MIAMI — Dozens of college students lay down on South Beach on Sunday afternoon, but not to sunbathe. Most were immigrants in this country illegally, and their bodies, fully clothed, formed giant letters that spelled out a message for Floridians and one of their senators, complete with a human exclamation point: Call LeMieux!
The students staged the surfside demonstration after Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, announced last week that he would add to a military spending bill an amendment that would open a path to legal status for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrant students. Senator George LeMieux, a Republican, has not declared his position, and the students hoped to secure his support for the measure, which will be put to a first test on Tuesday with a procedural vote.
Illegal immigrant students across the country have not been deterred by reports from Washington that the measure, known to its supporters as the Dream Act, has slim chances of passing. Republicans have denounced Mr. Reid’s move to even bring it up just six weeks before midterm elections as a ploy to attract Latino voters during his own hard-fought re-election campaign in Nevada, and they say a proposal on an issue as contentious as immigration should not be attached to the military reauthorization bill.
But in Phoenix and Boston, immigrant students who want to enlist in the military under the terms of the student bill performed drills over the weekend and on Monday in front of the offices of Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Senator Scott P. Brown, Republican of Massachusetts.
In Utah, students started a call-in campaign and held a sit-down vigil to draw the attention of Senator Orrin G. Hatch, a Republican who was one of the first sponsors of the student bill nearly a decade ago, but has not made clear how he will vote this time. In California, immigrants wearing caps and gowns started public fasts, scheduled rallies and unfurled banners over highways. Actions were also reported in nine other states.
“We are literally asking people to stop their lives to support the bill,” said Carlos Saavedra, president of the United We Dream coalition, a national immigrant student organization.
Miguel Sanchez, 19, a Miami Dade College student who has been in the United States illegally since he was 10, was one side of an “A” in the human billboard message on Miami Beach, which was filmed by television cameras. Mr. Sanchez, who is from Honduras, said he hung back for years, worried that public protest could lead immigration agents to locate and deport him. But he said that if he continued much longer without legal status, he would not be able to transfer to a larger university to complete college.
“All of a sudden I’ve lost that fear,” Mr. Sanchez said.
The urgency for change among illegal immigrant students has made them the most outspoken flank of the movement pushing for legislation to open a path to legal status for millions of immigrants here illegally. Immigrants who were brought to this country unlawfully as children can generally complete public high school without problems, but they hit a wall when they try to go to college. They cannot receive public financial aid and in many states must pay high out-of-state tuition rates. They cannot obtain driver’s licenses, or in many cases licenses to practice a skill or profession even if they manage to graduate.
“We just found a wall, an obstacle that we couldn’t overcome,” said Guillermo Reyes, 26, a student at Florida Atlantic University who participated in the South Beach protest. Immigration authorities detained Mr. Reyes last year but deferred his deportation, so for now he is authorized to work and attend school. But for the long term, he said, “that is really the only hope that we have, for the Dream Act to pass.”
While Mr. Reid’s decision to bring up the student legislation took many Republicans by surprise, it was the result of recent discussions by Democratic leaders and White House officials with immigrant advocates and student leaders, several participants in those talks said.
The advocates argued that after President Obama did not deliver on repeated promises to pass a larger immigration overhaul early in his term, the Democrats had to show some action on immigration before midterm elections that seem likely to bring gains for Republicans.
Mr. Reid was persuaded by impatient student leaders who said they did not want the measure to wait for a larger immigration law overhaul, Congressional aides said.
Mr. LeMieux’s offices received many phone calls in recent days, from callers both for and against the immigration bill, said his spokesman, Ken Lundberg.
The news of the vote on the student bill brought an outpouring from academic leaders, after many college presidents have declared their support in recent years. Michael M. Crow, the president of Arizona State University, and David J. Skorton, the president of Cornell, sent a letter in June to 2,200 university and college presidents asking them to urge lawmakers to pass the bill.
The focus in Arizona this year has been on curbing illegal immigration, with a crackdown bill enacted in April. (Important sections of that law were stayed by a federal court.) But in an interview Monday, Mr. Crow said his university, with 70,100 students, was supporting hundreds of immigrants each year who lack legal status by raising private money.
“There are thousands and thousands of students who were successful in public school, who did everything right and didn’t do anything wrong on their own,” Mr. Crow said. “The bill is their pathway to innocence.”
The student bill would open a path to eventual legal residency for illegal immigrants who arrived in the country before they were 16 years old, have been here for at least five years and have graduated from high school. It would require them to finish two years of college or military service before gaining legal status.
About 726,000 illegal immigrants would become immediately eligible for legal status under the bill, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a research group in Washington.
The Defense Department has listed passage of the student bill among the goals in its formal strategic plan for the next two years. But many Republicans argued that the student measure was not directly related to military reauthorization. In an interview on Fox News last week, Mr. McCain, who has supported the student bill in the past, said that in this instance Mr. Reid and other Democratic leaders “have put their political agenda ahead of the welfare of the men and women who are serving in the military today.”
On South Beach, the students’ emotions ran high on Sunday, as many laughed and some cried when they spoke of their frustrations over trying to stay in college, and being left behind by peers who are American citizens. But Mr. Reyes said they were not considering defeat. “None of us have the idea of the Dream Act not passing even being conceived in our minds,” he said.