Republicans were quick to dismiss Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's plan to grant citizenship to some illegal immigrants who came to the United States when they were children as a political ploy aimed at wooing voters and pro-illegal-immigrant groups before the November election.
Others, meanwhile, are arguing over whether it is appropriate to try to tuck the plan into the defense authorization bill.
Late Tuesday, the Nevada Democrat said he wanted to create the pathway to citizenship as part of the authorization bill. He said this could be as close as Congress will get to enacting immigration reform this year because of repeated opposition from the GOP.
Known as the Dream Act, the amendment has been pushed in Congress repeatedly but has never gained enough support for passage. It applies to illegal-immigrant children and would grant a path to citizenship to those who show they are working toward a college degree or have enlisted in the military. The Senate is expected to take up the proposal next week.
"The military's role is to protect and defend this nation, not to serve as a social experiment for elected officials during campaign season," said Kirk S. Lippold, a retired naval commander and member of the Military Families United, a nonprofit advocacy group for military families. "Sen. Reid's actions are irresponsible and demean the service of the members of our military."
Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a pro-immigration-reform group, disagreed, saying that politics and policy are often inseparable and that this could lead to an important step forward in the immigration debate.
Mr. Sharry pointed out that many military leaders have expressed support for the idea as a way of ensuring that the nation's armed forces remain strong and pointed out that the Department of Defense included it in its fiscal 2010-12 strategic plan as one of "the many smart ways to sustain quality assurance" for military recruitment.
On Wednesday, Mr. Sharry said that by some estimates more than 800,000 people could take advantage of the program.
The Immigration Policy Center, a liberal-leaning think tank, said Wednesday "that each year, approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school, many at the top of their classes, but cannot go to college, join the military, work, or otherwise pursue their dreams."
Those statistics have failed to win over many Republicans, including Sen. David Vitter, who warned his colleagues on Wednesday that Mr. Reid's amendment is "disguised as an education initiative, but will provide a powerful incentive for more illegal immigration by allowing states to grant in-state tuition to illegal alien students."
"In these difficult economic times, it's really an insult to legal, tax-paying citizens," the Louisiana Republican said.
Asked about Mr. Reid's push during his daily press briefing, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that while the president would prefer a more comprehensive immigration reform package, "the administration is supportive of that legislation."
"The previous administration was supportive of that legislation. And certainly it's our hope that working with Congress, we can see progress on that," he said.
Republicans, meanwhile, continued to attack the plan.
The fight over illegal immigration has stayed at the forefront of American politics since Arizona passed a tough immigration law in April.
Despite having the most controversial parts of the law at least temporarily struck down by a federal judge in July, the debate over illegal immigration continues to surface on Capitol Hill and in political campaigns nationwide where Republicans and Democrats are blaming each other for shirking their responsibility of protecting the southern border.
On Wednesday, Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called Mr. Reid "desperate ... to win re-election."
He also highlighted the fact that Mr. Reid issued a campaign press release bashing his opponent, Sharron Angle, for her positions on illegal immigration minutes after he shared his plans with reporters.
Not to be outdone, Mrs. Angle, a "tea party" candidate, released a television advertisement on Wednesday in which a narrator calls Mr. Reid "the best friend an illegal alien ever had."
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