WASHINGTON -- The DREAM Act, which would allow some undocumented immigrants under the age of 30 to remain in the country legally in exchange for two years of college education or military service, would be a boon to military recruitment, White House Defense Undersecretary Clifford Stanley argued in a conference call Tuesday in a last-ditch effort to win support for the bill.
"We have a lot of undocumented students out there who really are talented," Stanley said. "Bringing in talented people in the cyclical nature of our recruiting process is really important."
The bill could come up for a vote as early as Wednesday, but faces a stiff opposition from Senate Republicans who have pledged to block all legislation not related to taxes.
At least four Republicans are likely needed to cross the aisle to avoid a filibuster, and most of the seven current GOP senators who supported the bill in 2007 have now indicated they will vote against it.
Among Democrats, most of those who voted against the bill's 2007 iteration have remained silent on how they plan to vote. A spokesman for Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said the senator is still undecided on the issue. Spokesmen for Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) did not respond to requests for comment.
A number of military leaders have come out in support of the DREAM Act, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
"The expansion of the pool of eligible youth that would result from the DREAM Act provides an important opportunity to selectively manage against the highest qualification standards.," Gates wrote in a September letter to senators. "This will result in improved recruitment results and attendant gains in unit manning and military performance."
The Pentagon mentioned the act in its strategic plan for fiscal years 2010 to 2012, calling it a way to help "shape and maintain a mission-ready All Volunteer Force."
An estimated 726,000 illegal immigrants would be immediately eligible for the DREAM Act and up to 2.1 million people would eventually be eligible to apply for legal status under the bill, according to a July study by the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute.
Although the bad job market has led to a strong period of military recruitment, "that will change" given the cyclical nature of recruiting, Stanley said. An increase in the pool of potential military recruits would significantly ease the process of fully staffing the armed forces, he said.
Although undocumented immigrants would not be allowed to hold positions requiring high-level clearance, they could serve in a number of other positions, including driving tanks and serving in the infantry, Stanley said.
"There are a lot of positions right now where we need smart people who can think," he said. "We're just increasing the pool of high-quality people who are going to be enlisting and that's important to us."
The White House has also argued the DREAM Act would be beneficial for immigration enforcement, allowing the Department of Homeland Security to focus deportation efforts on illegal immigrants deemed dangerous rather than potential DREAM Act beneficiaries.
In a letter sent Monday to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano urged them to vote for the DREAM Act.
"The Department of Homeland Security is committed to the smart and effective enforcement of our immigration laws -- prioritizing the identification and removal of criminal aliens who pose a threat to public safety," Napolitano wrote. "Passage of the DREAM Act would further enhance these efforts by providing a firm, but fair, means for those individuals who were brought to the United States as children to obtain a legal status."
White House Director for Intergovernmental Affairs Cecilia Munoz said she is hopeful for winning Republican support for the bill based on its potential benefits for the military and DHS.
"We believe that if the Congress is looking past politics and to the future of the country we will see a strong vote tomorrow," Munoz said.