Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens, the President said. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet live every day with the threat of deportation.
He encouraged lawmakers to address the issue and stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can staff our research labs, start new businesses, and further enrich this nation.
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM, Act, would have opened a path to the children of illegal immigrants, brought to the U.S. before the age of 16, to earn permanent residency, and eventually citizenship, if they fulfilled certain requirements. They would have to have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, have a diploma (or the equivalent) from an American high school and enter either an institution of higher learning or the military.
The House of Representatives passed the DREAM Act in early December, when the House was still controlled by Democrats. On Dec. 20, however, the Senate voted 55-41 to consider the DREAM Act, falling five votes short of the three/fifths majority needed to bring the bill to the floor for a vote.
The date is significant because, four days earlier, the Senate passed the bill that extended the Bush-era tax cuts for America's most wealthy citizens. If you will recall, the minority Senate Republicans held the legislative proposals of the majority Democrats hostage, by repeatedly denying the three/fifths majority, or 60 votes, to move legislation, until the Democrats under Obama's lead caved to the Republican demand for the tax break extension.
You may have thought that, getting what they wanted, the Republicans would have been more open to the positive qualities of certain Democrat-proposed legislation. But you would have been wrong. Having extracted their pound of flesh from middle America on behalf of the super-rich, the GOP decided to extract another pound from the children of illegal immigrants.
It's not hard to see why. The DREAM Act was first proposed under the Bush administration and backed by a number of Republicans, including Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-UT, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-TX and Richard Lugar, R-IN. Hatch and Hutchinson ran from Obama's DREAM Act, saying it was much different than the bill they had supported.
There were some changes from the Bush to the Obama proposal, although the main thrust was the same. The proof is that Lugar, one of the clearer heads in either party, said he would study how the proposal had changed before deciding how to vote. He studied it, and became one of three Republicans who voted for it in 2010.
Republicans who opposed the bill adopted, for public consumption, a position expressed by Sen. James Imhofe, R-OK:
The legislation rewards illegal behavior by providing a pathway to citizenship for individuals who entered the United States illegally. This deliberate shortcut is unjust to the thousands of individuals who wait in line for years to legally enter the United States. Although, I am certainly sympathetic to children who may have entered the United States at an early age due to the poor decisions of their parents, the DREAM Act is not the solution.
Hatch and other pragmatic Republicans may actually feel sympathy for the plight of the children of illegal immigrants. More to the point, they may also have clearly recognized the value of incorporating these young people into the American nation.
But what they saw more clearly, even starkly, was the Tea Party storming through the Republican Party like the Golden Horde, taking down such pragmatic lawmakers like former Republican Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah, former Republican Congressman Mike Castle of Delaware and former Republican Governor of Florida Charlie Crist.
If a Bennett or a Castle could fall, so could a Hatch, or a Boehner or a McConnell.
Regardless what Imhofe and Hatch and others said, the DREAM Act went down last year because a group of competent lawmakers, when faced with the latest reincarnation of nativism, threw principles and perspicacity out the window and reverted to CYA.
If Republicans are betting that Latino and immigrant voters will forget what happened today in Washington, they will be sadly mistaken, said U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-IL, when the DREAM Act failed.
Gutierrez is correct, and he can throw the several Democrat lawmakers who voted against it into the mix. Latino and immigrant voters will not forget. If they start to, Democratic politicians will remind them, again and again.
And that is why, even though the GOP now controls the House and there are more Republican senators than last year, the DREAM Act still has a chance, and a fairly good one.
Hispanics make up 15 percent of the American population and, roughly, 10 percent of the voting public.
That's an awful lot of votes. And no one can count votes like a politician. Moreover, Hispanics have shown over time that their votes cannot be taken for granted by either party. In national and state elections, many left the Democrats for the Republicans a decade ago, then shifted back to the Democrats.
In other words, a significant amount of Hispanics vote their interests. The DREAM Act is in their interest. Is the Republican Party really willing to let 10 percent of the voting public slip away without any effort to woo them back?
Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a respected conservative thinker, believes Republicans will see the sense of courting the Hispanic vote and, therefore, find a way to work with the President and the Democrats to revive the DREAM Act.
I think the DREAM Act is one area where the parties can come together and actually get something done, Tanner said in a recent interview.
In the State of the Union, Obama invited the Republicans to do just that - work with him on tackling the nation's immigration issues, including that of the children of illegal immigrants.
I know that debate will be difficult and take time. But tonight, let's agree to make that effort, he said.
In December, Obama pledged to keep the DREAM Act alive.
I'm going to engage Republicans who, I think, some of them, in their heart of hearts, know it's the right thing to do, he said.
The right thing to do - ideally, for those young people and for the prosperity of the nation and, practically, for some Republican politicians playing CYA.