Push to legalize children of illegal immigrants is new flash point in debate

The Washington Post

President Obama's surprise decision last summer to use executive authority to halt the deportation of some immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children won raves from advocates stung by the defeat of similar legislative proposals in Congress.

Since then, the administration has granted more than 400,000 of those young immigrants temporary waivers to live and work in the United States, making Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals one of largest legalization efforts in decades.

The popularity of the program has helped persuade leading House Republicans to consider backing legislation that would offer permanent legal status to the same set of 1.7 million undocumented immigrants.

GOP supporters say such a measure could help break a deadlock on Capitol Hill over comprehensive immigration reform. But many advocates who once fought for the failed Dream Act, which would have provided the children a chance at citizenship, now say they will no longer be satisfied with legislation that does not include the vast majority of the 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally. Many worry that Republicans will pass a legalization program for children of illegal immigrants and use it as an excuse to kill broader reform efforts.

"We will not allow lawmakers to condemn our parents to second-class status," Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream, a youth organization, said late last month. "Our parents' dreams enabled our dreams, and we owe our success to them and the sacrifices they made."

With Congress on summer recess until next month, the key question when lawmakers return remains how far House Republicans are willing to go to compromise with the Senate, which has approved a comprehensive plan that includes a 13-year path to citizenship for most illegal immigrants.

Advocates have long put a priority on gaining legal status for the children of illegal immigrants, arguing that most did not choose to enter the country illegally and have spent the majority of their lives here.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) echoed that rationale in announcing that they are developing legislation, called the Kids Act, that would offer legal status for younger immigrants. Both lawmakers voted against the Dream Act.

"These children came here through no fault of their own and many of them know no other home than the United States," Goodlatte said in a recent statement.

Longtime immigration supporters say that's no longer enough, arguing that the political calculus changed after Obama was reelected with overwhelming Latino and Asian support. Last month, United We Dream held a demonstration at the Capitol opposing the Kids Act before a House subcommittee hearing on immigration.

"In 2010, they would have welcomed this, but that was before Republicans defeated the Dream Act, before the president granted [deportation] relief and before the 2012 election," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an immigration advocacy organization. Republicans "have come out of the Stone Age and are now in the Middle Ages. Hopefully by the end of the year, they'll be in the 21st century."

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