by Matthew Bray

In the long-running and contentious political debate surrounding immigration reform, one of the most widely discussed issues has been how to resolve the immigration status of those brought to the United States as children. While pundits often argue that passing comprehensive immigration reform will reward law breakers, few seriously contend children should be punished because their parents or guardians may have violated immigration law in bringing them to the United States illegally or overstaying their visas. It is hard to insist that young people who have grown up almost exclusively in the United States should abandon their homes, families, jobs--and the only lives they’ve known--in order to come into compliance with immigration law.

Immigration law itself creates many of the problems these potential new Americans face. Visa backlogs, for example, keep families waiting years for their cases to be called, and children bear the brunt of these backlogs: very often by the time a visa number is available, the child is over 18 and no longer considered a “child” under immigration law, and therefore unable to use the visa. Some efforts have been made to bring immigration law in line with the reality of these visa backlogs (including the Child Status Protection Act of 2002), but these efforts fall far short of meeting the needs of the more than 2 million undocumented youth in the United States. 

These young people came to the United States as children, sometimes as infants, and have known no other life outside of this country. Most were brought here by their parents, either illegally crossing the border, or entering the United States lawfully on visitor or other temporary visas and then overstaying those visas. They have gone to our schools. Many speak only English and not the language(s) of their birth country. Most have never been back to their birth country since leaving. They have worked the same odd jobs as many of their US citizen peers, have the same aspirations and hope to live their own version of the American Dream. Importantly, many discover that they are not American only at the time that they are applying to college or for full-time jobs, or seeking to enlist in the military. This discovery is often a highly traumatic experience as they see the possibilities for their futures shrink, and begin to feel the sting of discrimination from employers and colleges. Many young people in this situation find themselves feeling hopeless and depressed, held back by a situation beyond their control. 

Among the first legislative efforts to address the unique situation of undocumented youth was the "Immigrant Children's Educational Advancement and Dropout Prevention Act of 2001" (H.R. 1582), introduced by Representative Luis Gutierrez in the House of Representatives in April 2001. This bill was aimed at immigrants who had entered the US under the age of 16 and were not older than 25, were enrolled in secondary education or post-secondary education (high school, college, or junior college), and had resided in the United States continuously for at least 5 years. In addition, to be eligible, the immigrants would have to be persons of “good moral character.” (“Good moral character” is a term of art used in immigration law referring to the character of the foreign national in relation to the standards of average citizens in their community. In general, criminal convictions and other illegal activity preclude applicants from being able to show “good moral character.” While many other eligibility requirements of the legislative efforts discussed here have changed over the years, the “good moral character” requirement has remained.)

The “Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act” (S.1291, "The DREAM Act") was first introduced in August 2001 by Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch. The Act specifically provided for the granting of lawful permanent resident (LPR) status (i.e., a green card) to applicants of “good moral character” under 21 that had resided at least 5 years in the United States and had received a high school diploma or its equivalent. Versions of the DREAM Act have been introduced since that time, in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Each has been defeated by opponents who have criticized the bill as “amnesty” and rewarding law breaking. The Act was also introduced as part of a broader immigration reform package in 2006 and 2007, yet it died with the broader bills.  Significantly, later versions of the bill included a promise of a green card to military recruits, and as a result the DREAM Act began to garner support from military leaders as a way to boost recruitment. 

Parallel with these important legislative efforts to bring undocumented youth into the mainstream of American society were the grassroots efforts of undocumented youth themselves. While many young people give up their dreams of college and good jobs, others have fought back. These young people are the real DREAM story, undaunted by the decades of opposition to immigration reform and willing to fight for their American dream. Known as DREAMers, these young people have been creative in overcoming the serious obstacles in their way. Some have managed to obtain in-state tuition scholarships notwithstanding their lack of legal status; others have started their own businesses, employing American workers and contributing to the economy. Still others have engaged in advocacy and activism, including civil disobedience, in order to raise the profile of the DREAM Act cause, and the broader fight for immigration reform. Some DREAMERs have told their stories

After a stinging defeat in the Senate in 2010, the DREAM Act was reintroduced in 2011 where, despite growing support nationwide for the Act and immigration reform more generally, it was again defeated. Following Obama’s re-election in 2012, the administration made a major announcement for DREAMers: Young people brought to the United States as children could apply for “deferred action” and work authorization. This program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (or DACA) is available to people who were under 31 as of June 15, 2012; had arrived to the United States when they were under 16; had continuously resided in the US since June 15, 2007; were physically present on June 15, 2012; had entered without inspection (illegally crossed the border) or were out of status (for example, overstayed visa) as of that date; were currently in school, have graduated or obtained a certificate of completion from high school, or a general education development (GED) certificate, or are an honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States; and have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, three or more other misdemeanors, and do not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.

As of August 31, 2013, USCIS reported that more than 567,000 DACA applications were received and more than 455,000 were approved. Despite these big numbers, many experts consider that the program has been underused, in part because of the filing fees associated with the application as well as the burden of documentary evidence required for the application. Since so many of these children have grown up “undocumented,” they are simply unable to provide all the documents needed for the application.  In addition, many young people felt that the program fell far short of the real goal of comprehensive immigration reform, since a grant of DACA only provides a 2-year reprieve from deportation, but no permanent immigration status and no path to citizenship. Still, for the nearly half a million young people who were granted DACA, the ability to lawfully work in the United States has meant more job opportunities and the ability to obtain important documents like social security cards and states drivers licenses.
As Protima discussed in an earlier post, the DREAM Act was included as section 2103 in the comprehensive immigration package, the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act” (BSEOIMA, S. 744), passed by the Senate in June 2013. BSEOIMA creates a new category of immigrant, called “Registered Provisional Immigrant” (RPI), and generally requires that they hold that status for 10 years before they can apply to become lawful permanent residents (LPRs, Green Card). This version of the DREAM Act promises lawful permanent resident status after a shortened 5-year period to RPIs who entered the US under the age of 16, had earned a High School Diploma or equivalent, including a GED, and had either obtained a college degree or completed two years of a bachelor’s program or had served honorably at least four years in the Uniformed Services. Section 2103 also permits a more streamlined procedure for DACA recipients, and, importantly, allows DREAM Act LPRs to apply immediately for citizenship upon becoming LPRs.

The DREAM Act debate is far from over, and the final chapter in the saga to bring justice to people brought to the United States as children has yet to be written. Yet it does appear progress has been made in a political process that is never simple or easy. Just recently, Democrats in the House of Representatives introduced a bill that largely mirrors the BSEOIMA and its DREAM Act provisions. While given the current gridlock in Congress, this legislation is unlikely to move far, it nonetheless is evidence that the DREAM Act is firmly a part of a broader immigration reform effort and enjoys broad political support. In the meantime, DREAMers continue to rally and build grassroots support for the DREAM Act and full comprehensive immigration reform in the hopes of winning for themselves and their parents a path to citizenship and the American Dream.