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SAN DIEGO -- Why did Congress suddenly turn out the lights on the DREAM Act?

A lot of Latinos would really like to know because they're trying to figure out -- to borrow a line from President Obama in discussing the Gulf oil spill -- "whose ass to kick."

The answer is more complicated than you think. Although you wouldn't know it from listening to the dozen or so immigration reform groups that are frantically spinning this as another example of Republican obstructionism and a GOP that is hostile to immigrants. Or to those elements of the national media that blame Republicans for every setback on immigration reform.

Witness the headline in The Washington Post: "Senate Republicans hold up DREAM Act for children of immigrants." That's nice and simple, but also misleading.

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, which was first proposed in 2001, would give young people in the United States illegally "conditional permanent residency" if they attend college or serve in the military. They could eventually get the chance to apply for U.S. citizenship.

Majority Leader Harry Reid recently decided to hold a vote on the measure as an amendment to a defense spending bill.

It's true that the vote on the amendment was 56-43, and that not a single Republican voted in favor.

For what it's worth, I think Republicans made a strategic mistake. The GOP should have seen the DREAM Act as a softer alternative to what immigration restrictionists insist on calling "amnesty." They should have supported it and defused the criticism that they're anti-immigrant.

The politics are complicated. And that's because both parties see the DREAM Act through the narrow lens of: "What's in it for me?"

Republicans don't like the idea because they worry that these young people, once they obtain citizenship and the accompanying right to vote, might have long memories about the atrocious way that the GOP treated their undocumented parents with one dishonest initiative after another.

Some Democrats don't like the idea because they're afraid of being perceived as soft on illegal immigration. Others are not willing to settle for the estimated 700,000 illegal immigrants who could be impacted by this proposal when they have a shot at a broader-based comprehensive immigration reform plan that would legalize -- and mobilize -- as many as 10 million immigrants.

Keep in mind that Democrats have controlled both houses of Congress since January 2007, and yet Democratic leaders have never before made a push for the DREAM Act -- the way they've pushed proposals they really care about, such as repealing tax cuts, increasing the minimum wage, and reforming health care. And keep in mind that, as has been reported in The Hill newspaper and other Beltway press outlets, there has been significant infighting among Democrats between those who wanted the act considered separately and those who wanted it lumped together in a larger comprehensive reform bill.

That larger, more-inclusive bill is the unicorn of the immigration debate. It doesn't exist because, despite promises and more promises, Democrats haven't proposed it. And they will never propose it as long as their party is fractured in the immigration debate and they can get more mileage out of using the issue to bludgeon Republicans.

When Latinos reflexively paint Republicans as the villains on immigration reform, they only hurt their own interests. They discourage the GOP from supporting a compromise and remind Democrats that their party benefits more from a stalemate than from a solution, both of which push the prospects for real reform further down the road.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is