With Congress poised to vote as early as this week on legislation granting permanent residency to an estimated 825,000 undocumented immigrants, supporters of the Dream Act inundated senators and representatives Tuesday with telephone calls urging passage as a step to broader immigration reform.
If enacted, the law would confer legal status on immigrants younger than 35 who came to the United States before age 16, have lived here for at least five years, and have completed at least two years of college or military service.
At the Nationalities Service Center, an immigrant resettlement organization in Center City, a 15-person phone bank went into action Tuesday, targeting Pennsylvania lawmakers Kathleen A. Dahlkemper, a Democrat defeated in November whose district encompasses Butler, Armstrong, and Erie Counties, and Tim Holden, a conservative Democrat whose district stretches from Pottsville to Harrisburg. Dream Act supporters consider their votes important if the bill is to pass this month in a lame-duck session.
Organizers say they are confident they have the votes of much of the rest of the Pennsylvania delegation. Several are among the bill's 40 cosponsors in the Senate and 133 in the House.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have said they want action on the bill before the end of the year.
Since some members of the phone bank team are undocumented, their calls, they say, are arm's-length constituent pressure.
"We might not be able to vote ourselves," said call-bank organizer Maria Marroquin, 23, an undocumented immigrant from Peru. "But we have friends and family who are citizens and they do vote."
Marroquin, of Mount Airy, was 13 when her parents brought her and a younger brother and sister to the United States and overstayed their visas.
"We were children when we came here," she said. "We had no choice. We didn't make that decision. Since arriving we did everything that was asked of us. We are American in every way."
Raised in Cheltenham, she went to Montgomery County Community College, where she earned an associate degree in social science and a 3.98 grade-point average.
Because she is not permitted to work legally, she gets by with babysitting jobs, but would like to finish college and go to law school one day.
"We can make economic contributions to society throughout our lifetimes. [The Dream Act] is not just good for the students," she said, "it is an investment in our country."
According to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, 2.1 million "unauthorized immigrant youth" would be eligible by age, but just 38 percent, or 825,000, would meet the requirements for schooling or military service.
The Pennsylvania callers are targeting key lawmakers outside the state, too, including Republican Sens. Olympia Snow and Susan Collins of Maine, Orrin Hatch and John Ensign of Utah, and John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.
The one-day phone-a-thon was organized by the Pennsylvania affiliate of the national group DreamActivist.org, cofounded in 2007 by Marroquin and four undocumented students from Florida, Texas, Michigan, and California.
It is part of a national movement that also on Tuesday announced a $100,000-plus radio and print media campaign to run this week in English and Spanish in Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, and Texas.
Opponents of the legislation - officially titled the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act - say it rewards people who violated America's borders.
"We're are not asking for amnesty," said Marroquin, "just the chance to be legal and contribute to our country."
Frank Sharry, director of the pro-immigrant group America's Voice, which helped fund the advertising campaign, said the legislation provides "targeted, commonsense . . . relief to young people who are American in all but paperwork."