Miami Republican files new DREAM Act in Congress

U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, spoke last month at a downtown Miami forum touting immigrant entrepreneurs.
U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, spoke last month at a downtown Miami forum touting immigrant entrepreneurs. jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Bolstered by the White House’s apparent interest in protecting at least one group of unauthorized immigrants, Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo on Thursday refiled legislation that would allow people brought illegally as children to remain in the country.

The “Recognizing America’s Children Act” would offer an eventual path to U.S. citizenship to immigrants who entered illegally before Jan. 1, 2012, and were 16 years old or younger.

The legislation is essentially a new version of the DREAM Act, which failed in the Senate in 2010. Curbelo first proposed the bill last June, as he was running for reelection to Florida’s swing 26th Congressional District.

He said he’s bringing it back because President Donald Trump, in his executive order on immigration, left in place the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — known as DACA — which shields so-called DREAMers from deportation.

“This White House has sent a very strong message by preserving the executive order that protects these young people,” Curbelo said in an interview with the Miami Herald. “We know that they’ve been very aggressive when it comes to immigration policy, so it certainly stands out that they have left the DACA executive order untouched.”

The bill would grant high school graduates without a serious criminal record — and who don’t rely on public assistance — conditional immigration status. If, over a five-year period, they earn a higher-education degree, serve in the military or stay employed, they could apply for permanent residency and, eventually, citizenship. Enlisted military personnel would get to seek naturalization right away.

Curbelo and another Miami Republican, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, were among the lawmakers who criticized Trump last month when he signed the order expanding the categories of unauthorized immigrants prioritized for deportation, a reversal from the Obama administration. Trump’s order, however, notably exempted DACA recipients — something Curbelo and other Republicans who favor immigration reform quickly pointed to as a promising sign.

“There’s actually momentum for immigration reform in the country right now,” said Curbelo, a son of Cuban immigrants who has said he didn’t vote for Trump. “As unfortunate as the tone and rhetoric have been during the presidential campaign and even early in this administration, immigration is at the top of the national agenda. People are talking about it every day, and we need to take advantage of that momentum to advance good policy like this one.”

Curbelo planned to file the bill late Thursday, with eight co-sponsors. Curbelo said he met Thursday with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, “and this issue was raised,” the congressman said, though he declined to go into detail.

“We also are encouraged by numerous comments that the president has made in public about his desire to treat these young Americans, as I would call them, with the compassion and the respect they’ve earned,” Curbelo said.

When Curbelo offered the legislation last year, he drew immediate opposition from United We Dream, a youth-led immigrant advocacy organization that called the bill a “symbolic” gesture. Democrats accused Curbelo, who remains a top target heading into 2018, of trying to score political points in an election year. But other groups, including FWD.us, which was co-founded by Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, and the conservative National Immigration Forum, supported it.

During the last Congress, House Speaker Paul Ryan had said lawmakers wouldn’t take up any immigration bills, and he stayed true to his word.

This time around, with Republicans in control of the House, Senate and White House, Curbelo said he expects a different reception.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations,” he said, “and there is a general sense that this legislation will have a very good chance at becoming law this year.”