Young illegal immigrant college students who would be eligible for a conditional path to legal residency under the narrowly-tailored DREAM Act are stepping up pressure on lawmakers to pass the measure this year, independent of comprehensive immigration reform, which has failed to gain traction in Congress.
Twenty-one immigrant students were arrested Tuesday following sit-ins at offices of Democratic and Republican senators on Capitol Hill. The protests are the latest acts of defiance that have included hunger strikes, mass marches, and other displays of civil disobedience at Congressional offices around the country in recent weeks.
The arrests and charges could put the students at risk of federal detention and deportation, though an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement official says so far none of the students have been referred to the agency by local police.
"We continue to hear the exact same thing we have been hearing for 10 years," said Nicolas Gonzalez of Chicago, who participated in the sit-in, in a statement. "Will Senator Reid put DREAM Act up for a vote or will he decide to lose the Latino vote?"
On the West Lawn of the Capitol Wednesday, one of the three released students who identified himself only as "David," said he sat in California Democrat Sen. Diane Feinstein's office to urge her to take a leadership role in getting the Dream Act passed.
"She supports the bill, but they have to stop playing the blame game and pointing fingers," he said. "We tell them we're targeting Republicans and Democrats. There can be no more excuses."
Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, which supports the students, said the the DREAM Act likely has the votes to pass but that members of the Senate leadership "just don't have the will power to get this done."
The DREAM Act, which has some bipartisan support, would allow immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to earn legal status provided they pass background checks, attend college or serve in the military for at least two years.
It is a piece of immigration reform legislation considered to have the best chance of receiving Senate consideration this year, but it's still unclear whether it has the 60 votes to pass.
Some lawmakers and Obama administration officials have preferred a comprehensive approach to reform, while others have criticized the Act as an "amnesty."
The DREAM Act currently has 40 cosponsors in the Senate, including one Republican, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana. Several Republicans, such as Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, have expressed support for the bill even though they are not sponsors.
"Sen. Lugar has said we are not going to do comprehensive reform this year – it's just not in the cards," said Lugar spokesman Andy Fisher. "But there are three pieces of legislation he feels could move this year if the leadership brings them up, and one of those is the Dream Act."
Spokespersons for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Dick Durbin, the chief sponsor of the DREAM Act, were more circumspect about the bill's chances, but remain hopeful.
"Sen. Reid is an original cosponsor and longtime supporter of the DREAM Act and shares the desire of the DREAM Act students to see the DREAM Act enacted as soon as possible," said Reid spokeswoman Regan Lachapelle. "He is currently working to see if there is Republican support and the 60 votes to pass it."