Global Politics

DREAM Act may sway Latino voters in upcoming elections

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Astrid Silva, now 23, was brought to Nevada illegally by her parents when she was 4. The DREAM Act would provide her a path to U.S. citizenship. (Photo by Jason Margolis.)

More than 90 percent of Latinos support the DREAM Act — a bill languishing in Congress that would provide a path to citizenship for young people who were brought by their parents to the U.S. illegally as children.

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Generally, Democrats favor the bill and Republicans oppose it. Now, Democrats are trying to make sure Latino voters know this.

The passage of the DREAM Act would impact young people like Astrid Silva, a so-called “DREAMer.” Silva moved from Mexico to Nevada when she was 4. She’s now 23. She and her parents came here illegally. She was an honor roll student in high school. It wasn’t until she was applying to college, that her parents told her about her illegal status.

“Trying to do SAT’s, they asked for a (social security number), and I asked my parents. And they said, ‘Well this is the deal, you don’t have a status here in the United States,’” Silva said. “It was definitely a very big punch in the stomach, just that wind taken out of you. My whole life I had been raised here, I feel more American than anything else. And, just all in one second, it was taken away because of that inability to pursue my dreams.”

The DREAM Act – an acronym for Development, Relief, Education for Alien Minors – would allow those who came to the US as minors a chance to become citizens — if they can demonstrate “good moral character.” They’d also need to serve in the military or attend college.

Many Republicans in Congress, as well as all the Republican presidential candidates, oppose it, arguing that people who entered the US illegally shouldn’t be rewarded.

Silva said it’s time for people like her to come out of the shadows and be heard.

“You can only expect voters to go so far without putting a face on this. You know, it’s just another issue to everybody else. Even though to me it’s my life, to somebody else it’s just the DREAM Act. They don’t know what it is," she said.

Most Latinos do know what it is though.

“It is very important, and it’s on the lips of every Latino that I know,” said Fernando Romero, president of the Nevada group Hispanics in Politics. “And sometimes as little as we may know about politics in general, we know what the DREAM Act is.”

Romero stressed that the DREAM Act is not a general amnesty. The bill has strict parameters, but would benefit an estimated 800,000 young people.

“(It's) few people, who would be the crème de la crème, children who every one of us as parents would want to have, and yet it still being fought against by the Republican Party. That is really drawing a lot of ire, it’s really causing many Latinos, and immigrants in general to be against the Republican Party,” Romero said.

Republican political strategist Dan Burdish in Las Vegas said it’s more complicated than that. He said Republican candidates don’t have a blanket opposition to the DREAM Act. But he said the legislation, as it’s currently written, is flawed.

“You can’t come in this country when you’re 14 or 15-years-old, stay 15 years, and then become a citizen, there’s something basically wrong with that,” he said.

Burdish ran the Newt Gingrich campaign in Nevada. Gingrich has said he’d support a DREAM Act, but only for young immigrants who join the military.

The issue isn’t limited to presidential politics. Nevada Republican Senator Dean Heller is in a tight re-election race here and has taken a lot of heat for opposing the DREAM Act. Heller’s office did not return repeated interview requests for this story.

Burdish said Democrats are taking this issue and running with it.

“It’s very easy for them to say Dean Heller opposes the DREAM Act, because most Hispanics are going to know what the DREAM Act is," Burdish said. "So if they know what the DREAM Act is and they’re for it, then it’s going to be a wedge issue. And I don’t blame them. If I had a wedge issue, I’d be using it against them too.”

Political scientist David Damore at UNLV thinks the strategy could work for Democrats. He said Republican opposition to the DREAM Act may play well to the party base, but is politically short-sighted.

“If you do get through that Republican primary, you have to compete in the general election," Darmore said. "And that’s one of the reasons this time around the Democrats think they have a real good shot at Arizona.”

That’s up for debate. Arizona has voted for the Republican candidate in nine of the last 10 presidential elections. Only in the 1996 Clinton vs. Dole campaign did the state swing for Democrats. But, the state is now 30 percent Hispanic. And if Democrats can muster enough anger around Republican opposition to immigration reform, Arizona could be in play.

The question is, will Latinos in states like Arizona and Nevada show up at the polls?

Fernando Romero isn’t so sure. He said Hispanics may be disgusted with Republican rhetoric, but they’re disappointed in President Barack Obama as well.

“A person that they gave all their support to promised to do it for them, and didn’t do it, at a moment the community feels that he could’ve,” Romero said

Latinos also overwhelmingly disapprove of the record number of deportations under the Obama Administration.

Silva, the 23-year-old undocumented immigrant, doesn’t blame Obama for not passing immigration reform, because of the opposition he's facing in Congress. She said she hoped her fellow Latinos would re-elect the president.

“I do think that he’s our only hope," Silva said. "I don’t see any of the Republican candidates have any sort of path at all.”

That’s a point the President echoed at a press conference last week. When asked about stalled immigration reform, Obama shifted the blame to Republicans in Congress. And he said he hoped to tackle the issue during his second term.