UPDATE, DEC. 16: As of today, Thursday, the DREAM Act continues to founder in the Senate. Time is running out before the end of the lame duck legislative session comes to an end, and Senate Republicans continue say they will filibuster any bill that comes to the floor before a deal is reached on the Bush-era tax cuts.
The Obama-brokered tax compromise -- in which Democrats would concede to an extension of tax breaks for the upper two percent of Americans and Republicans would concede to extend unemployment benefit -- passed the Senate by an overwhelming majority of 81-19. The bill is meeting with fiercer resistance in the House from both parties, particularly Democrats, who want to see changes to the estate tax portions of the bill.
As the bill stands now, it would raise estate tax exemptions, set to go into effect Jan. 1, from $1 million per person to $5 million per person and $10 million per couple.
Prevailing wisdom, however, is that the bill will pass the House any day, at which point the Senate can ostensibly move forward on other bills.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has said that Republicans have no interest at this point in voting for anything but the tax bill and a "lights on" budget that would keep the government running next year. The threat of filibuster still looms. But Senate Democrats still vow they will put measures like the DREAM Act, "Don't Ask Don't Tell," and a nuclear weapons measure to a vote before the legislative season ends, even if it means staying in Washington into next week. Stay tuned...
UPDATE, DEC. 10: Late Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed its version of the DREAM ACT, as was widely predicted. The measure passed 216 to 198, along largely partisan lines (read more about it in a blog entry, here.)
The vote in the Senate was expected to take place yesterday. But Democrats, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, decided to table the vote until next week.
The move makes sense. House Democrats have rejected President Obama's tax compromise, that would extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, in exchange for extending unemployment insurance. Senate Republicans have said they would filibuster any measure that came to the floor before a tax deal is reached.
Even Republican supporters of the DREAM Act, like Richard Lugar, of Indiana, have said they would vote against the DREAM Act if it came before the tax vote. (Lugar is a longtime sponsor of the bill, having co-introduced it several times since 2001. See more, below.)
But what's that mean for Indy's hunger-striking youth -- the ones featured in the story below?
I spoke this morning with 19-year-old Anthony Palma, a member of the Latino/a Youth Collective, and one of three young activists in the city, striking in support of the DREAM Act. Had the bill passed yesterday, their strike would be over. Now, it seems, the strike will continue until next week.
He had just eaten some broth when I spoke to him, and felt a little better.
"It was crazy times," after the house vote, he said. But there was "a little bit of disappointment with the senate not doing the vote.
Watching that vote was a little stomach wrenching," he added. "But, overall we understand that in the bigger scheme of things it was the right thing to do."
Palma said it left them more time to call senators, etc., to try to garner support for the bill's passage.
As for his physical condition, Palma said he's a little weak for now. "I've been sleeping in longer," he said. "I feel stuff just sort of slowing down."
Last night, he and the other two strikers, all of whom live together, sat down and talked about how they were feeling. They're still losing weight. There's difficulty focusing, difficulty reading.
"You read what's going to happen, but once it actually happens, it becomes real, and the seriousness of things becomes apparent," Palma said. "And we remember why we're doing this."
Details on how to contact your senator can be found at the bottom of the story below.
-- END OF UPDATE --
As 26-year-old Camilo Torres entered day six without solid food, the phone calls were pouring in. Friends and family wanted to know if he was ok. Members of the international press wanted interviews.
He didn't expect the call he got from a total stranger: a doctor at an East Side health clinic.
"He was like, 'hey, how are you doing, how are you feeling? What can we do to help?" Torres explained (an undocumented immigrant, Torres appears under a pseudonym).
Clinic staffers were worried because Torres, along with two fellow activists in Indianapolis and as many as eight more across Indiana, had entered day seven of a hunger strike in support of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or the DREAM Act.
"They kind of sympathized with what we were doing and they said, 'please let us know if you need anything,'" Torres said. "So that was really beautiful."
If passed, the DREAM Act would allow an estimated 2.1 million youths to contribute to society as legal residents in exchange for two years of higher education or military service, according to The Migration Policy Institute, a non-profit think tank based in Washington, D.C. The bill is expected to get a vote in both houses of the United States Congress this week.
Torres, a native Colombian and local resident for ten years, has high hopes for the bill. He recently graduated from an Indianapolis-based university with degrees in sociology and international relations.
But a lot of friends in similar boats growing up had dropped out of school or joined gangs, frustrated with a roadblocked future, he said.
"Being undocumented, it becomes your identity," he said. "It really harms your self-esteem, the way you look at life and the way you look at your future."
A dream in peril
Though supported mostly by Democrats, the DREAM Act has had bi-partisan support since its inception, notably, by Indiana's own Sen. Richard Lugar, who co-introduced the bill in 2009 —the third time he had done so since 2001.
But worries over the growing strength of the Republican Party's more extreme, Tea Party wing, have erstwhile GOP moderates running scared, and steadfast supporters worried a window is closing – particularly once Republicans take over the House in January.
As such, supporters all over America have kicked into high gear. Hunger-strikers in Indiana have joined others in at least 26 other states, according to organizers for the Latino/a Youth Collective (LYC), a local group dedicated to helping immigrant youths, of which Torres and his Indy-based comrades-in-hunger are members.
One such LYC organizer, Indiana-based Felipe Vargas, had been on a hunger strike in San Antonio, Tex., for 28 days, at the time this article was reported (Dec. 7).
"Although it's hard to fight the urge to eat, it's even harder to imagine another year without relief for the youth I love and have invested my life, my career and energy for," Vargas said in an email.
Opponents blast the bill as an "amnesty" measure – conserva-code for everything loathsome to the Tea Party bootstrap-ism of the modern GOP. Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has vowed that Senate Republicans would filibuster any bill that comes to the floor before an agreement on the Bush-era tax-cuts is reached.
Suddenly, DREAM Act Republicans are changing their tune. Mark Helmke, a spokesman for Sen. Lugar, told The Huffington Post that Lugar would vote against the bill if it came up this week. The reasons were strictly political.
"You have to handle the spending bills, tax legislation and START first," Helmke said. "If we get those three things, (Lugar is) willing to stay in and take up the DREAM Act."
Legislators like Sen. John McCain, an early supporter of the DREAM Act, have made a total about face amid the Tea Party zeitgeist. Utah Republican, Sen. Orrin Hatch, was a chief sponsor of an earlier version of the bill back in 2001. No longer.
Critics new and old have argued the measure will hurt American-born citizens by making it legal for children of immigrants to get better educations and better jobs. Some have also argued that the measure would drain the national economy because of increased need for social services – from student grants to Medicaid.
However, a report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), introduced at the end of last month, tells a different story. According to CBO estimates, economic contributions from DREAM Act beneficiaries would reduce federal budget deficits by about $1.4 billion over the next ten years. A report by UCLA estimates that the influx of new, educated workers would contibute $3.6 trillion in new, taxable revenue to the national economy over a 40-year period.
Congressman Andre Carson (D-Indianapolis) noted that the bill should have obvious bi-partisan appeal.
"These individuals are already students working hard in our middle and high schools, and in order for us to see the benefits of this significant investment, we need to provide them with a path to citizenship," Carson told NUVO. "It is a path that has strict time requirements and guidelines, but it will allow students the opportunity to go to college or serve in the military which will help improve our economy and national security for years to come."
Back on Indy's East Side, 19-year-old hunger-striker, student and LYC member, Anthony Palma, sipped mango juice at a Starbucks across the street from the clinic where he and Torres took urine tests, blood tests and an EKG, at the expense of concerned staffers.
He was noticeably pale and complained of feeling colder than usual. Like Torres, he hadn't eaten solid food in a week. Unlike Torres, Palma was born in the United States. He's striking to show his support.
Both young men said they planned to continue striking until a vote is taken, even if it is pushed back until next week. If the vote is never taken, or if the bill is rejected, they plan to continue their strike until Dec. 17 – the end of the lame duck congressional session.
"We're pretty fine right now," Palma said. "But it seems that we've lost a pound a day since we started."
For the time being, Torres explained they would stick to their diet of juice, teas, water and some broth. They had neighbors who were keeping a close eye on them if things took a turn for the worse.
"For now we just have to keep conserving energy and try to stay focused on what we can do," Torres said.
Marco Vinicio Galaviz, an 18-year-old who moved from California to Indianapolis in September, joined Palma and Torres on their hunger strike for six days, despite having recently gained legal status. He has been accepted to New York University, and plans to attend next year.
"I was undocumented for 14 years, and it was kind of stressful to think about the future," he said. Without documents, he could not apply for financial aid for college, despite having lived in the country since he was four years old.
"I would often have nervous attacks, and I would burst into tears, not knowing what to expect after high school," he said. "Now that I do have my documents, now that I do have that privilege, I feel that I have to do more in order for the DREAM Act to pass."
Some reporting for this article was drawn from a previous NUVO report by Benito Miller Deale, an unpaid member of the Latino/a Youth Collective ("A life in the shadows," news, Oct. 27 to Nov. 3, 2010).
Both houses of the United States Congress are expected to vote on the most current versions of the DREAM Act any day now. A cloture vote in the House could come as soon as Wednesday, Dec. 8, and a Senate vote could arrive the following day.
Both Senators Bayh and Lugar have co-sponsored earlier versions of DREAM Act. But partisan politics have made things a bit thornier this time around. Contact your senators to let them know how you feel.
Sen. Evan Bayh: 131 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510; phone, (202) 224-5623; fax, (202) 228-1377; www.bayh.senate.gov.
Sen. Richard Lugar: 306 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510-1401; phone, (202) 224-4814; fax, (202) 228-0360; www.lugar.senate.gov.