GOP Alternative to DREAM Act Sets Up Intraparty Clash

A Republican effort to push an alternative to the DREAM Act is already showing signs of sparking party infighting just as the GOP is trying to court Hispanic voters heading into November.

Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.) introduced on Wednesday the Studying Towards Adjusted Residency Status Act, or STARS. It was referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

It would stop deportation and grant alien conditional nonimmigrant status to those who have been in the U.S. at least five years at the time of the bill’s enactment, were brought to the U.S. younger than 16 years old, have earned a high school diploma or GED, have been admitted to an accredited four-year college, and are of “good moral character.”

Upon graduation, a student could apply for a five-year visa renewal, followed by applying for permanent residency and eventually citizenship.

It’s stricter than the long-suffering DREAM Act, which states that children illegally brought to the U.S. before they were 15 must complete two years of higher education, no graduation required, or two years of military service. Rivera separately introduced in January a bill to deal with the latter aspect, the Adjusted Residency for Military Service Act.

Rivera, who has been crafting the bill since March, said he was inspired to develop the STARS Act by Daniela Pelaez, a constituent who was with Rivera on the Hill when he introduced the bill. Pelaez was brought from Colombia at age 4, her family stayed after their visas expired, and she has been facing a deportation order. She graduates next week as valedictorian of her class at North Miami Senior High School and plans to attend Dartmouth College; the Obama administration kicked the can on her case by deferring any action on deportation proceedings for two years.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) also stepped into the case on Pelaez’s behalf, writing U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement and requesting the stay of deportation.

“This bill provides an opportunity for young people, like Daniela, who have established long-standing ties in the United States, and who have excelled academically, an opportunity to fulfill their goals of getting an education and achieving the American dream,” Rivera said when announcing that his bill would soon be introduced.

Rivera noted that under current law, kids brought into the country illegally start accruing penalty time at 18.5 years of age, which leads to prohibitions from reentering the country for years.

“The STARS Act would give these students who seek to further their education an opportunity to get a degree at an American university and earn legal status,” the congressman said. “However, the STARS Act does not ensure automatic suspension of removal or automatic residency. …If the applicant fails to meet the necessary criteria, their conditional non-immigrant status will be revoked.”

Rivera’s legislation, however, was quickly criticized by his Republican colleague from Iowa, Rep. Steve King, who called it a DREAM Act by a different name.

“The immigration laws of this country have been ignored by millions of illegal aliens,” King said. “I don’t believe in rewarding lawbreakers with a path to citizenship. While I do have sympathy for those who may have come to this country illegally with their parents when they broke the law, our country cannot afford to make concessions in immigration policy. The Rule of Law is a much higher priority.”

“First we must secure our borders, shut off the jobs and benefits magnets that attract illegal aliens to the U.S., and enforce the immigration laws that are already on the books,” King added.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform blasted the STARS Act as “only the first in a series of amnesties for illegal aliens.”

“Just like previous versions of the DREAM Act, the STARS Act is part of the relentless effort to gain amnesty for the entire illegal alien population,” FAIR said in a release. “Amnesty advocates understand that broad legalization schemes are unpopular with the American public and that their goals will have to be achieved incrementally.”

But the push for a DREAM Act alternative by some Republicans won’t end with Rivera’s bill.

Another supporter of Pelaez has been Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

Rubio has long said that he is crafting his own version of the DREAM Act. He said yesterday on Fox that he doesn’t know the details of Rivera’s bill, but “we take a very different approach.”

Rubio said his plan, which should be introduced by the end of the summer, will not have a path to citizenship for illegal-immigrant students.

“It’s not like they’ll never have access to a green card, and ultimately citizenship, but they’ll have to do it like everybody else, though the existing process,” Rubio said. “We wouldn’t create a special path for them.”

Pelaez in April charged that Rubio’s approach “would create a whole alternative inferior type of class of Americans.”

Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said on CNN Wednesday that Mitt Romney would be wise to look at the Rubio plan, as Romney indicated he would do in addition to vetoing any Democratic version of the DREAM Act.

“I am heartened by the fact that he now understands that perhaps it does make sense,” Gonzales said. “And I think it will be important for the Hispanic community if he supports some kind of legislation that puts these children, innocent children in some kind of legal status.”

The significance of moving forward with some kind of reform — especially when President Obama has fallen short on his DREAM Act promises — isn’t lost on many Republicans in this election cycle. Romney has largely left immigration out of the conversation as he puts his campaign focus on broader economic issues, though the Dems’ campaign machine is zeroing in on immigration-related statements made by Romney during debates.

A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed Romney earning 27 percent of Latino voters’ support (George W. Bush won 41 percent in 2004) as opposed to 61 percent siding with Obama. A March Fox News Latino poll found 90 percent of likely Hispanic voters supporting the DREAM Act and 85 percent in favor of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Rivera’s bill is acknowledged to not necessarily be something that wins consensus, but coupled with Rubio’s bill could be a starting point for the GOP to take the lead on immigration reform in the 112th Congress. Republican supporters of the DREAM Act also might have a new rallying point in Rivera’s leaner version.

“Congress needs to pass the DREAM Act so that many young people can form part of our armed forces or attend college and contribute to our generous and great nation,” Ros-Lehtinen said in March when championing Pelaez’s case. “There are many such desperate cases in our community and, instead of causing such anxiety we can allow these teenagers to realize their dreams in a legal manner.”

But they’re sure to face plenty of headwinds from the strictest and most steadfast opponents of illegal immigration within their own party.