Undocumented College Students Could Become Citizens Faster Under New House Proposal

December 15, 2009

Congress began to wade into debate over changing U.S. immigration policy on Tuesday, when Democrats in the House of Representatives introduced a broad overhaul bill that includes provisions to open up some federal education aid to people who were brought to the United States illegally before the age of 16 and expedite their path to legal residency.

The legislation, introduced by Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Democrat of Illinois, also would create a path to legal residency for some illegal immigrants and change visa programs for foreign workers. The bill is expected to be followed by other Democratic proposals for overhauling immigration laws early next year, and no legislative action is expected on the issue until 2010. But the Obama administration has pledged to press for action on immigration reform in early 2010, a promise Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano reiterated to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.

Mr. Gutierrez's bill includes some provisions from the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (S 729, HR 1751), better known as the "Dream Act," which would open some federal student aid to certain illegal immigrants and make it clear that states could allow them to pay cheaper, in-state tuition rates.

"Our current system does not allow them to complete their potential," Mr. Gutierrez said about children who were brought to the United States illegally at a young age and who go on to graduate from American high schools. "We cannot punish them for wanting to be better people in this community."

A version of the "Dream Act" was first introduced in 2001, and the bill has failed to pass Congress several times since then. The act would make it clear that states could charge in-state tuition to illegal immigrants and establish a path to citizenship for graduates of American high schools who were brought illegally to the United States before turning 16, and who have been in the United States for at least five years and completed at least two years of college or military service. Reintroduced earlier this year in both the Senate and the House, the "Dream Act" legislation drew support from the College Board, which rarely enters the political fray.

Dream Act Expanded

Mr. Gutierrez's bill, called the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America's Security and Prosperity Act, includes some language from the Dream Act but has expanded or changed some of the original bill's provisions, according to a summary of the immigration legislation distributed by the congressman's office.

Under the new bill, young people brought to the United States illegally before they turned 16 would be eligible for permanent residency after graduating from an American high school and completing two years of college, military service, or employment. People who earned permanent residency would then be eligible for citizenship after three more years.

The waiting period for both permanent residency and citizenship would be longer under the Dream Act, including the version introduced this March. But the major change in Mr. Gutierrez's bill from the original Dream Act is the addition of employment as an option after high school that would make young people eligible to gain permanent residency; the original act would open permanent residency only to students who complete at least two years of college or military service.

Excluding students for not going to college would be unfair because it does not take entrepreneurship into account, Mr. Gutierrez said.

"What we found was that a division was being created in the community between the one that went to college and the one that became an auto mechanic," he said of illegal immigrants with high-school degrees.

Although final details of the bill were not available on Tuesday, it also appeared to tighten requirements for H-1B visas, temporary work permits issued for specialized foreign workers. Under Mr. Gutierrez's bill, employers would have to meet requirements for recruiting American workers before offering a job to a worker who would need an H-1B visa. Penalties for violations would be increased, and employers that rely on the program could be subject to annual audits. Foreign scholars are often issued H-1B visas to work at American universities, although higher-education institutions are not subject to limits on the number of such visas they can issue. In a recent report, Nafsa: Association of International Educators called for a lift on the cap of temporary visas for skilled workers who earned a degree at an American institution.

"We want to make sure that American workers get the first opportunity at all American jobs," Mr. Gutierrez said.

Senate Will Act First

Congress is expected to begin debating immigration legislation in earnest next year. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, is expected to introduce a broad immigration bill in the Senate in January, which is then expected to be debated in February or March, Mr. Gutierrez said. The Senate will probably take the first action on immigration legislation, he said, but he hopes his House bill will be taken up when the Senate has finished its debate on Mr. Schumer's bill.

Mr. Gutierrez's bill, though, could face a tough fight. It has more than 85 cosponsors, but none are Republicans, and previous attempts at overhauling immigration laws have failed even with bipartisan support. And with the nation's unemployment rate hovering at 10 percent, giving legal status to undocumented immigrants could be a difficult point around which to rally supporters.

At a news-media event on Tuesday, the House bill's supporters brushed off these concerns.

"I have never been so proud in my 18 years in Congress," said Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez, Democrat of New York. "There is no right or wrong time. There is a moral obligation."