"Dreamers" — or undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally when they were young — have grown up in public schools, and many of them want to go to college.
They also want to become citizens. If Republican candidates make it to the White House, it's likely that won't be possible unless the young immigrants opt to join the military. But this type of hardline immigration stance might make it difficult for candidates to become president.
A week before Arizona's GOP debate, Mitt Romney rallied supporters inside the Mesa Amphitheater near Phoenix. And another group rallied outside.
The small group of immigrant students protested Romney's vow to veto the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, more commonly known as the DREAM Act. The bill would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented youths younger than 35 if they serve in the military or go to college.
GOP Candidates Offer Partial Support
But Romney, along with Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, says he would only support the military portion of the DREAM Act.
"I absolutely believe that those who come here illegally should not be given favoritism or a special route to becoming permanent residents or citizens that's not given to those people who have stayed in line legally," Romney said at a debate in South Carolina last month.
Activists like Daniel Rodriguez, 25, say this view is offensive to Dreamers who want to go to college.
"That's telling me I'm good enough to die for this country," Rodriguez says, "but I'm not good enough to study for it and to help it through my knowledge."
At a a fundraiser for fellow Dreamer students in Phoenix, Rodriguez recalled coming to the U.S. at age 6 with his mother, who was fleeing domestic violence in Mexico.
"I'm told everyday that I'm not American," he says, "but that's all I know and that's all I consider myself to be."
The Migration Policy Institute in Washington estimates that at least 2 million undocumented youths like Rodriguez could benefit from the DREAM Act. But the co-director of the institute's National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, Margie McHugh, says many fewer would qualify for the military because of its strict educational and English-language requirements.
"It's hard to imagine that it would be worth passing legislation just for that small number," McHugh says.
That's why 28-year-old Cesar Vargas says he doesn't like the idea of a "military only" DREAM Act, even though he wants to join the Marines.
"It tells you, you know, forget about your friends who want to go to college and you take advantage of this, and that's not how it's supposed to be," he says.
The DREAM Act should be about more than just the military, says Dulce Matuz, president of the Arizona DREAM Act Coalition. She says it's meant for students who want to fight for the country with their bodies and minds.
"We need intelligent and talented individuals in this nation, and we've got to respect their decision to join the military or become a scientist," she says.
Matuz says she wants candidates to know there are consequences for their statements.
"We're going to be informing the Latino community about the facts," she says, "even for President Obama — we're holding accountable the Republicans and Democrats alike."
If the candidates keep talking like they are now, Matuz says, the Latino community won't vote for them.
But in an interview on Univision, a media outlet that serves a Hispanic audience, Gingrich said he's not worried about losing Latino voters.
"I have a hunch that by this fall, we may do better than any other Republican, except maybe Reagan," Gingrich said.
That's not likely, according to Rodolfo Espino, a professor of political science at Arizona State University.
"They've pretty much blown that opportunity to cater to the Latino vote," he says. But Espino says that doesn't mean President Obama is a shoo-in for the general election.
"Democrats cannot just sit there and assume Latino voters are going to rush into the arms of the Democratic Party," he says.
Democrats need to show Latinos they're serious about immigration reform, Espino says, and passing the DREAM Act would be a good start.
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