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What Democrats owe Latinos: Passing the Dream Act

By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Friday, November 19, 2010;

Latinos are fed up with congressional delays over comprehensive immigration reform. The time has come for President Obama and the Democrats to man up in the lame-duck session and at least fight to pass the Dream Act.

Otherwise, the Democrats risk Latino withdrawal, rebellion - or both. This is a threat and a demand to be taken seriously from the Americans who best understand that the immigration system doesn't work, which is why so many people are here illegally.

Sure, there are other priorities, such as extending tax cuts and unemployment insurance. But there always are. Only squeaky wheels get the oil, and the squeak among Hispanics is getting loud and angry.

Obama is partly listening - saying after a meeting Tuesday with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that the current Congress should pass the Dream Act, which would allow children of illegal immigrants to become citizens after they complete college or serve in the armed forces. But he must act; words are no longer enough.

Since Obama was elected, Latinos have been waiting while hundreds of thousands of their brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers here without papers are being deported - tragically, in that these deportations violate a common sense of humanity and damage the American economy at the wrong moment.

The Latino vote saved the Senate and the West for the Democrats, with Hispanics turning out in record numbers to send Harry Reid of Nevada, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Barbara Boxer of California back to Washington. A feeling of being demonized in the immigration debate, if not persecuted in states such as Arizona, is what drove the turnout. Reid promised he would reintroduce the Dream Act in this session. Now he must produce.

The effort may fail, but the political initiative must be taken away from the small but loud minority of cultural conservatives and nativists who have taken over the Republican base and turned moderate Republicans, as well as conservative Democrats, into political cowards.

Only a frontal confrontation will change the dominant narrative today that focuses on immigrants as a cost and a threat. The political benefit for reform champions will come in 2012. The benefit to the country will come as soon as measures like the Dream Act are passed.

The perhaps 2 million eligible young immigrants who could benefit from the act's provisions would become contributors to a nation that is, in many cases, the only country they have known. For some, English is the only language they speak well.

Registered Latino voters favored the Dream Act 78 percent to 12 percent in a September poll. Immigrants and their descendants from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean support immigration reform with similar fervor. Indeed, Americans in general overwhelmingly support some sort of legalization for most unauthorized immigrants. This includes 56 percent of Republicans in a June poll by the Pew Research Center.

Many Republican leaders privately understand that while they may immediately have to satisfy their more vocal base, the example of Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina's losses in California after having run immigrant-bashing primary campaigns portends that the party is on a suicide march for the future. The power of the ethnic vote is growing.

This is one reason that retiring Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (Fla.) urged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week to push Dream in the lame-duck session. "These deserving students are being punished for decisions not made by them," he wrote her.

His fellow Cuban American, Republican Sen.-elect Marco Rubio, dropped his earlier opposition to Arizona's immigration law after he got financial and political support from Republican Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Tea Party groups. If Rubio turns his back on Dream, he will hardly be in position to become the Great Republican Latino Hope.

The Dream Act is motherhood and apple pie. Tacos and salsa. Republicans helped draft the nine-year-old measure. So did the Pentagon, which is relying on it for recruits. We have already invested in educating these young people. Surely the political wizards know how to shame opponents into doing something so obviously good for the country.

Edward Schumacher-Matos is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is edward.schumachermatos@yahoo.com.

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