A group of Senate Republicans on Tuesday formally rolled out DREAM Act-style legislation that would allow certain undocumented youth to eventually gain legal status.
The bill, introduced by Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and dubbed the ACHIEVE Act, would offer a pathway to permanent residency to young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents who are seeking a higher education or military service. The bill stops short of providing a separate pathway to citizenship.
"We have to get this ball rolling" on a sensible approach to immigration, Kyl said at a press conference in the Capitol. "This particular part of immigration reform seemed a logical place to begin."
Both Hutchison and Kyl are retiring at the end of this Congress, so it is unclear whether the bill will gain traction among lawmakers in the lame-duck session or next year. A top Democratic aide said there is virtually no time to move an immigration bill during the lame-duck session with ongoing negotiations over the fiscal cliff.
But this is the first concrete immigration proposal put forth by congressional Republicans that addresses undocumented immigrants in the United States and that's designed to capture bipartisan support.
Republican lawmakers have begun to shift their tone, and perhaps their hardline stance on immigration following the 2012 election, in which more than seven in ten Latino voters backed President Barack Obama, with a three-quarters majority saying they back a proposal to legalize undocumented immigrants.
Kyl and Hutchison said, however, that they have been working on the bill for about one year, well before the contours of the election took shape in full.
To be eligible for legal status under the ACHIEVE Act, an applicant must have lived in the U.S. for the past five years, been brought to the U.S. before the age of 14 and be no older than 28, and have no criminal record. Applicants must pay a fee, undergo a background check and provide proof they know English. In return they would receive a new type of nonimmigrant visa (W-1) that would grant legal status to seek a degree or military service.
They would not be eligible for federal public welfare benefits or other government assistance, including federal student loans. Immigrants who complete a degree within six years or serve four years in the military would be eligible for a four-year nonimmigrant work visa and upon the completion of that, could obtain a permanent nonimmigrant visa.
Immigrants would not be granted a pathway to citizenship beyond what already exists for nonimmigrant visa holders (marriage of a U.S. citizen or obtaining a green card).
The proposal is similar to the DREAM Act, a decade-old proposal which failed to pass Congress in 2010, but differs in that it does not provide a special pathway to citizenship.
"Today's Kyl/Hutchinson presser makes it clear that #ACHIEVE is no #DREAM Act. No path to citizenship, only second-class legal status," tweeted immigration policy analyst Phil Wolgin.
Immigration activist group United We Dream rejected the bill as a "cynical measure."
"This proposal falls well short of the policy changes which further American values of fairness and community and which DREAMers and the majority of Americans support," the group said in a statement.
Kyl said that Hutchison and he have spoken with a number of Republican lawmakers about supporting the bill, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and each of their successors (Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Ted Cruz (Texas)). They also spoke with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who tried to craft a similar bill earlier this year, but he is not a co-sponsor of the current bill.
Rubio has indicated he could lead on an alternative Republican DREAM Act in the future.
Kyl conceded that the proposal is "not dissimilar to" the President's deferred action program, which granted eligibility for a temporary reprieve from deportation to a similar group of undocumented youth. But Kyl said the difference is that his proposal would change the law instead of dancing around it. The Obama administration has maintained that the deferred action program abides by current law. "The administration has unfortunately chosen to -- in one phrase -- taken the law into its own hands, choosing to ignore current law because it didn't think it was good policy," Kyl said. "If you don't like the law the way it is, if you don't think it's fair: change it."