WASHINGTON Maybe it was the easiest standing ovation that Sen. Orrin Hatch ever received. He merely mentioned the name of his "DREAM Act" to the National Hispanic Leadership Summit, and most stood and cheered long with gusto.
Hatch then urged the 300 leaders there to work with just as much zeal to win support from their home-state senators for his Development, Relief and Education for Minors (DREAM) Act. The bill is blocked by some fellow Republicans who fear it would offer amnesty to children of illegal aliens and invite more illegal immigration.
"It's not amnesty. It is a way of helping these young people to earn their rights to an education and jobs and citizenship, ultimately if they live good lives and get an education," Hatch said to more applause.
Hatch is pushing the bill to allow illegal aliens who entered the country before age 16 and at least five years before the bill is enacted to quality for federal college loans and work study (but not grants). It also clarifies that states may give them in-state tuition rates, which Utah already offers.
By registering for college, those illegal aliens would be given temporary legal residency and could win permanent legal residency if they earn a college degree. Hatch estimates that 50,000 children of illegal immigrants graduate from U.S. high schools each year, but many cannot afford college without aid.
"It would be a great mistake to allow them to continue the suffering of the consequences of their parents' illegal behavior. It would be a shame, to say the least, for them to be removed to unfamiliar foreign countries that . . . they never had anything to do (with), where the opportunities are so limited," Hatch said.
He gave the example of Danny King Cairo of Utah, born in Mexico to a single mother who later came to America illegally. Cairo's mother abandoned him at age 14. He lived on the streets of Salt Lake City for three years until the Kevin King family took him in and helped him graduate from high school.
He is now studying broadcast journalism at the University of Utah, where education is helping him to escape far from the streets that offered little opportunity. "Danny is the perfect illustration of what can happen if a young person is given a chance," Hatch said.
"When I was on the street I resorted to survival options like crime or exploiting social services," Cairo said Tuesday.
He now works with kids who are trying to make something of themselves and he promotes the idea of higher education to Hispanic and other children who may have disadvantages to going.
"These kids are condemned for decisions that are not in their hands," he said. "By not allowing them to go to college they become a problem, something the community will need to take care of. Also, going to college will allow them to improve the hispanic as well as the larger community."
State Office of Hispanic Affairs director Tony Yapias, who attended the summit, praised Hatch for his "courageous" stand to "give them the opportunity for an education."
"In the long term this is going to benefit these kids," he said. "More than that, we're going to have an educated Latino population benefiting the economy of this nation."
Hatch told the group the bill is still controversial, and he does not dare bring it to the Senate floor until he has 60 co-sponsors or the three-fifths majority needed to cut off a likely filibuster by opponents.
He currently has 47 co-sponsors.
One critic is Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. During Senate Judiciary Committee debate last year, Sessions said, "It sends the message that America has immigration laws, but we don't intend to enforce them. It says that if you get away with it (illegal immigration) for a while, we will not only not punish you we will reward you."The bill is controversial in Utah as well. Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, who is shepherding the bill in the House, was forced into a primary election this year largely by opponents of that bill and other immigration reform he is pushing, which opponents contended amounts to amnesty for illegal aliens.