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Washington D.C. – Marco Rubio says he wants his version of the DREAM Act in effect by fall, just in time for undocumented students to be able to attend college fall semester.
Rubio, in two separate events in Washington D.C., said his plan is still being hammered out, and important details – such as the minimum and maximum age of those who would qualify – were yet to be determined.
“We’re involving the DREAMers” in the drafting of the measure, he said, using the term that refers to undocumented youth brought to the country by their parents. “We’re involving the kids themselves.”
Asked by a reporter when it will be introduced in the Senate, Rubio said: “When it’s ready. It won’t be next week.”
He said he hopes it gets introduced by summer and passed by fall.
“There are a bunch of kids. . .who want to go to school this fall,” Rubio said at an appearance at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.. “I’m also cognizant that this is an election year,” he added, saying it wouldn’t be easy to get bi-partisan support as the parties vie for elective offices.
Indeed, several Democrats in Congress say they will not back a plan that does not offer a path to citizenship.
Charles A. González, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said in a press statement: "If the Rubio Plan bars citizenship it would be the first time in modern history that someone has proposed a law that would permanently prohibit citizenship to one segment of American society."
"Earning citizenship is essential because mere legal residency will serve only as a life sentence to being relegated to an underclass status. It is against the values of our country to ask DREAMers to work hard, pay taxes and sacrifice their lives for our country, but deny them citizenship."
The number of undocumented youth who would benefit from the DREAM Act has been estimated at between 1 million and 2 million. An estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States.
Rubio said at different events throughout Thursday in the nation's capital that criticism about his plan creating "a permanent underclass" was "not true."
The senator said that critics who dismiss his plan before it is even finalized are just interested in keeping the inability of undocumented youth to attend college "a political wedge issue," and are not really serious about finding a bipartisan solution.
"The general concept is that [students] would receive the equivalent of a non-immigrant visa, it legitimizes you," he said of his alternate DREAM Act proposal. "It doesn't allow you to to become a resident or citizen, however it doesn't prohibit you from applying."
"There's no limbo" that the students will be stuck in under his plan, he said. "The limbo is what they're in now."
Rubio often invoked the name of Daniela Peláez, a Florida high school student who is graduating as valedictorian and has been accepted to some of the nation’s top schools, but who was facing deportation (she won a two-year reprieve recently).
He said youth like Daniela should be allowed to obtain a non-immigrant visa, which would allow them to study, work, and get a driver’s license, but not grant them permanent residency. Perhaps, Rubio said, they could obtain visas that last five, or ten years, and maybe they’d be able to renew them.
"Daniela has been raised here her whole life," Rubio said. "She grew up in our public schools, did everything her parents asked of her, everything her teachers asked of her."
If they want to stay in the United States, they would have to apply like everyone else around the world, he said, and wait their turn, possibly back in their homeland. Rubio's plan also would not call on states to charge in-state tuition rates to undocumented students -- now many of them are charged out-of-state tuition, which can be twice as high -- nor would it give them access to financial aid.
“We want to make sure we don’t do anything that rewards illegal immigration,” he said.
A Fox News Latino poll this year showed that nearly 90 percent of the more than 1,000 Latino likely voters surveyed nationwide support the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented immigrants brought to the country as minors to legalize their status if they attend college or serve in the military, among other things.
The Hispanic Leadership Network, which describes itself as a "centrist-right" organization, commissioned a survey on voters' attitudes about Rubio's alternative to a DREAM Act and reports that 83-12 percent of respondents support "allowing children of undocumented immigrants who have been here for years to obtain legal residency status after their honorable discharge from service in the U.S. military."
HLN says its survey also showed that by 67 to 29 percent, American voters support "allowing children of undocumented immigrants who have been here for years to obtain legal residency status if they graduate from college."
The general concept is that [students] would receive the equivalent of a non-immigrant visa, it legitimizes you. . .It doesn't allow you to to become a resident or citizen, however it doesn't prohibit you from applying.
After the Newseum event, Rubio met with a small group of selected Hispanic reporters that was aimed at sending a message directly to Latinos – a group that remains divided about the junior senator, but who many high-ranking Republicans increasingly see as a vital to a victory in the November presidential elections.
Rubio is often mentioned as one of the candidates on a short list for the GOP vice presidential slot.
Like most others over the years who are rumored to be contenders for vice president, Rubio has said he is not seeking to be the running mate of the GOP presidential nominee, who is likely to be former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
But that does not stop the talk about Vice President Rubio.
Earlier this year, Newt Gingrich said that any of the candidates in the GOP presidential primary who did not seriously consider Rubio as a running mate must not really want to be president.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Rubio would be an ideal vice presidential candidate, and his son Jeb Bush Jr. concurred, saying that Rubio would energize the party’s conservative base, which has been ambivalent about Romney.
But whether he is tapped – or not -- as a running mate by the GOP presidential nominee, Rubio arguably will have an influential role in the campaign as the party pursues a Florida victory and the support of Hispanic voters nationwide.
The GOP primary turned at times into a race to see which of the candidates had the most unyielding take-no-prisoners approach to illegal immigration, and candidates variously positioned themselves as being the most hard-line about border security, not giving undocumented immigrants a chance to legalize their status, and vowing to make English the nation’s official language.
Even while various polls have showed that most Hispanic likely voters report being more concerned about jobs, the economy and healthcare than about immigration, they can sour on a candidate who seems to be slamming Latinos when addressing immigration and English as the official language.
Hispanics number some 50 million in the United States, according to the 2010 Census; about 20 million are eligible to vote.
Though as a voting bloc, they tend to lean Democratic when they cast their ballots, they have not hesitated to support a Republican whose message and views resonate with them. Some 44 percent of Latino voters in 2004 supported George Bush, who pushed for comprehensive immigration reform that would have included an expanded guest worker program and a path to legalization for certain undocumented immigrants.
Some have questioned whether Rubio's GOP DREAM effort is politically motivated; he denied that it is on Thursday.
He acknowledged that Republicans must make greater strides to repair their image among Hispanics, but said his DREAM Act idea was not an election-year ploy.
During GOP primary debates, Romney flatly said that as president, he would veto the DREAM Act that has been proposed in Congress.
But Rubio said Romney has indicated that he would be open to considering a conservative alternative such as the one the Florida senator is developing.
Shortly after Rubio concluded his meeting with reporters, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and undocumented students – or “DREAMers,” as they’re called -- announced the launch of a voting campaign called “Su Voz, Mi Voto,” or “Their Voice, My Vote.”
The campaign, according to a press release by the caucus, aims to urge Latinos to keep in mind that their vote in November “will be the voice for their undocumented friends, family members and classmates,” as a caucus press release put it.
Those who favor strict immigration enforcement oppose the DREAM Act, and other proposals that give the undocumented a pathway to legalization, saying that such measures reward lawbreakers and would only encourage more illegal immigration.
During the GOP debates last fall, Romney assailed then-candidate Rick Perry, the Texas governor, for having a version of the DREAM Act in his state.
Rubio long had said he opposes the DREAM Act, because it would generate chain migration – where immigrants who have a green card or are naturalized citizens can then petition for family members overseas to gain legal permanent residency in the United States.
The DREAM Act passed in the House of Representatives in 2010, but not in the Senate.
Gingrich has said he supports allowing undocumented youth who, say, have served in the military to get conditional legal status, but not full citizenship.
"People of good will strongly disagree over many aspects of the immigration debate," said HLN Executive Director Jennifer S. Korn. "But allowing the children of undocumented immigrants who have grown up in America the opportunity to earn legal status with a work visa if they serve honorably in the military or graduate from college is one aspect of that debate that unites most Americans across party and racial lines."
Advocates for more lenient immigration policies said they welcome Rubio's efforts, but their praise was tempered.
"We welcome the renewed focus on immigration reform," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. "It is clear both parties have realized fixing the immigration system is good policy and good politics."
"It's good to see Senator Rubio talking to the press about his ideas on reform. But, the time is near for Senator Rubio to introduce legislative language and define a path forward that secures necessary Republican votes."
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached email@example.com