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Passion and Politics on Immigration Act

September 22, 2010
Published: September 21, 2010

original article here

WASHINGTON — Cesar Vargas graduated from James Madison High School in Brooklyn, just like Senators Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, and Bernard Sanders, independent of Vermont.

And like his fellow Madison alumni, Mr. Vargas wants to serve his country — in his case by becoming a military lawyer after he graduates from the City University of New York law school, where he is in his third year.

But Mr. Vargas, who was brought by his parents to the United States from Mexico when he was 5, cannot join the armed forces. He cannot vote. He cannot travel outside the country or he will not be allowed to return because he is an illegal immigrant.

On Tuesday, he was in Washington to help Democrats press for legislation that would give immigrants like him a path to citizenship.

The legislation, known as the Dream Act, would give legal residency to immigrants who arrived in the United States before age 16 and resided here for at least five years, earned a high school degree and completed two years of college or military service. They would be subject to background checks, could not have a criminal record and, even if successful, would still not be eligible for benefits like Pell grants.

At a news conference with Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, who is a leading champion of the legislation, Mr. Vargas made an impassioned pitch for the bill.

“Without the Dream Act, I’m relegated to a mere shadow,” he said, after recounting his longtime hopes of joining the military. He said he had repeatedly tried to enlist, especially after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but was turned away.

“I’m asking Congress to give us the opportunity to serve the only country we know, the only country we call home,” he said.

But this week, Senate Democrats seemed more intent on talking about the act than on passing it. By declaring his desire to attach it to a major military bill, the majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, sought to remind Hispanic voters that most Democrats supported the immigration measure. The military bill was blocked on Tuesday, and it is unclear that Mr. Reid has enough votes, even among Democrats, to advance the Dream Act.

Some advocates said young immigrants were political pawns.

“The tragedy is that the kids believe it is an honest process and get played by both sides,” said Kevin Appleby, director of immigration policy for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “It can be very disheartening to them. They deserve a simple majority vote based on the merits, not one caught up in procedure and pre-election politics.”

Julia Preston contributed reporting.

A version of this article appeared in print on September 22, 2010, on page A18 of the New York edition.
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