Can DREAM Act Help Deliver Latino Votes to Democrats?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

After months of getting hammered by Hispanics for failing to tackle comprehensive immigration reform, Democrats are now hoping to pass the much narrower DREAM Act. The bill, which would legalize young undocumented immigrants who attend college or enlist in the military, has proved politically popular in the past and has garnered bipartisan support. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he'd attach the measure to the Defense Department authorization bill next week.

Given the partisan warfare of the midterm election cycle, the DREAM Act's prospects remain dubious. Republicans immediately condemned Reid's move as a political stunt—which it may well be. Reid and fellow Democrats desperately need Latinos to turn out strongly to help fend off a Republican onslaught in November. So the question is, will it work?

As I noted in a piece in this week's magazine, Latinos are in a sour mood. They're furious about Arizona's immigration law and frustrated that the immigration debate seems focused exclusively on border security. And while they continue to view Republicans as anti-immigrant and obstructionist, they're not exactly pleased with Democrats either. In their view, the party has shied away from a key issue and failed to deliver.

Reid's move could help repair some of that damage. It will thrust immigration back into the spotlight, with Democrats leading the charge on the one aspect of the issue that seems to have disappeared from the negotiating table: legalization. That should help deflate the notion that Democrats are afraid of risking political capital on an issue dear to Hispanics. Moreover, the group that the bill targets could hardly be more sympathetic: young strivers who had no say in the decision to come to this country, and who are now steeped in American culture. Many of them have gone public in the past year, participating in peaceful rallies or walking across the country to drum up support for their cause. I dare you to vote against these kids, Reid seems to be saying.

Political stunt or not, it could prove effective for Democrats. Immigration has become a highly emotional issue for Latinos this year. They feel their community is being attacked, and that too few politicians have had the courage to stick up for them. Though immigration typically ranks pretty far down the list of issues that Hispanics care most about, the level of vitriol this year has sent it back near the top. A recent survey by polling firm Latino Decisions showed that immigration now ranks second only to the economy in importance.

And while the mainstream English-language press may not be giving the DREAM Act that much coverage, Spanish-language media is all over it. It was one of the leading segments on Univision's newscast yesterday. And an article on the subject in La Opinión, the Los Angeles–based Spanish-language daily, is the most viewed story on the paper's Web site today. Hispanics are paying attention. And how the parties handle this latest installment of the immigration debate may yet fire up an otherwise uninspired Latino electorate.