Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Immigrants unlawfully brought to the U.S. as children would have to successfully complete a course of schooling or military service before they can apply to become U.S. citizens under the terms of a bill Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., has laid out in legislation he may formally propose as early as today. Heck's bill would be the first answer the House has produced to the Senate's Dream Act.
But Heck's bill would differ from the Dream Act in crucial ways. That could determine whether he is able to build support in the Republican House for giving immigrants in the U.S. illegally a road to citizenship, without losing too many of the Democrats who support the version the Senate passed as part of a comprehensive immigration reform package this summer.
Heck is trying to build as large a coalition of support as possible before going public with his bill, appealing to national and local pro-immigration reform organizations, labor and business groups to endorse his proposal. He gave those groups until Wednesday night to indicate whether they would be onboard.
The key difference between Heck's legislation and the Dream Act lies in who can obtain citizenship, and how.
The Senate's measure is based on timelines: Immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children can earn citizenship if they enroll in at least two years of college or serve at least four years in the military. Five years from the date they begin that process, they are eligible to apply for citizenship.
Under Heck’s legislation, immigrants who can prove they entered the country as children would go into conditional resident status, effective on the first day they enroll in one of four citizenship-earning activities — pursuit of a college degree at either a two- or four-year institution; military service; pursuit of a registered apprenticeship; or pursuit of certification through a vocational tech school.
“It’s not just sitting two years in a classroom. ... Not everybody is meant to go to college and not everybody is going to qualify for the military,” Heck told the Sun on Wednesday. “It’s what they want. They want to demonstrate they can be productive members of our society and the community.”
Heck said his bill defers to Department of Education standards and certifications to define exactly what programs will qualify.
Conditional resident status for immigrants pursuing the required courses of study or service would last six years with an option of renewing that status for another six years. But those who enroll in the program would not be required to wait the full six years to apply for citizenship; their permanent residency would cease being conditional as soon as they successfully complete a certification program, Heck said.
"Here, you can go to ITT Tech for 12 months and get a certificate in electronics repair. That would qualify," Heck said.
Because applicants would be in charge of their own timelines, the bill could have the result of putting nontraditional students on a faster pathway to citizenship than those who choose the options outlined under the original Dream Act — four years in the military, or at least two years toward a college degree that under Heck's bill must result in a diploma before citizenship would be an option.
While in conditional residency status, immigrants would receive work authorization and would qualify for certain kinds of federal financial aid. They would not qualify for federal assistance with health insurance, Heck said.
Like the Senate bill, there are no age restrictions on who may apply for conditional status.
Las week, Heck presented his legislation to a group of stakeholders at a meeting in Nevada, seeking their input. He hopes most will endorse his legislation, which he is banking on standing up to the Senate-passed version of the Dream Act, long promoted by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“A lot of Dreamers have said that they like my bill better," Heck said Wednesday.
Reid has been openly skeptical of Heck’s approach to immigration reform.
“This Dream Act is something I’ve been after for years. ... Heck voted against it,” Reid said in an interview with the Sun’s editorial board Tuesday.
Heck was not actually in the House of Representatives the last time it voted on the Dream Act, in late 2010. Republicans have kept the measure from coming up since.
In the meantime, Heck has supported legislation to end the deferred action program giving temporary work authorization to the same group of immigrants who would benefit from the Dream Act, as Reid noted Tuesday.
"Now he says he’s going to do his own legislation, the Dream Act,” Reid continued, clearly unconvinced. “How he can in good conscience face this Hispanic community, I don’t understand,” Reid said.
But Heck said his bill will help more immigrants than Reid’s preferred Dream Act.
“It gives additional time. It gives additional pathways. It allows for financial aid, it allows for work authorization,” Heck said. “And to borrow a phrase from the Senate bill, which stated that for an individual to demonstrate that they are not likely to become a public charge, by being able to take care of yourself and your family … that’s what my bill does.”
“Having a trade or degree — theoretically, realizing that a lot of college graduates are having trouble getting a job right now — it at least shows that you are employable,” Heck said.
Though he isn’t yet formally counting potential supporters in Congress, Heck said he has been fielding interest from members. His Republican colleague from Nevada, Rep. Mark Amodei, backs Heck’s effort.
“I support him,” said Amodei, who is working on a bill of his own to provide earned citizenship to immigrants without authorization to be in the U.S. who came to the country as adults. “You’ve got a process that allows somebody to earn, because they meet these criteria.”
But Amodei hinted at possible strong opposition to Heck’s version of the Dream Act among Republicans.
“I’ll tell you, I don’t think it’s what (House Majority Leader Eric) Cantor would have introduced,” Amodei added.
Cantor had been expected to draft a House version of the Dream Act this year. Heck began working on his legislation when Cantor’s bill failed to materialize.