Washington (CNN) – Several Congressional Hispanic leaders met with President Obama Tuesday to ask for his help in building support for a bill, known as the DREAM Act, which would award citizenship to illegal immigrants who have gone to college or served in the military.
Advocates for comprehensive immigration reform believe the lame duck session may the best opportunity to pass one concrete immigration reform measure before Republicans take control of the House of Representatives in January.
The President sat down with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois) and Nydia Velazquez (D-New Jersey) to discuss the issue.
After the meeting, Gutierrez told reporters that Mr. Obama committed to make phone calls to members to push for comprehensive reform, but will ask for support on the DREAM measure "as down payment."
In a statement, Gutierrez said the DREAM Act is "the only piece of immigration reform legislation that can get broad support from Democrats and has attracted significant Republican support in the recent past."
The White House said in a statement following the meeting, "The President and the CHC (Congressional Hispanic Caucus) leaders believe that, before adjourning, Congress should approve the DREAM Act. This legislation has traditionally enjoyed support from Democratic and Republican lawmakers and would give young people who were brought as minors to the United States by their parents the opportunity to earn their citizenship by pursuing a college degree or through military service."
Both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) have indicated they hope to bring the bill to the floor during this lame duck session.
"He (Reid) still hopes to bring it to the floor for a vote. We are still discussing how to proceed," Reid spokesman Jim Manley told CNN.
Guiterrez said Tuesday's meeting was aimed at coordinating efforts to help push the bill.
"When I met with the President today, I told him that we need him to join us in fighting for the DREAM Act. I told the President we need him now and that we cannot waste another day and must push for a DREAM Act vote in the House and Senate during the lame duck. It is not time to hesitate or be unclear about what we are fighting for. We need the DREAM Act," Gutierrez said in his statement.
"I see it as a down payment on comprehensive reform and we will continue working towards comprehensive immigration reform today, tomorrow, and until it passes. But I will not pass up the chance to save a million or more children who grew up in the U.S., who know no other country, and who are threatened with deportation unless we act."
Mr. Obama, according to the White House, asked the members he met with to help restore a bipartisan coalition that would back comprehensive reform.
"The President repeated his hope that, with the election season's pressures past, Congressional Republicans would work with their Democratic colleagues not only to strengthen security at the nation's borders, but also to restore responsibility and accountability to what everyone agrees is a broken immigration system," the White House said in the statement. "The President reiterated his strong support for bipartisan Congressional action on immigration reform at the earliest opportunity, noting that the American people expect both parties to work together to tackle the challenges confronting our nation."
Gutierrez and the others who met with the President also hope to see major reform, but, Gutierrez said, Democrats should take advantage of the opportunity now in the lame duck to get this targeted measure through Congress.
He dismissed the argument from some advocates that doing something incremental will hurt chances to push a more comprehensive bill in the future.
"This is what is real, what is possible – should we jeopardize the possibility to get two million young men and women a pathway to legalization because we want more? We told him that it is absolutely the incorrect way to approach this," he said.
Hispanics are a key constituency for Democrats, and immigration reform is an important priority for that constituency. The failure to achieve some type of immigration overhaul may have hurt the Democrats in the 2010 election, since the party controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. According to a CNN exit poll, Democratic congressional candidates received the lowest amount of votes from Hispanics since the 1998 election.
However, in several states with sizeable Hispanic populations, those voters are credited with making the difference in some key Democratic Senate races by propelling Reid (Nevada), Barbara Boxer (California) and Michael Bennet (Colorado) to victory. Guiterrez credits those candidate's positions on immigration reform with helping them garner the Hispanic vote.
The immigration push comes one day after the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously that illegal immigrant students who attended public high schools are eligible to receive in-state tuition rates at California public universities and colleges - a move which would save the students a significant amount of money. California is one of a number of states which allow such undocumented students to receive cheaper tuition. Opponents who are fighting the state argue that the ruling wrongly rewards illegal immigrants. State officials have countered that they are not violating federal law because they can give the benefit to those who attended state high schools for at least 3 years, regardless of the students' immigration status.
- CNN Congressional Producer Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.
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