The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill yesterday allowing illegal immigrant students to gain legal status and to pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities.
Called the Dream Act, the bill would restore states’ ability to offer in-state tuition. It would allow a six-year grace period for illegal immigrants who grew up in the United States and graduated from a U.S. high school, during which they would be exempt from deportation. If they finished two years of college or served two years in the military during that time, they could earn permanent legal residence in the United States
But lawmakers removed provisions that would have allowed immediate permanent residence for those age 30 or younger who had already completed the requirements.
Backers said the legislation recognizes that students are “innocent children” who find themselves living here illegally because of a decision their parents made. They said the bill recognizes the value these immigrants have for society and their potential.
“These people work hard, they contribute to our economy, they try to build their own families,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, who sponsored the bill along with Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and chairman of the committee.
The bill undoes parts of the 1996 immigration reform. As part of that law, Congress decided states should not be allowed to offer in-state tuition to illegal aliens.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, said Congress should not retreat on that law.
“This is a significant involvement in immigration law. It’s a statement that we give up on existing law,” Mr. Sessions said. “All we’ve done is further weaken the morality and integrity of the system.”
The bill passed 16-3, with opposition coming from Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Mr. Sessions.
Nobody has a reliable estimate of how many students would be affected by the bill or how much it would cost taxpayers.
In 2001, the Urban Institute estimated 64,000 students would take advantage of the lower tuition rates, but this year it lowered the estimate to between 7,000 and 13,000 students, Mr. Durbin said.
The legislation has become the latest rallying point for activists hoping to ease some restrictions on illegal immigrants. Yesterday’s action was praised by Sen. John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat, who missed the vote in committee but whose presidential campaign issued a news release lauding the move.
Since the September 11 attacks, Congress has been reluctant to pass legislation loosening immigration laws or helping illegal aliens. The House did pass a mini-amnesty bill in March 2002, but it was blocked in the Senate by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat.
Last year, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a version of the Dream Act, but that bill was also blocked by several senators.
This year, with just a few weeks left in the legislative session, it is unlikely the bill will move. The difficulty of crafting an immigration bill became clear in yesterday’s committee meeting, with some senators who wanted to support the bill saying the initial version had gone too far.
“I seriously think some people here today have forgotten the original intent of the Dream Act,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican. “I was sold on this bill for one reason: education, education, education. I feel somewhat cheated by the overreach of the legislation.”
Mr. Grassley and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, offered an amendment to rein in some of those excesses, which passed 18-1.
Their amendment removed language that would have allowed those under 30 who have already completed the school or military-service requirements to apply for immediate permanent status. It also said students covered under the act are ineligible for federal Pell Grants and said students will be tracked by the same system that monitors other legal immigrants here on student visas.
Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said it was critical to make sure illegal immigrants weren’t receiving more benefits than legal immigrants under the bill.
“I don’t want to send a signal that the illegal choice carried an advantage over the legal choice,” Mr. Kyl said.
He offered an amendment, defeated on voice vote, that would have forced any state that allows illegal immigrants in-state tuition to offer the same rates to any legal resident of the United States.