In 2012, conservative Florida Senator Marco Rubio made one of the strongest pitches for the DREAM Act I’ve ever heard.
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, which has been sitting on Capitol Hill in one form or another since the turn of the century, would grant legal status to immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Rubio, a Cuban-American, said helping those so-called Dreamer immigrants was a “humanitarian mission.”
He even compared them to Cuban refugees – who back then got the kind of preferential immigration treatment that other groups could only, well, dream about.
“We have a chance,” Rubio said, “to allow [Dreamers] to get right what their parents got wrong.”
Unfortunately, Rubio’s version of the DREAM bill got killed in the Senate that year by a GOP filibuster. “What troubles me,” Rubio said then, “is that there doesn’t seem to be room to reconcile” his party’s restrictive immigration stance and the Democrats’ ultra-inclusive immigration agenda.
But that makes it all the more confusing, if not inexcusable, to see a potentially pivotal figure like Rubio standing on the sidelines now, during what may be the DREAM drama’s climactic chapter. This week a bipartisan group of 13 former top national security officials warned Congress that if it doesn’t pass the DREAM Act by Christmas, it will have to answer for “the negative human consequences” of an unfair mass deportation.
That’s because President Trump, honoring his xenophobic campaign pledges, recently ended Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. His predecessor, Barack Obama, put DACA in place to let some 700,000 Dreamers lawfully work and avoid deportation until Congress finally passed a DREAM Act.
Congress of course never did – even though conservatives keep insisting the Dreamer dilemma should be solved by legislation, not executive order. But now that Trump has kiboshed DACA, which will run out in March, he’s giving Congress one more chance to produce a DREAM bill.
And that urgency just may be opening up enough of the “room to reconcile” that Rubio pined for in 2012. No fewer than six DREAM-related bills have been introduced this year – including a refurbished, bipartisan DREAM Act co-sponsored in the Senate by South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham and Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin. It would grant permanent residence to Dreamers who arrived here younger than 18 if they meet education, employment and clean criminal record conditions.
A growing number of Republicans seem to be waking up to the fact that 86 percent of Americans support letting Dreamers stay in the U.S., according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. The idea of tossing people back into countries they left as innocent kids seems cruel even in the Trump era.
GOP Congressman Carlos Curbelo of Miami has his own DREAM bill. It would include only Dreamers who arrived younger than 16. (Note to Curbelo: the definition of “minors” is younger than 18.) But Curbelo – a Cuban-American in a heavily Hispanic and heavily Democratic district – believes it should qualify him for admission to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, a de facto Democrats-only club. (Today it rejected his bid.)
So why isn’t Rubio rolling up his DREAM sleeves now and lending his genuinely important weight to getting a law enacted by the March deadline? Asked recently if he would even vote for the DREAM Act, all Rubio could muster was, "I'm not in a position to rule anything out or rule anything in." When did “mission” turn to milquetoast for a U.S. Senator who considers himself a presidential contender?
Is Rubio unwilling to DREAM now after Republican voters mugged him last year in the GOP presidential primaries because they deemed him soft on immigration? Or does he still see too little room to reconcile? Does he see the new DREAM Act flaming out because Republicans – and Trump – will insist the legislation include conservative Cracker Jack box prizes like a border wall? Or because Democrats will be just as rigid about giving Dreamers a path to citizenship and other generous benefits?
Whatever the reason, the humanitarian passion the Senator brought this effort in 2012 could do a lot to help it succeed in 2017. But that Marco Rubio now seems a long-ago dream.