But they were stunned when Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), a presidential candidate who has made a name for himself as a hard-liner on immigration, called for the three students - all of whom have been in the United States for over a decade - to be arrested.
The Democrats are promoting legislation known as the Dream Act, which would give permanent residency status to certain children of illegal aliens, but only if they came to the country before age 16 and had graduated from high school. Supporters say the measure, which will see a vote tomorrow in the Senate, is very narrowly tailored.
Tancredo has obviously seen a political opening with the situation.
"I call on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency to detain any illegal aliens at this press conference," said Tancredo, who claims to have alerted federal authorities about the well publicized press confrence. "Just because these illegal aliens are being used for political gain doesn’t mean they get immunity from the law. If we can’t enforce our laws inside the building where American laws are made, where can we enforce them?”
The three students were Tam Tran, a 24-year old Vietnamese graduate student; Marie Gonzalez, a 21-year old Costa Rican college student; and Manuel Bartsch, a college sophomore from Germany. All three young adults, who were introduced at a Capitol press conference, have been in the United States for years, but their parents entered the country illegally. All three of them have faced legal hurdles and potential deportation, but have been given temporary extensions that allow them to stay in the country.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who sponsored the Dream Act, said he found it "absolutely stunning" that a member of Congress would call on college students to be arrested at a press conference.
"Their status has been publicly known by federal agencies," Durbin said. "What does it say about America that a member of Congress would call on these young people to be arrested? I don't think they should be arrested. They should be given a chance."