During a debate on Oct. 12, Rep. Brad Sherman, in a bizarre outburst, threw his arm around Rep. Howard Berman, yelling, “Do you want to get into this?”
“This” might have been a physical fight, or it might have been what the two Congressmen were arguing over before Sherman got physical -- namely, whether or not Berman was the original author in 2001 of the DREAM Act, a proposal to legalize some undocumented youth.
Sherman said that Berman was not the bill’s author. Berman, who began the debate at Pierce College on Thursday by touting his authorship of the DREAM Act, which aimed to give a path toward residency and citizenship to immigrants who had come to the United States illegally at a very young age, appeared to accuse Sherman of lying.
On Friday, leaders in the movement for comprehensive immigration reform, immigrant rights advocates and a few of the young immigrants who were the target group for the legislation confirmed that Berman was the original author of the legislation and urged voters in the San Fernando Valley to support Berman over Sherman in the election next month.
“This man [Berman] has represented the community of the San Fernando Valley, the immigrant community, the Latino community with an incredible level of integrity,” Angelica Salas, board chair of CHIRLAction Fund, said during a conference call with reporters on Friday. “Sherman has not voted the wrong way, but he also rarely engages directly with the Latino and immigrant community in order to speak up on their issues.”
Over the course of this long, expensive and hotly contested race between two Democratic incumbents running against one another for a single seat, Berman has frequently found himself having to argue with Sherman about whether he can legitimately claim credit for certain legislative accomplishments.
In April 2012, for instance, countering Berman’s claims that he secured the funding that sped up construction of a new carpool lane on the 405, Sherman claimed a critical role in the project, particularly at the state level. Berman and his supporters worked hard to convince people otherwise, touting assertions by those involved in the funding process – including the former Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar, who had been the ranking member and then Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee when the funding was approved. Oberstar said that it was Berman, not Sherman, who was “the driving force” in getting the project sped up. Still, that hasn’t stopped Sherman from claiming credit in town hall meetings, advertisements and other communications.
Friday’s conference call felt similar, although the organizers said that it had not been coordinated with the Berman campaign.
“We’re doing this because we know the guy [Berman]; we love the guy; and he’s our champion,” Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a group aiming to promote fair and just immigration reform.
Berman, Sharry said, was inspired to write his immigration bill, initially known in the House of Representatives as the Student Adjustment Act, when he met an undocumented honors student in 2001 who told him that she could not go to college because she didn’t’ qualify for financial aid.
Moved by her situation, Berman crafted the bill in 2001 with Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), and brought then Congressman Chris Cannon (R-Utah) on to introduce the bill, on a bipartisan basis.
That year, Sharry said, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), introduced a similar bill, titled the DREAM Act, in the Senate.
“It was understood that both bills introduced in 2001 were companion bills, very, very similar in nature,” Sharry said. “They both became known as the DREAM Act.”
The DREAM Act came up for a vote in 2010, during the lame duck session of Congress. Cesar Vargas, a national advocate for the DREAM Act and a “Dreamer” himself, was in the chamber during the floor debate.
“All I remember was Howard Berman, defending the DREAM Act tooth and nail against Rep. Lamarr Smith (R- Tex), when he was calling us criminals,” Vargas said on Oct. 12.
The bill passed the House, but was stopped by a filibuster in the Senate. President Barack Obama used an executive order to implementa number of the provisions contained in the DREAM Act earlier this year.
During the debate at Pierce College, Sherman loudly proclaimed that it was Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D – Ill.), and not Berman, who had introduced the bill that later became the DREAM Act.
Gutierrez did introduce a bill, the Immigrant Children's Educational Advancement and Dropout Prevention Act, on April 25, 2001, about a month before Berman’s bill was introduced. But that bill, Sharry said, was a “constituency bill,” from a relatively junior congressman who was not on the Judiciary Committee.
Berman, who was serving on the Judiciary committee, had been in Congress for nearly 20 years in 2001, and he had introduced his bill with a Republican co-sponsor. Consequently, Sharry said, Berman’s bill had much more weight, and “that really launched what became a drive since then for the legalization of undocumented students.”
Though the bill has had different names through the years, Berman’s act was introduced in each subsequent Congressional session. Sherman, who was first elected to Congress in 1996, did not sign on as a co-sponsor to any version of the legislation until Nov. 29, 2010, just weeks before it was passed by the House on a close floor vote.
“We really worked hard to get Brad Sherman to sign onto this legislation,” Salas, who was speaking of work she did as director of CHIRLA | Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
“Brad Sherman had to be convinced that he needed to sign onto this legislation,” Salas said. “Many times it was very difficult to even get meetings with him on the subject.”