Mike Lillis
The Hill
January 25, 2012

President Obama on Tuesday intensified his pressure on Congress to create a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrant students.

In his State of the Union speech, the president said it “doesn’t make sense” to kick promising kids out of the country when they could be contributing to its economic growth.

“Many were brought here as small children, are American through and through, yet they live every day with the threat of deportation,” Obama said. “Others came more recently, to study business and science and engineering, but as soon as they get their degree, we send them home to invent new products and create new jobs somewhere else.

“That doesn’t make sense,” he added.

Although he didn’t name the legislation, Obama’s reference was to the DREAM Act, a controversial proposal carving a route to permanent residency — and eventually citizenship — for certain illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Qualified individuals must have been in the country for at least five years; have earned a high school diploma, or its equivalent; and enter an institution of higher education or the military.

It’s an issue that sharply divides him from his possible Republican opponent in November’s election.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich said in Monday night’s GOP presidential debate that he liked parts of the DREAM Act, citing the provision that would allow a path for citizenship for those that service in the military.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney previously has said he would veto the DREAM Act but noted in Monday night’s debate that he agreed with Gingrich on the military provision.

The issue is a huge one for Hispanics, an influential voting bloc, particularly in swing states like Florida, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada.

Supporters of the legislation, including most Democrats, say the bill would empower motivated young people to develop skills that could benefit the entire country. Opponents, including most Republicans, argue that those living illegally in the country — even those brought involuntary as kids — broke the law and should be deported.

The DREAM Act passed the House in December of 2010, when Democrats still controlled the chamber, but was blocked by a GOP filibuster in the Senate.

Obama on Tuesday also called for comprehensive immigration reform, though he acknowledged that Washington’s polarized environment likely that puts it out of reach. The DREAM Act, he said, should be a sort-of compromise between doing nothing and comprehensive reform.

“If election-year politics keeps Congress from acting on a comprehensive plan, let’s at least agree to stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, and defend this country,” Obama said. “Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship.

“I will sign it right away.”

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