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October 10, 2015

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Republicans’ Dream Act alternative won’t have much chance to pass

After more than a decade of nearly uniform opposition to the Dream Act, Republicans have proposed an alternative.

But it’s all but guaranteed not to go anywhere.

The authors of the legislation, Republican Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Jon Kyl, are retiring at the end of the year, and there’s not enough time left in the legislative calendar to get a comprehensive immigration discussion going before the start of the new congressional session in January.

Perhaps more important, unlike the Dream Act, their proposal doesn’t include a concrete pathway to citizenship for young immigrants brought to the country illegally, which leading Democrats have said is their bottom line on immigration reform from which they will not budge.

In recent weeks, even some Republicans — including Nevada Sen. Dean Heller — have adopted an outlook on immigration that includes a pathway to citizenship.

Heller told the Sun this month he supports citizenship for young, undocumented immigrants who enroll in college or enlist in the military — the two target populations of the Dream Act. He also said he was talking with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — who has taken the lead on immigration reform — about the future of a comprehensive bill.

Those talks are ongoing, though they are “not moving quickly, let’s put it that way,” Heller said Tuesday.

Heller, like most Republicans, has put the responsibility for the timeline on immigration squarely in the hands of Democratic leaders. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said this month that immigration is “very, very high” on his list of priorities for 2013.

But part of the process will necessarily involve Republicans coming to the table with counterproposals.

Hutchison and Kyl’s proffer, which they call the Achieve Act, is the first direct Republican counter to the Dream Act to be put to paper.

Last spring, Rubio was rumored to be drafting a Republican alternative.

Rubio’s proposal never materialized before President Barack Obama stole his thunder in June, when he announced that he was going to defer deportation proceedings for all Dream Act-eligible youth and give them renewable two-year work visas.

That move, which went into effect in August, also seems to have pre-emptively taken some of the wind out of the sails for Hutchison and Kyl.

“This president already kind of did this,” one Democratic leadership aide said. “But while we disagree with their approach, it’s encouraging that Republican senators are thinking about proactive measures. Hopefully this will bring more of their colleagues to join into the discussion about getting a bill.”

But it appears the main Republican discussions may be happening outside Hutchison’s and Kyl’s circle.

Though Hutchison and Kyl credited Rubio with playing an important advisory role in the drafting of their bill, he was noticeably not listed as a co-sponsor to the legislation they unveiled Tuesday.

Neither was Heller. In fact, Heller hadn’t even seen the bill when the Sun asked him about it. Rubio also was silent.

That has led to some speculation that Rubio may be more inclined to include a pathway to citizenship in the legislation he ultimately decides to stamp as his own.

After losing the Hispanic vote handily in the 2012 elections, many Republicans made a fast move to embrace a policy more welcoming to undocumented immigrants than they previously held.

But on Tuesday, Kyl and Hutchison seemed pretty convinced that a pathway to citizenship would be a non-starter with most Republicans.

Kyl warned Democratic leaders against “blowing up the deal by trying to force the other side to accept something that they just cannot accept. That’s why this has been drafted the way it is.”

The Achieve Act proposes three tiers of non-immigrant status for certain young, undocumented immigrants who enroll in college or graduate school, or serve in the military.

To be eligible for the first-tier visa, categorized “W-1,” an undocumented young person must have entered the country before age 14, have lived in the United States for at least five years before the date of the bill’s adoption, have a command of English and a clean record (no more than a single misdemeanor), and be no older than 28. Individuals who have earned a bachelor’s degree would be eligible until age 32.

It’s a slightly narrower eligibility than the Dream Act, which accepts young students and soldiers who arrived in the United States up to age 16. Also unlike the Dream Act, W-1 visa holders wouldn’t be able to access federal loans and would have to check in with the Department of Homeland Security every six months.

But where the Dream Act would expedite citizenship for those eligible, the goal of the Achieve Act is to give those students and soldiers permanent legal status without a chance at citizenship.

“I think our (bill) is better than the Dream Act because it doesn’t allow (recipients) to cut in line before people who have come and abided by the rule of our laws today,” Hutchison said. “It doesn’t keep them from applying under the rules today, but it doesn’t give them a special preference.”

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