WASHINGTON -- Unable to advance a more comprehensive bill, Sen. Harry Reid said Tuesday that he will try to pass at least one component of immigration reform this year.
Reid said he plans a Senate vote on an amendment to an upcoming defense bill that would allow undocumented young people who were brought into the country by their parents to get on a path to citizenship if they pursue college or serve with honor in the armed forces.
"It has everything to do with fairness," said Reid, the Senate majority leader. "Kids who grew up as Americans should be able to get their green cards after they go to college or serve in the military."
Advocates have rallied Congress in favor of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act. It is directed at students who came to the United States as illegal immigrants before they were 16 and who have been in the country for at least five years.
The bill would grant them temporary residency for six years. Within that time, the individuals would have the chance to earn permanent residency if they complete at least two years of college or serve at least two years in the armed forces with an honorable discharge.
The DREAM Act has enjoyed some bipartisan support but didn't pass in the last Congress. Critics say it amounts to a back-door amnesty.
Reid said he did not know whether he had enough votes to overcome a filibuster. He said he has not discussed the strategy with White House officials.
At a news conference, Reid sidestepped a question as to how Democrats might benefit from holding a pre-election vote on a bill favored by a key Hispanic constituency.
"I don't think we should talk about how beneficial the DREAM Act is for Democrats," he said. "We should talk about how fair it is to people who should be able to go to school if they want to or join the military if they want to. That has nothing to do with Democrats or Republicans."
Reid's promise of a new vote drew applause from Margaret Moran, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
"It is a great strategy to attach the DREAM Act to the defense authorization bill. This is the first of many positive steps to take," Moran said. "I think it is really important that we move forward on this legislation."
The defense bill already is controversial, as Democrats are using it also to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that forbids gays from serving openly in the military.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, said Reid was attempting to load the defense bill with "extraneous measures having nothing to do with defense, making it needlessly controversial."
As examples, McConnell, who represents Kentucky, mentioned the DREAM Act and also a measure to clamp down on the secret holds that senators use to block legislation.
A Republican Party spokesman added the DREAM Act would be "highly controversial and divisive."
Reid "has opted to poison sound legislation with fiercely partisan amendments that do nothing to further the goals of the bill," spokesman Jahan Wilcox said.
Democrats had been holding off on the DREAM Act in hopes of advancing it as part of a broader immigration bill.
But Reid said he is moving it after being stymied in efforts to pass more comprehensive reform.
Any previous Republican support for reform has vanished, he said.
"We know we can't do comprehensive immigration reform," Reid said. "I have tried so very, very hard. I have tried different iterations of this but the Republicans we had in the last Congress have left us."
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760.