Bills urging legal status for migrants
October 13, 2003
By Steven Greenhouse

Eighteen-year-old Yuliana Huicochea moved to the United States at age 4 but now faces deportation because immigration officials stopped her on a school trip to a science fair.

Huicochea's troubles began last year when she and other members of her high school science team traveled from Phoenix to Buffalo, N.Y., to enter their 15-foot solar-powered boat in the fair and decided to take a side trip to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.

Immigration officials stopped Huicochea and three teammates and told them they faced deportation because they were illegal immigrants.

"I'm scared," said Huicochea (WEE-co-CHAY-a), now a sophomore at Phoenix College, who declined to say what country she emigrated from. "I don't know any other place. My whole family is here. This is where my education is, my dreams, my goals. I don't know what I would do anywhere else."

Hispanic groups and immigrant advocates have embraced her cause, insisting that it is wrong to expel teenagers who immigrated as toddlers. And now, with many members of Congress thinking about next year's elections and paying increasing attention to the concerns of Hispanics, the issue is gaining bipartisan interest on Capitol Hill.

Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is sponsoring a bill that would grant legal status to Huicochea and tens of thousands of other high school students or graduates who are illegal immigrants.

His bill - the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (or DREAM) Act - has 36 sponsors, one-third of them Republican. His aides say they expect the Judiciary Committee to approve the bill this week.

The bill is part of a wave of immigration legislation that has gathered bipartisan momentum in recent weeks. One bill would grant accelerated citizenship to immigrants who serve in the armed forces.

Another would grant legal status to 500,000 farm workers if they commit hemselves to doing agricultural work for several more years. That bill's main sponsors in the Senate are Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. They say it has the support of the Senate leadership, conservatives, liberals, agricultural employers, the nation's largest farm workers union, the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO.

"Both parties are paying a lot of attention to Latino voters and to these issues," said Cecilia Muņoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group. "On the farm workers bill, you're talking about an alliance of strange bedfellows who have agreed on a major policy that's in the interests of the industry and the workers."

Several lawmakers say their strategy is to use the farm workers bill as a wedge to advance other legislation that would grant legal status to other groups of illegal immigrants, like the hundreds of thousands working in restaurants and hotels.

Republican backers in the House and Senate say the White House has signaled that President Bush will sign the farm workers bill if it reaches his desk.

Two years ago, a push to grant legal status to millions of illegal immigrants was gaining momentum as President Vicente Fox of Mexico pressed Bush to give a fairer deal to immigrant laborers. But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,  derailed those efforts, because the Bush administration began concentrating on securing borders.

"We are farther away from the horrors of Sept. 11, and we've had a chance to digest it," said John F. Gay, co-chairman of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, a business group that supports granting legal status to millions of illegal immigrants.

"People inside and outside of Congress are beginning to understand that immigration reform makes you more secure. Instead of having millions of immigrants here illegally, unscreened, maybe it's better to bring this phenomenon aboveboard and get them screened."

Opponents of helping illegal immigrants have vowed to fight the new bills.

"It's never time to reward people for breaking the law," said Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who is one of Congress' most outspoken foes of easing immigration rules. "That's the worst kind of public policy."

Some critics argue that the bills would merely encourage a new wave of illegal immigrants. Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes eased immigration rules, called the bills "short-sighted political pandering."

Hatch's legislation would grant legal status to teenagers like Huicochea who have been in the United States at least five years, have graduated from high school and have no criminal record. The bill would also lift a restriction that discourages state universities from charging the lower in-state tuition rate to illegal immigrants.

"We've gone to high school at taxpayers' expense, and now we can't give back to the community because we face deportation," said Huicochea, who says she hopes to become a lawyer. "The Dream Act is not only for our benefit, but for everybody. We would be able to start giving back to the community."