Capitol Hill Bureau Chief
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has decided to add language to the Defense authorization bill that would give young illegal immigrants a path to citizenship if they have been in the United States for longer than five years. To qualify, they also must have come to the country before the age of 16 and have completed at least two years of college or two years in the military.
"We have large numbers of our military who are Hispanic," Reid said Tuesday in the Capitol. "I think it's really important that we move forward on this legislation . . . Kids who grew up as Americans should be able to get their green cards after they go to college or serve in the military."
Top Republicans immediately balked at Reid's decision after discussing it with him.
"It's totally unrelated to the defense authorization bill," said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). "Last year they dumped hate crimes onto this. The defense bill should be about taking care of our military."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned that Reid is endangering the defense bill by adding unrelated measures to it, including the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.
"It's made it needlessly controversial," McConnell said. "I can't tell you right now how easy it will be to go forward with that bill, but it's certainly created an element of controversy that would not have been otherwise there."
In addition to the immigration language, top Republicans have strenuously objected to a measure within the Defense bill approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee that will begin to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell, the military policy that bans gays from serving openly in the military.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the top Republican on the Defense committee, has led the charge against the bill and blocked it in August when it came up for consideration, calling a change to the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy before a military survey of service members "disgraceful."
McCain accused the Democrats of playing politics at the time, but he made his comments weeks before he faced J.D. Hayworth in a heated primary to defend his Senate seat. Majority Leader Reid is now locked in a tight battle against conservative Republican Sharron Angle in his home state of Nevada, where Latino voters made up 15 percent of the electorate in 2008. He promised a Latino audience in August
that he would pass the DREAM Act.
Angle, on the other hand, has endorsed Arizona's controversial immigration law and regularly includes "Go, Arizona, go!"
in her stump speeches.
Reid's announcement that he'll move the DREAM Act onto the Defense bill seemed to catch Latino activists off guard Tuesday, but they welcomed the news.
Brent Wilkes, the national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said, "We're really pleased with this, the fact that it's come to fruition. We're very excited."