Dick Durbin's Recent Senate Floor Speech on the DREAM Act
U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) just delivered a stirring floor speech in favor of the DREAM Act that could be a precursor to an escalation for the legislation in the next few months. I will reproduce the entire speech below:
Mr. President, I rise to speak about S. 729, known as the DREAM Act. This is bipartisan legislation that I have introduced with Republican Senator DICK LUGAR of Indiana.
Immigration is a controversial issue, but I hope there is one aspect of this debate that does not divide us: Innocent children should not be victims of our broken immigration system.
That is why I introduced the DREAM Act almost 10 years ago. The DREAM Act would give a select group of immigrant students the chance to earn legal status if they grew up in the United States, have good moral character, and attend college or enlist in the military of our country.
The DREAM Act has broad, bipartisan support. The last time the Senate considered the DREAM Act, it received 52 votes, including 11 Republicans, but we needed 60 votes under the Senate rules. It is clear, though, that a bipartisan majority in the Senate supports the DREAM Act.
Since then, support for the DREAM Act has only grown, and the bill now has 40 cosponsors. The DREAM Act also is the only immigration bill that the Obama administration has officially and publicly endorsed. Just this month, President Obama said:
We should stop punishing innocent young people for the actions of their parents by denying them the chance to stay here and earn an education and contribute their talents to build the country where they have grown up. The DREAM Act would do this, and that is why I supported this bill as a State legislator, as a U.S. Senator, and I continue to support it as President.
The DREAM Act is also supported by a broad coalition of education, labor, business, civil rights, and religious leaders, including the AFL-CIO, the American Jewish Committee, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the National PTA, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
It also has the support of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, such as Microsoft and Pfizer, and dozens of colleges and universities.
The DREAM Act also has broad support from the American people. According to a recent poll by Opinion Research Corporation, 70 percent of likely voters favored the DREAM Act, including 60 percent of the likely Republican voters.
Here is how it works. A student would have the chance to qualify only if he or she meets the following requirements: came to the United States as a child; has lived here for more than 5 years; has good moral character; has not engaged in criminal activity; does not pose any threat to national security; passes a thorough background check; and graduates from an American high school. If a student fulfills all of these requirements, he or she would receive temporary legal status. Next, they would be required to serve in the military or attend a college for at least 2 years. After 6 years, if this requirement is completed, the student could apply for permanent legal status. If this requirement is not completed, that student would lose their legal status and be subject to deportation.
Students who obtain conditional legal status under the DREAM Act would not be eligible for Pell grants. They also would be subject to tough criminal penalties for fraud. The DREAM Act would not allow what is known as chain migration. In fact, DREAM Act students would have very limited ability to sponsor family members for legal status.
Let me tell you why I first introduced the DREAM Act almost a decade ago. I was contacted in my office by a Korean woman living in Chicago. She told me she had several children. Her oldest daughter turned out to be an accomplished classical pianist. Her daughter finished high school and was accepted to the Juilliard music school in New York. It is amazing because so few are accepted there--several hundred each year. She was so proud of her daughter.
She said when they were completing the form for Juilliard, there was a question about her daughter's nationality or citizenship. Her daughter turned to her mother and said: American, right?
Her mom said: We brought you here at the age of 2, but we never filed any papers.
The girl said: What should we do?
The mother said: Let's call DURBIN.
They called my office. It is the first time I can ever recall ever facing something quite like this. My staff said: Let's look into it and find out what the legal situation is.
After telling the facts to the immigration agency of our government, we were informed that the girl's choice was obvious. She had to return to Korea, a place she had never been for 16 years, with a language she did not speak. The rest of her family--her mother, all of her siblings--were American citizens. She was not. Her parents failed to file the paperwork.
She had made a choice about her career and knew that she was ineligible for a lot of the student assistance available to those who are legal residents of the United States.
I thought to myself: That is fundamentally unfair. I reflected on my own story. My mother was brought to this country at the age of 2 as an immigrant. Her mother came from Lithuania. She came in her mother's arms and arrived in 1911 with a brother and a sister. They made it to East St. Louis, IL, where other Lithuanians were waiting, as well as my grandfather. My mother did not have any vote in that family decision to get on the boat and come to America. I am glad she did because her son now gets to serve as a Senator from the State of Illinois, where they emigrated.
I thought of this poor little girl, 2 years of age, brought to this country from Korea, now being told at age 18: Go back to Korea.
That is what the laws of America say, and that is why I introduced the DREAM Act.
When I first introduced the DREAM Act, I started telling the story about the Korean girl, and I noticed something interesting was happening as I told the story: there would be young people waiting after the speech asking if they could speak to me privately. Many of them were Hispanic, some were Polish. They were from all over. They would take me aside, look around to make sure no one was there, and say: I was one of those kids. I was brought here illegally by my parents who were legal at the time, and I am illegal today. But this is the only country I have ever known, gone to school here, this is where my friends are, this is where my future is. Help me. That is what the DREAM Act is all about.
Over the years, these people who used to wait nervously in the shadows have started coming out of the shadows and telling their stories. They are student council presidents, they are valedictorians, they are junior ROTC leaders, star athletes. They are tomorrow's scientists, soldiers, and teachers in America. They were brought to the United States when they were so young that they did not understand what was going on. They grew up here. It is the only home they ever knew.
The fundamental premise of the DREAM Act is that we should not punish the children for the parents' actions. That is not what America is about. Instead, the DREAM Act says to these students: America will give you a chance with strict requirements, but we will give you a chance.
Nine years after I introduced this legislation, I have noticed the DREAM Act students are not whispering in the shadows anymore. Recently, I met with four young people who would qualify for the DREAM Act: Felipe Matos, Carlos Roa, Gaby Pacheco, and Carlos Rodriguez. These four students walked from Miami, FL, to Washington, DC--1,500 miles--in order to build support for the DREAM Act. Along the way, they were joined by hundreds of supporters, young students and young people in the same situation they were in but other young people who understood the injustice that is being perpetrated on these people. They called this trip, this long 1,500-mile hike, "the trail of dreams."
I also would like to update the Senate on two DREAM Act students about whom I have spoken in the past.
This is Tam Tran. Tam was born in Germany and was brought to the United States by her parents when she was 6 years old. Tam's parents are refugees who fled Vietnam as boat people at the end of the Vietnam war. They moved to Germany, and then they came to the United States to join relatives. An <immigration> court ruled that Tam and her family could not be deported to Vietnam because they would be persecuted by the Communist government. The German Government refused to accept them. Tam literally had nowhere else to go, so she grew up in America. She graduated with honors from UCLA with a degree in American literature and culture. She was studying for a Ph.D. in American civilization at Brown University. But 2 months ago, Tam was tragically killed in an automobile accident.
Three years ago, Tam was one of the first "dreamers"--that is what I call these students--to speak out when she testified before a House Judiciary Committee.
Tam was sitting right up here in the gallery when the DREAM Act received 52 votes on the Senate floor. After the vote, I met with Tam and several other DREAM Act students. Tam was hopeful, even though we lost the vote. She knew we had 52 and realized we needed 60, but she would not give up hope. She talked about the need to pass the DREAM Act so she would have a chance to contribute more fully to this country--the country she loved so much.
I wish to use this moment to offer my condolences to Tam Tran's family and friends and assure them I will do everything I can to honor her memory by working to pass the DREAM Act.
Let me tell you about another DREAM Act student. This is Oscar Vasquez. Oscar was brought to Phoenix, AZ, by his parents when he was a small child. He spent his high school years in Junior ROTC and dreamed of enlisting in the military. But at the end of his junior year, a recruiting officer told Oscar he was ineligible for military service because he was undocumented.
Oscar found another outlet. He entered a robot competition sponsored by NASA. Oscar and three other DREAM Act students worked for months in a storage room in their high school. They were competing against students from MIT and other top universities, but Oscar's team won first place.
The story does not end there. Last year, Oscar graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in mechanical engineering. Oscar was one of only three Arizona State University students who were honored during President Obama's commencement address at that university.
Following his graduation, Oscar did an extraordinary thing: he voluntarily returned to Mexico, a country he had not lived in since he was a child. He has now applied to reenter the United States. Oscar said:
I decided to take a gamble and try to do the right thing.
But there is a problem. Unless Oscar is granted a waiver, he will not be able to enter the United States for at least 10 years, if not longer. In the meantime, he is going to be separated from his wife Karla, who is here in the United States, and their 2-year-old daughter Samantha, who are both American citizens.
This extraordinary young man--a mechanical engineer who won a national competition, a person who can add something to America, who has a wife and family here, who is doing the right thing by going back to the country of his origin even though he has little connection with it anymore--is being told: America doesn't need you. Wait for 10 years, separated from your family.
It is not fair.
There are so many other stories of young people who would be eligible for the DREAM Act. Every week--every single week--I receive calls, e-mails, and letters from these dreamers. Let me tell you about two others.
This is Benita Veliz. Benita Veliz was brought to the United States by her parents in 1993. She was 8 years old. Benita graduated valedictorian of her high school class at the age of 16. She received a full scholarship to St. Mary's University. She graduated from the honors program with a double major in biology and sociology. Benita's honors thesis was written about the DREAM Act.
Benita sent me a letter recently, and I am going to read into the Record what she said. Benita said:
I can't wait to be able to give back to the community that has given me so much. I was recently asked to sing the national anthems for both the U.S. and Mexico at Cinco de Mayo community assembly. Without missing a beat, I quickly belted out the Star Spangled Banner. I then realized that I had no idea how to sing the Mexican national anthem. I am American. My dream is American. It's time to make our dreams a reality. It's time to pass the DREAM Act.
Let me show one other. This is Minchul Suk. Minchul was brought to the United States from South Korea by his parents in 1991 when he was 9 years old. Minchul graduated from high school with a 4.2 GPA. He graduated from UCLA with a degree in microbiology, immunology, and molecular genetics. With support from the Korean American community, Minchul was able to graduate from dental school. He has passed the national boards and licensing exam to become a dentist, but he cannot obtain a license because he does not have legal status.
Minchul sent me a letter recently. Here is what he wrote:
After spending the majority of my life here, with all my friends and family here, I could not simply pack my things and go to a country I barely remember. I am willing to accept whatever punishment is deemed fitting for that crime; let me just stay . I am begging for a chance to prove to everyone...that I am not a waste of a human being, that I am not a criminal set on leeching off taxpayers' money. Please give me a chance to serve my community as a dentist.
The DREAM Act is not just the right thing to do, it is the right thing for America. Wouldn't America be a better place if someone such as Minchul Suk would be able to serve his community as a dentist? Couldn't our military use someone such as Oscar Vazquez, a mechanical engineer who has overcome so many obstacles in his young life? Wouldn't we all be better off if these talented young immigrants were able to contribute more fully to the country they love?
Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, knows something about economic development. He sent me a letter supporting the DREAM Act. Here is what he said:
Why shouldn't our economy benefit from the skills these young people have obtained here? It is senseless for us to chase out the home-grown talent that has the potential to contribute so significantly to our society. They're the ones who are going to start companies, invest in new technologies, pioneer medical advances.
Michael Bloomberg is right.
Our country would also benefit from thousands of highly qualified, well-educated young people who are eager to serve the United States of America in our armed services. I know. I have spoken with those who work at the Pentagon. Diversity is important in our military. There are not enough, primarily from Hispanic populations, currently enlisting. This is a good way to change that, to make sure the next generation of leadership in the military truly reflects the United States of America.
Immigrants have an outstanding tradition of military service. More than 65,000 immigrants are currently on Active Duty. The Center for Naval Analysis has concluded that "noncitizens have high rates of success while serving--they are far more likely, for example, to fulfill...their enlistment obligations."
Many DREAM Act students come from a demographic group that is already predisposed toward military service. The RAND Corporation found that "Hispanic youth are more likely than any other groups to express a positive attitude toward the military" and "Hispanics consistently have higher retention and faster promotion speeds than their white counterparts."
The Army says high school graduation is "the best single predictor" of success in the military. However, in recent years, the Army has accepted more applicants who are high school dropouts, have low scores on the military aptitude test, and even some with criminal backgrounds. In contrast, under the DREAM Act, which I have introduced, all recruits would be well qualified as high school graduates with good moral character and no criminal record.
Since the Bush administration, we have worked closely with the Defense Department on the DREAM Act. Defense Department officials have said to me publicly and privately that it is a very appealing law. It would apply to the cream of the crop of students and be great for military readiness.
Military experts also support the DREAM Act. LTC Margaret Stock, a professor at West Point, wrote an article supporting the DREAM Act. She concluded:
Passage of the DREAM Act would be highly beneficial to the United States military. The DREAM Act promises to enlarge dramatically the pool of highly qualified recruits for the U.S. Armed Forces.
Mr. President, I am sorry I waited until late in the evening and held the staff here for this, but this means a lot to me and it means a lot to literally hundreds of thousands of young people across America. I have introduced a lot of bills in my career. Some of them have become law. Most of them haven't. Most of them aren't even noticed. This one is noticed by hundreds of thousands of young people who, when they hear the name Durbin, ask the next question: When is he going to pass the DREAM Act? Our lives depend on it. I feel a special, personal obligation to these young people.
I want to take this story to my colleagues because I think they believe that America is a just and caring country, that these young people can bring talent and service to our great Nation and they deserve a chance. They should not be punished for any wrongdoing by their parents. They deserve a chance to prove themselves and to make this a better nation.
Mr. President, I yield the floor.