rivera’s bill, which he named the Studying Towards Adjusted Residency Status Act, or Stars Act, would apply to students who were brought to the U.S. before age 16, who received their diplomas, kept out of trouble and were accepted to four-year colleges or universities.
They would be eligible to apply for a five-year visa to stay and study in the U.S. If they graduate from college, they would be able to apply to stay longer and be put on a path to citizenship.
Mr. Rivera’s bill is far more narrow than Democrats’ Dream Act, which would grant legal status to those at least into their late 20s. The Dream Act would set a much lower education standard — often as low as having enrolled in several college-level classes — and also would apply to illegal immigrants who pledge to join the U.S. military.
It’s unclear how many illegal immigrants would qualify for any of the bills. Estimates for Democrats’ legislation range wildly, from tens of thousands into the millions.
The last Dream Act debate in Congress took place during 2010’s lame-duck session, when legislation garnered 55 votes in the Senate, five shy of the total needed to overcome a bipartisan filibuster.
Only three Republicans voted in favor of the Dream Act: Sen. Robert F. Bennett of Utah, who had already lost his re-election bid; Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, who lost a primary this year; and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who won as a write-in in 2010 after losing her party’s primary that year.
The issue had become so toxic that Republicans have shied away from it for the past 18 months; but several Hispanic Republicans had vowed to try to come up with a version.
Mr. Rivera was the first to write legislation, and Sen. Marco Rubio, another Florida Republican who is viewed as a rising star in his party, has said he will do the same.
Mr. Rubio’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who has taken a leadership role in pushing for broad immigration legislation, said he hasn’t studied the details of Mr. Rivera’s bill, but that he welcomes the debate.
“It is so rare lately that Republicans are interested in seriously discussing the immigration issue, so I want to be encouraging and keep an open mind,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “I am open to talking to anyone who has practical ideas about how to end the deportations that are splitting up families and destroying the dreams and futures of our young people.”
Republicans’ presumptive presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, has said he would veto the Dream Act, though he said he does support a path to citizenship for the narrow category of illegal immigrants who join the U.S. military.
President Obama is a strong supporter of the Dream Act.