Immigrant advocates are hoping Illinois' new Republican Senator Mark Kirk, who said he didn't support the DREAM Act during his squeaker of a victory on November 2, is ready to take another look at the bill now that he's joining Congress' Upper Chamber.
How Mark Kirk, Illinois' newly elected Republican Senator, votes on ending a Senate filibuster that's stalled the DREAM Act after he is sworn into office today will give voters around the state an early indication of whether he is drifting to the right or positioning himself more toward the ideological center of his party.
In theory, the DREAM Act should be an easy pass for Kirk, who's long held himself up as something of a Republican moderate. The legislation would set up a structure to allow undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. before turning 16 and have lived here for at least five years, have a high school or GED diploma or have been accepted to college, and have demonstrated "good moral character" to apply for, and eventually receive, permanent status.
Around 65,000 undocumented immigrant students graduate from high school around the country each year. High school and college grads alike without legal status face difficulty finding work, starting businesses, and actively participating in the economy. Supporters include Republican mainstays like Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar, who co-sponsored the bill with Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin; former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar; and even the ultra-conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board. The bill is a small part of the comprehensive immigration reform that's also bogged down by politics.
Catherine Salgado, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, or ICIRR, said Kirk was "unresponsive" during the campaign, refusing to meet with immigration reform leaders to discuss the DREAM Act. She said she only knows what Kirk told the press about the bill. In October, Kirk said he'd vote against the bill for now and that it needed further study. There's hope that that kind of rhetoric was merely election-year politicking
"Part of his campaign was that he was moderate on social issues," Salgado said. "He's representing our state. He should be able to transmit this feeling -- the people of Illinois want the DREAM Act to pass."
Immigration advocates have again pressured Kirk to support the DREAM Act. At a press conference this morning, ICIRR released a letter signed by eight presidents of major universities across the state, including Northwestern, UIC, DePaul, Loyola, and others, that calls on Congress to pass the legislation. The group announced a new pro-DREAM Act online video campaign.
Speakers took something of an iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove approach at the event -- many made sure to congratulate Kirk on his victory when asking him to vote in favor of the bill. Watch this clip of Mari, a College of DuPage student who does not have legal status, asking Kirk to stand with her:
Another "DREAM Act student" who spoke wore his JROTC uniform -- a reminder that even as undocumented immigrants seek to join the military, the U.S. immigration system leaves them in a worried state of paralysis about their status and future.
And that ends up damaging young immigrants' lives -- and the broader economy. Dr. Andrew Sund, the president of St. Augustine College, said that the narrowed work options undocumented college graduates face represents a great loss of talent for Illinois and the country. Here's Sund speaking this morning:
The DREAM Act is expected to get called for a vote in the Senate sometime before the end of the year. It's an early and important test of just what kind of senator Kirk plans on being during the lame-duck session and his forthcoming full term.