Within days, we will know whether the Arkansas DREAM Act, the legislation focused on providing in-state college tuition to undocumented young people who have been educated in the state’s high schools, has legs in this legislative session. Since the legislation’s close loss in the state Senate in 2005, an outcome brought about by then-Attorney General Mike Beebe’s advisory opinion questioning the legislation’s accordance with federal immigration law, the measure has lingered with little hope of passage. The fact that the legislation has renewed life is testament to the fortitude of state Sen. Joyce Elliott, the issue’s chief legislative advocate, and an increasingly visible and politically organized Latino presence in Arkansas.
With Gov. Mike Huckabee, Elliott, and advocates framing the DREAM Act as an education and economic development issue, the legislation roared out of the state House and seemed on its way to passage in 2005. Then, the chief critic of the legislation (and of Huckabee), GOP state Sen. Jim Holt, asked for an advisory opinion from the attorney general’s office. Beebe’s opinion that the Arkansas legislation would likely violate federal law had potency with undecided legislators and the bill came up just short in a final Senate vote. Since 2005, Elliott has reintroduced the legislation but it has gained little traction. With the change in control of the legislature, supporters of the legislation assumed that 2013 would produce even a worse environment for the DREAM Act. Instead, a glimmer of hope exists for the legislation. A combination of stability (in Elliott’s commitment) and change (in social attitudes about immigrants in Arkansas) explains why.
First, there would have been no hope for the legislation’s advancement without the passionate constancy of Elliott on the issue. In the current session, Elliott’s passion has been tied to smart strategy. While stereotyped as a doctrinaire liberal by the editorial page of the statewide newspaper, Elliott has always been a pragmatic politician. In what has been a polarized legislative session, Elliott has proved her ability to work across partisan lines with this incarnation of the DREAM Act. Her chief co-sponsor of SB915 is the chair of the Education Committee (which she vice-chairs), Sen. Johnny Key (R-Mountain Home). Moreover, Elliott and her legislative allies have returned to the framing for the legislation that initially worked so well; this version of the legislation is titled “The Postsecondary Education and Economic Development Act of 2013.”
However, Elliott’s commitment to the issue and effective reframing would have mattered little if not for the changing political environment in Arkansas on immigration issues. As shown in the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation’s recent report on the topic, there is clear evidence of the positive economic impact of Latinos’ presence in Arkansas. While data has some power in reshaping attitudes, it is personal contact that matters even more. In legislative districts across the state, Latinos have become a part of the community fabric in a way that was simply not the case in 2005. Teachers in those communities know the sharp limitations placed on smart young Latinos who presently have no hope of pursuing their dream of attending college.
Before last summer, these young DREAMers faced personal risk by speaking out on this issue. President Obama’s executive order allowing those who entered the country illegally as children to remain and work without fear of deportation has freed them to become more active in lobbying legislators. Organizations old (like Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families) and new (like Arkansas United Community Coalition) have corralled the energy of these DREAMers in their coalitional advocacy work on behalf of the legislation.
As a sign of the changed environment on immigration, Gov. Beebe has vacated his long-standing opposition to the notion. While certainly not a full-throated endorsement, his chief spokesperson said late last week: “[I]f the state wants to have a debate and look to pass a DREAM Act on the state level … he’s not going to try to stop that.”
For the DREAM Act to become law, however, it will take more than a changed stance by the governor. It will take any number of Republicans and Democrats alike casting a vote that still feels to them like a bit of a risk. If they do, however, they will be deserving of the praise Mike Huckabee gave the state House in 2005: “They took a stand that Arkansas can be proud of. … [I]f we had taken a similar one in 1957, it would have made us proud for a long, long time.”