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Rivera introduces a military-only version of the DREAM Act

Inspired by the discussion about immigration during Monday night's Republican presidential debate, Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, has filed his own bill that would give young people who serve in the military a path to U.S. citizenship.

"If somebody is willing to die for America, then certainly they deserve a chance at life in America," Rivera said of his legislation.

Rivera's plan is called the Adjusted Residency for Military Service Act -- the ARMS Act. It's a variation on the DREAM Act, which would grant legal status to some children of undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally.

The DREAM Act passed the Democratic-controlled House last year, with the support of only a few Republicans, including Miami Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Lincoln Diaz-Balart. But it failed in the Senate, and the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who took charge last year has said the DREAM Act won't get another hearing on his watch.

Rivera said he'd been quietly working on immigration reform since he came to Congress a year ago. He said he decided to go with the military-only piece because it already had the support of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- the GOP candidate who Rivera is backing in Tuesday's primary. But it also got a nod from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney during Monday's presidential debate in Florida.

So Rivera decided that even though he doesn't yet have co-sponsors for the legislation, he would introduce a bill while it was timely.

"With the presidential debate...and with Romney's support, that means the two front-running candidates are supportive of it and that could help these kids," Rivera said. "Then Republicans in Congress (might) say: 'If our two presidential front-runners are fine with it, most Americans would be fine with it.'"

Romney had previously said he'd veto the DREAM Act, but has recently endorsed the portion of the legislation that gives young people a path to citizenship in return for military service. His endorsement of the concept came even as he and Gingrich are both fighting for the votes of Hispanic Republicans in Tuesday's presidential primary.

"I would not sign the Dream Act as it currently exists," Romney said during the debate. "But I would sign the Dream Act if it were focused on military service."

That was a centerpiece of Gingrich's immigration position at a Nov. 22 debate, where he also said that some law-abiding longtime illegal immigrants with roots in the community should be given a path to residency -- just not citizenship.

Rivera wouldn't say whether he would have voted for the DREAM Act had he been in Congress when the vote came up last year. He said that he did add some measures to his legislation that might sway skeptics, including a provision that requires applicants to have been in the country not only since they before they turned 16, but for five consecutive years.

His own bill doesn't ensure automatic residency, Rivera said. Applicants would need to meet a set of preliminary criteria to be considered for the program, and once accepted, demonstrate good moral conduct and a record of service in the United States military to then be eligible for legal status.

But since the DREAM Act won't pass as the bill currently exits, said Rivera, why not bite of a piece of immigration reform that might be achievable?

"There's also a lot to be said for victory-by-victory, year-by-year," he said. "Laying the groundwork could very much expedite those reforms in the future."

Many immigration advocates have noted that Romney's hard stance on illegal immigration wasn't helpful in South Carolina or Iowa, and that he had to modify his views when he got to Florida. If Republicans are seen as too tough on young Hispanics that would benefit from the DREAM Act, it could prove to hurt them in Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Florida during the general election.

A Pew Research Center survey released Monday in advance of the president's State of the Union address found that illegal immigration just isn't as important as it once was to people, compared to their concerns about the economy, jobs, education and even the environment.  

The share of Americans who rank it as a top priority has fallen to 39 percent from 46 a year ago -- and 55 percent in 2007, Pew found. The decline occurred across party lines, most notably among Republicans. In 2007, it was the second-highest priority after terrorism for Republicans, with 69 percent ranking it a top priority. Today, just 48 percent of Republicans rate it as a top priority, ranked lower than 11 other priorities.