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House GOP reconsiders Dream Act idea for young immigrants

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is working on his own version of the Dream Act, a path to citizenship for young immigrants in the U.S. illegally. Some Republicans who opposed the act in the past hope it can bridge the parties’ differences on immigration.
(Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — Two years ago, House Republicans would not hear of the Dream Act, rejecting as a “nightmare” the legislation to provide a path to citizenship for immigrants who were brought to the country as children and were here illegally as young adults.

Now, they’re taking a second look.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is working on his own version, which some Republicans hope can bridge the divide separating the parties on the immigration overhaul, which has languished in the GOP-led House.

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But it could also fall flat, both with Republicans who reject any citizenship option for those not lawfully in the country, and with Democrats who dismiss it as too little, too late.

The approach was aired Tuesday at a House judiciary subcommittee hearing as Republicans search for a way to respond to an issue that top party leaders say is vital for the GOP’s future.

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The early reviews were not positive from those who could benefit most. “Dreamers,” as the young immigrants who had fought for the Dream Act call themselves, now reject the idea as a “childish” political game and vow not to leave behind the parents who struggled to give them better lives in the United States.

They largely back the Senate bill, which would provide a 13-year process for citizenship for most of the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. But House GOP leaders have said they will not take up that bill.

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In often tearful testimony, one young immigrant told the House subcommittee she could not imagine accepting the option of citizenship for herself but not her parents.

“When members of Congress tell me that I deserve an opportunity to earn citizenship and my mother does not, I tell them that if anyone deserves that opportunity to earn citizenship, it is my mother,” said Rosa Velazquez, 30, a graduate student in Arkansas.

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Velazquez, who came to the United States from Mexico 25 years ago, described her mother’s job cutting chicken in one of the state’s poultry factories. “My mother’s working hands are the foundation on which this country was built,” she said. “I am my mother’s daughter. She and I are equal.”

Opponents, including Democrats on the panel, warned that excluding most immigrants who are in the country illegally from the possibility of citizenship would create a permanent underclass.

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But interest in the proposal from several key Republicans on the panel could signal broader support within the House GOP, setting up a possible showdown with Democrats.

“We all view children as a special, protected class,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the subcommittee chairman, who warned that holding out for greater inclusion would “only wind up hurting the most vulnerable.”

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Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) said, “It seems to me it’s time we deal with these children in a very special way and bring them into our society.”

Those sentiments are a turnaround from late 2010, when Republicans opposed the Dream Act as it was narrowly approved by the then-Democratic-led House. The measure later died in the Senate.

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Efforts to showcase a softened Republican approach to immigration hit a snag Tuesday when Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) suggested that young drug-runners could try to take advantage of such a citizenship proposal.

“For every one that’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that … weigh 130 pounds and have calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” King said in an interview with the website Newsmax.

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The White House, which supports the Senate-passed immigration overhaul, quickly shot back.

“Every member of the GOP should condemn Rep King for comparing the Dreamers to drug mules, they represent what is great about this country,” Dan Pfeiffer, an advisor to the president, wrote on Twitter.

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The hearing was the first chance for many House Republicans to discuss publicly the citizenship pathway. Among those testifying was a representative from the Southern Baptist Convention who drew on biblical passages to support the immigration overhaul, creating a lively exchange over interpretations of Scripture with some Republicans.

The White House signaled its rejection of the limited approach. Pfeiffer earlier in the day pointed to an opinion piece that criticized what it called the “cruel hypocrisy of the GOP immigration plan: allow some kids to stay but deport their parents.”

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The comment drew a sharp rebuke from Gowdy, who has been working on alternatives to the Senate bill in search of a compromise, as coming from a “self-serving political hack.”

Speaker John A. Boehner has yet to bring an immigration bill for a vote on the House floor and is unlikely to do so before Congress recesses for the month of August. The Ohio Republican has pledged not to consider legislation unless it has majority support from House Republicans.

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A bipartisan group of House lawmakers has been working behind the scenes on a bill that would provide a citizenship pathway for most immigrants in the country illegally, along with border security and new visa programs. It is expected to be unveiled in the fall.

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

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