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New life for the DREAM Act?

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
  • Ruben Navarrette says he hears from immigrant students who want to go to Harvard
  • He says they are young people with big plans, thwarted by DREAM Act failure
  • He says Act got new hearing with Senate Judiciary Committee; GOP tends to oppose
  • Navarrette: Advocates with new chance must use good examples of high-achieving "dreamers"

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- About once a month, I'll hear from an illegal immigrant who wants to go to Harvard.

Imagine an undocumented high school student who won't let a little thing like not being in the country legally stop him from applying to a top university. Those who set their sights on Harvard will often seek me out for advice because, almost 20 years ago, I wrote a book about being a Latino student there.

These young people with big plans but no documents are called "Dreamers" -- potential beneficiaries of the DREAM Act, which would give legal status to illegal immigrant students who attend college or join the military.

The bill was scuttled during the lame duck session in December when five conservative Senate Democrats -- Jon Tester, Max Baucus, Kay Hagan, Ben Nelson, and Mark Pryor -- bolted from their party to vote against cloture.

Or perhaps the senators had permission to bolt because, despite promises to Latino voters, Democrats really seem to have no interest in passing the DREAM Act and having it hung around their neck in future elections. Democrats want it both ways. They want to thwart the bill while making it look as if Republicans are to blame.

This is fine with the GOP, which seems to enjoy playing the role of villain on immigration because it helps stir up the base. On this topic, Republicans say the craziest things.

Will DREAM Act create 'better' America?

Take Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who -- as Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee -- is pushing for enforcement of immigration laws. He prefers the kind of enforcement that doesn't inconvenience employers, business, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or anyone who contributes to Republican re-election campaigns. The San Antonio Congressman is a tough guy who only picks fights with the weak and vulnerable.

Last month, Smith told The Associated Press that the DREAM Act represented "amnesty for up to 2 million people." When I wrote a column suggesting that he didn't understand the term because "amnesty" is something for nothing and the DREAM Act is a quid pro quo, Smith dug himself in deeper.

"The definition of amnesty," Smith wrote in a letter to newspapers that run my column, "is 'the act of a government by which pardon is granted to a large number of individuals.' And legalizing millions of illegal immigrants is just that: a pardon for violating our immigration laws. If we give amnesty to illegal immigrants who deliberately disregarded our immigration laws, it sends the message that we do not take our laws seriously."

So a young person who was brought here as a child by his parents has "disregarded our immigration laws?" Should we consider this person a criminal seeking a "pardon?"

And is this absurdity now the official position of the Republican Party?

We might soon find out now that the DREAM Act is back on the agenda. This week, the bill got its first hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In attendance was America's most famous illegal immigrant: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who recently revealed himself to be an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines in an essay for the New York Times and in ensuing media interviews.

Vargas wants to be the voice of the illegal immigrant community in the United States. He created an organization, Define American, to push for comprehensive immigration reform. But I bet what DREAM Act supporters really want is for him to be the face of their movement. Here you have an accomplished young man who has worked hard and made a substantial contribution to his profession and society as a whole.

Frankly, I'm not sure linking together the journalist and the DREAM Act is such a hot idea. Vargas is not a high school student on his way to college; he's a professional. Besides, parts of his story don't reflect well on him.

I found a better story. I recently met a young girl who I'll call "Karina." About to start her senior year at a high school in San Diego, she's doing what many of her friends are doing: taking the SAT, preparing her college essay, making a list of schools to which she wants to apply, etc. Harvard is on the list.

Yet traveling is an issue. She can't fly on an airplane. She doesn't have a driver's license. Karina is in the country illegally. She was sent here as a child and raised by relatives while her parents stayed in Mexico.

Immigration restrictionists would tell Karina to go home, but this is her home. She isn't lying about her status to colleges, or using a fake Social Security to get financial aid. She's looking for scholarships.

By contrast, Vargas lied to employers, used fake documents, and put colleagues who helped him and kept his secret in a tight spot.

DREAM Act supporters obviously thought that having him at the hearing would bring attention. It did. But it also clouds the issue. Vargas wasn't a Dreamer. He was a schemer.

Young people like Karina obviously know how to aim high. When looking for role models, they can do better.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.

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