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Undocumented dreamers won't give up

When the Senate refused to pass the immigration bill known as the Dream Act last week, a bunch of undocumented young people in South Florida found themselves on the wrong side of the nation's contentious political divide.

"It's politics, and these sorts of things happen," said Manuel Guerra, 26, who originally is from Mexico and lives in Martin County. He spoke those words like a veteran of party wars, although he is relatively new to politics.

He and other undocumented young people, who were brought to this country before they were 16 years old and have finished high school in the U.S., have been trying for several years to persuade Congress to open a path for them to become legal residents and eventually citizens. Their effort to pass the bill increased after the 2008 election of President Obama, who has supported the measure.

The Dream Act - the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act - would allow such individuals, up to 29 years old, to qualify for legal status if they served two years in the military or completed two years of college.

At least 2 million undocumented people nationwide would be covered by the bill, although supporters estimate that less than half would eventually fulfill the requirements. Florida, along with California, Texas and New York, is thought to have a large share of people affected - tens of thousands.

Because they have been educated in the U.S., the "dreamers" - as those covered by the bill are called - say they are more American than foreign. But without legal status, they say, they have little chance of fulfilling their potential and leading productive lives in this country.

Military leaders back the bill because they say it would increase their recruitment pool. Many figures in higher education also support it.

The House passed it this month, but it failed to get the 60 votes it needed in the Senate, falling 55-41, with only three Republicans voting in favor.

Conservative Republicans have taken a hard stance on immigration issues, and many more of them are due to take seats in the next Congress in January. This means that "dreamers" will almost certainly have an even harder time getting the bill passed.

But they say they have learned quite a bit about national politics this year and are not giving up.

"We are looking forward to working with the Republicans in the future," Guerra said.

Ben Gaspar, 24, originally from Guatemala and now living in Stuart, agreed.

"The leaders of our movement spent a lot of time talking to the Democrats, maybe too much time," he said. "We have been talking to GOP leaders, but with the new Congress coming in, we need to talk to them more than ever. We also held a lot of rallies and made a lot of phone calls, but I think what we need now is to sit down and have conversations with those Republicans, tell them what we're about."

One Republican they won't speaking to is Sen. George LeMieux. The Florida Republican repeatedly voted against the bill this year, despite pleas and visits from supporters. LeMieux is leaving the Senate next month after finishing a term originally won by Mel Martinez.

He has been mentioned as a possible GOP Senate candidate in 2012, when Democrat Bill Nelson is up for reelection. Nelson supported the Dream Act.

"If LeMieux runs in 2012, we will do what we can to see he isn't elected," Guerra said. "He did not do a good job representing the Latino community in the Senate."

Julio Calderon, 21, originally from Honduras and now of Miami-Dade County, agrees the dreamers will be active politically.

"We have a lot of support in our community," he said. "We need to educate voters about who is for us and who is against us, who is against the future."

Gaspar believes the Dream Act will get tweaked before it is introduced again. Some Republicans, including LeMieux, criticized the bill because it had no provision for increasing border security. Gaspar believes that could change.

Some Dream Act supporters across the country have spoken about trying to work at the state level to achieve some changes. For example, many states, including Florida, force dreamers to pay out-of-state tuition fees, even though they live full time in state.

Guerra concedes that in Florida, that could be a tough sell because the GOP holds super­majorities in both houses of the legislature. "But that doesn't mean that all the Republicans will be against us," he said.

But the main focus will be to continue to press for passage of the Dream Act.

The Rev. Mark Boykin, pastor of the Church of All Nations in Boca Raton, has been a strong supporter of the bill.

"We were deeply disappointed by the vote, but we will regroup," he said. "We will not give up on the Dream Act."

Or as Guerra put it: "The dream will not die."

This story was originally published December 25, 2010 12:15 PM.

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