Story 6 Marking Up the Dream
October, 2003: High-school students stage a mock graduation ceremony on the Capitol lawn. Next day, the DREAM Act gets a chance. Because DREAM is a small bi-partisan bill to help kids, supporters are optimistic. But anti-immigrant groups see it as "amnesty for illegals". The Senate Judiciary Committee markup is heated. After two weeks, an amended version is finally recommended for full Senate debate. But what exactly did Senators agree to in the confusing markup? The bill's final language must still be defined by opposing staffers. Will they negotiate a deal before it's too late?
All bills begin as ideas. The idea becomes a proposal which might be discussed in a committee hearing, then debated in a special committee markup session. If a bill makes it through the committee, it could move on to the Senate floor for debate.
But first it's up to the Senators' staffers, often working from only their notes and markup transcripts, to hammer out language representing what their bosses agreed to. It sounds straightforward enough, but committee markups are the most reliable dramas on the Hill. What happens after that is rarely seen. This time they're marking up the DREAM Act.
Last year, in the spring of 2002, Senators Dick Durbin and Orin Hatch co-authored a bill called the DREAM Act, which had two goals: to make it legal for states to offer in-state tuition to students in undocumented families who were brought to the US as children, and to grant legal status to those undocumented students after they graduated from college.
Because DREAM was a small bill that didn't attempt to tackle broader immigration reform, many supporters were optimistic it had a good shot at becoming law. Grassroots groups and student organizations rallied. But anti-immigrant groups saw it as "amnesty for illegals", and used it as a tool to motivate their base. The bill never got to committee in 2002.
This year, Senator Saxby Chambliss, who has just taken over from Sam Brownback as chairman of the Immigration Subcommittee, weighs both sides of the coin. He doesn't want good students to be penalized for their parents' actions, but he doesn't want illegal immigrants to be rewarded, or handed any more incentive for bringing their children into the United States, either.
Meanwhile, a group of high-school students, all sons and daughters of illegal immigrants, deliver a 65,000-names-strong petition to the White House. They boldly speak out about the collective experience of feeling trapped between two identities, and describe their individual American dreams: to become a business leader, a graphic designer, a pediatrician, even the president of the United States. They're winning over the media -- it's hard to imagine they won't have a big impact on the debate going on inside the Senate.
The Judiciary Committee markup on the DREAM Act incites lengthy and impassioned debate. By the second week, Senator Sessions, who is the bill's staunchest opponent, introduces almost two dozen amendments in an attempt to undermine the bill. But eventually his stall tactics run out of air, and the Committee votes in favor of sending a somewhat amended version of Hatch and Durbin's bill to the full Senate.
There's only one more thing -- the exact language of the bill still needs to be put to paper by the Senators' staffers before the bill can be sent to the floor, and it's slightly in dispute. Even if they appreciate the historic opportunity at hand, the staffers reach an impasse. The clock is ticking. Can they mend fences and mold language that passes muster before it's too late?