I was in the Senate gallery today hoping to catch the final vote on the lobbying reform bill, but by the time I made it to the gallery at about 6:30 this evening, the vote had already taken place. What was occurring, however, was debate on a mostly empty Senate floor concerninig the DREAM Act, which grants certain rights to undocumented children of illegal immigrants in certain situations.
Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed to take notes or take any recording devices with them into the gallery--doing so would be in violation of Senate rules. Nevertheless, that doesn't prevent me from blogging about it--so here I am!
As background, the DREAM Act would grant temporary legal status to children of undocumented immigrants provided that they arrived in this country when they were 15 years of age or younger, and had gotten themselves accepted into college or had served for at least two years in the United States military. The legislation would also make these students eligible for financial aid, excluding Federal Pell Grants.
When I got to the gallery, Senator Sessions (R-AL) was ranting about how much harm the DREAM Act would do, in typical xenophobic Republican fashion. He went on first about the budgetary setbacks that this bill would inflict on the American taxpayer--to the tune of $22 million a year. As I heard him rant about this, that got me to thinking: it seems like a large number. Undoubtedly, if this were being broadcast anywhere besides C-SPAN, such a figure might matter. But anyone who's watching this on C-SPAN already knows that $22 million dollars won't even pay for 4 hours in Iraq--which is how I break down every dollar amount thrown around by Congress these days (I encourage you to do the same). Sessions also railed about how immoral it would be to award Pell Grants to these students (remember what I just said above).
Sessions then went on about how this bill will encourage more illegal immigration because it gives benefits to illegal immigrants by forcing states to grant in-state tuition to undocumented students, which born-and-raised, out-of-state Americans couldn't even get (remember this for later).
He then ranted for a little while how this was nothing more than an amnesty program, how amnesty programs never work, and how Bush doesn't support an amnesty program.
Then Dick Durbin came to the floor.
As Sessions was wrapping up, Durbin turned to the gallery and looked at all of us. He looked at me in the eye, and I smiled and gave him a thumbs-up. He nodded and smiled back. It was great. Durbin knew that he wasn't just talking to the parliamentarian, since the Senate floor was empty; he wasn't just talking to the C-SPAN camera; he knew that he was also directly addressing the 10 or so of us that came into the Senate gallery that evening because we were that interested in seeing our government in action. He turned away from the President Pro Tempore on many occasions throughout his speech, and directly addressed the gallery. I guess he's used to doing so based on his experience as a lawyer, but it was engaging and effective. He really connected with us in the gallery, and nobody that was in the gallery left during the middle of Durbin's address.
It must be noted that Durbin--along with Republican Sens. Hatch (R-UT) and Hagel (R-NE)--is a co-sponsor of the DREAM Act, and his speech in defense of it not only shredded Sen. Sessions--it made me absolutely convinced of the necessity of a piece of legislation that I had barely heard about before tonight.
Sen. Durbin started by clarifying that Sessions was either intentionally misleading or simply misinformed about some critiques of the legislation in question. He said first that the legislation as currently amended does not allow for the provision of Pell Grants to the students who fit the requirements of the DREAM Act, so any such discussion is unwarranted. He next said that under the DREAM Act, states would be enfranchised to make their own decisions about whether students who attend college using the legal status granted by the DREAM Act are to be charged in-state or out-of-state tuition, making any discussion about the morality or forcing in-state tuition pricing also completely irrelevant.
There was a third thing about Sessions' speech (the transcript of which Durbin had in his hand very shortly after the speech ended--those Congressional transcriptionists are damn fast!) that Durbin pointed out was essentially a lie, but I don't remember what it was.
Durbin was very clear to point out that the bill isn't "amnesty." The people who qualify for this bill either have to earn their right to start down the road of permanent legal status--either through a commitment to help American society and culture through education, or by serving America by putting themselves in harm's way in our Armed Forces. Either way, it was an earned privilege, not a right--and certainly not amnesty.
Durbin railed against the immorality of punishing young children for the problems of their parents, and then told the story of two students from Chicago who had contacted him for assistance. One of of these cases was of a girl named Theresa, a musical prodigy whose mother came over from Korea when Theresa was 2 years old. Theresa was being recruited by several of the top music schools in the country, but was not eligible for financial aid--because her mother had not filed any papers. Theresa's mother contacted Durbin, who then contacted the INS--and received the reply that Theresa's only option was to go back to Korea.
"Is that," Durbin asked rhetorically, "really what we want to tell these children who are so willing and able to give their talents to America? To leave? That they're not welcome? Suppose someone like Theresa wants to share her talent by teaching in one of Chicago's public schools. Do we really want to tell her she's not allowed to? That she should go back where she came from, to a country she doesn't even know because she's lived here all our lives? These children are Americans--by culture, by education, by upbringing--by everything except their legal status." He didn't address these words to the President Pro Tempore. He addressed them to us. Every single one of us in the gallery. And those words were powerful.
I feel remiss in barely having heard of the DREAM Act before, but I certainly know of it now. And I would encourage each of you to write your Senators urging consideration and passage of the DREAM Act--an act designed to help the future Theresas of the world share their talents with America.
[Cross-posted at Daily Kos]