After a decade-long battle to push for legislation that would legalize undocumented youth who’ve resided in the United States since they were children, the Senate immigration reform bill offers Dreamers the best DREAM Act version yet.
The immigration reform bill crafted by the so-called “Gang of Eight” provides the vast majority of undocumented immigrants with a 13-year path to legal permanent residency if they learn English, pass a background check and pay back taxes, among other requirements. But the DREAM Act provision of the bill states that Dreamers wouldn’t have to wait that long to legalize their immigrant status.
Instead, they would be put on a five-year path to legal permanent residency. That’s the fastest such track ever offered by any DREAM Act legislation. To qualify, Dreamers must meet certain requirements, including have been present in the U.S. since Dec. 31, 2011, entered the U.S. before the age of 16 and either graduated from a U.S. high school or obtained a GED.
The immigration reform bill also excludes Dreamers from having to pay certain fees. Dreamers who were deported prior to 2012 and were deported for non-criminal reasons would be allowed to reenter the country under the bill.
During the markup of the immigration reform bill, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved two new amendments that would directly benefit Dreamers. One of those amendments, proposed by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), would allow Dreamers to enlist in the military and become citizens within one year of serving. Another one, filed by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), would make Dreamers eligible for some student loans and federal work-study programs to help pay for college, except Pell Grants.
New DREAM Act version is ‘testament’ of Dreamers’ advocacy work
Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream, said the immigration reform bill’s language that would benefit Dreamers is “a testament to the power that United We Dream and Dreamers have built over 10 years of organizing and sharing our stories.”
Dreamers have been advocating for legalization of immigrant youth since 2001 when Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced the first version of the DREAM Act. Numerous attempts have been made to pass the legislation, which would pave a path to citizenship for undocumented youth, but none have been successful.
However, the advocacy work of Dreamers — which has centered on encouraging undocumented youth to tell their stories — paid off last summer when President Barack Obama announced Dreamers would be protected from deportation and granted work permits under the new program dubbed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Many advocates say the deferred action program — coupled with the 2012 election — helped intensify the momentum for immigration reform. The growth in momentum could’ve also influenced the senators in the “Gang of Eight” to propose in their bill this new five-year path to legal permanent residency for Dreamers.
The five-year path has received support even from opponents of the overall language of the immigration reform bill.
“Those who came here at young ages are people who have the most compelling case, so in principle I think the way the bill deals with them in general is okay,” said Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that has been critical of the immigration reform bill.
“There are a lot of other things to criticize of the bill, but I don’t think that providing legal status to those who came at young ages is a bad idea,” Camarota added. “Giving them citizenship rather than some kind of temporary status certainly doesn’t seem unreasonable to me either, so I’m not too much of a critic of that part.”
DREAM Act in immigration reform bill doesn’t include age cap
However, one part of the Senate immigration reform bill that Camarota disagrees with is the lack of age cap for those who would benefit from the bill’s DREAM Act provision.
Past DREAM Act bills stated that only those who were under the age of 30 would qualify. But the DREAM Act provision included in the immigration reform bill doesn’t have an age cap. It only states that anyone who came to the U.S. before the age of 16 could benefit from it.
Camarota said this part of the bill doesn’t sit well with opponents of immigration reform.
“I do think that age caps have an important role to play because they tend to help deter fraud and they help make sure everyone is not eligible for it,” he told VOXXI. “I think that is a reasonable criticism of that provision.”
Meanwhile, Jimenez of United We Dream said an age cap would’ve left out many Dreamers who entered the U.S. as children. One of those Dreamers is Julieta Garibay, a 32-year-old who came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 12 years old. Garibay, a co-founder of United We Dream, wants to become a military nurse.
Jimenez also recognized that the immigration reform bill being crafted in the House could include — or it could be amended to include — a provision that would add an age cap to the DREAM Act. The House bill could also lack some of the same provisions benefiting Dreamers that are included in the Senate bill. However, she said that in conversations with Republicans and Democrats, members of United We Dream have been pushing for the House bill to include the same language as the Senate bill.
“The new standard now is the language that you see in the Senate bill,” Jimenez told VOXXI. “That’s our message to Republicans and Democrats in the House.”
Originally published on VOXXI as Senate immigration bill offers Dreamers the best DREAM Act version yet