Kay Bailey Hutchison's Dream Act dance
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has been tying herself in knots over the Dream Act. The Texan reflects the predicament of many of her Republican colleagues from states with large Hispanic populations.
Dream Act supporters have homed in on Hutchison and a handful of other Senate Republicans to vote for the House-passed act in the lame-duck session. So far, Dick Lugar of Indiana and Bob Bennett of Utah are the only ones to have signaled they will vote for the bill, making its prospects bleak.
Refusing to give up, 16 demonstrators were arrested at Hutchison's office in my former home town of San Antonio. Others have been pressing at her offices in Dallas and Washington. Some have fasted for weeks.
In many ways, Hutchison resembles a Republican Hillary Clinton. She is sensible, political, polite and, beneath the surface, tough as nails. But, curiously, the fire left her belly in her disastrous run in the Texas gubernatorial primary this year against incumbent Rick Perry. She has not said whether she will stand again for her Senate seat in two years.
The so-called Dreamers see Hutchison as a moderate with a heart. She formerly supported the core of the bill, which would provide legal status to young immigrants who came into this country illegally if they go to college or join the military.
Speaking on the Senate floor in 2007 about a virtually identical bill, she said, according to the San Antonio Express-News:
"This is such an important piece of legislation, and I do think this is isolated from the entire immigration issue because there . . . are young people who have been brought to this country as minors, not of their own doing, who have gone to American high schools, graduated, and who want to go to American colleges.
"They are in a limbo situation. I believe we should deal with this issue. We should do it in a way that helps assimilate these young people with a college education into our country. They have lived here most of their lives. If we sent them home, they wouldn't know what home is. There is a compassionate reason for us to try to work this out."
She still wanted then to explore some small details of the bill. But now, she has largely rejected offers to negotiate terms to push the bill through.
The Democrats have tried to anticipate some of her desired adjustments by lowering the age limit for eligibility to under 30 and strengthening requirements to achieve citizenship; these include a 10-year wait and a clean record with the law.
Hutchison refuses to show her cards. Perhaps it is because she was burned by the right-wing Republican base in the gubernatorial contest. But she also declines to say outright that she opposes the act's core. Latinos make up nearly a quarter of the Texas electorate and are approaching 40 percent of the state's population. According to a November LatinoDecisions poll, 86 percent of Latino voters in Texas favor the Dream Act . So Hutchison dances. She leaves it to her staff to say only that the bill is "too broad" or more time is needed, though the bill has been around for a decade. A few weeks ago, she proposed that affected students be given temporary student visas, but this means the students would have to leave the country after finishing school.
A group of conservative Republican Hispanics threatened last week to look for a Hispanic-friendly candidate to challenge Hutchison should she seek reelection. "If Hutchison punishes our children, there are going to be consequences in 2012," the group's founder, DeeDee Blas told the Dallas Morning News.
For now, Hutchison is safe behind a wall of Anglo Republican votes, but similar stories of Latino resentment over the Dream Act are playing out for other Republican senators. John Ensign in Nevada and Jon Kyl in Arizona, for example, are both up for reelection in two years and might find themselves fighting the rising tide of Latino votes in the West, particularly in their general elections.
Perhaps they need to lose to find their conscience. Tellingly, of the eight Republicans who voted for the Dream Act in the House, three were Latinos and six will not be around for the next Congress.