POLITICS
04/17/2013 01:00 pm ET Updated Apr 17, 2013

Immigration Bill Would Expand Dream Act To Dreamers Of All Ages

WASHINGTON -- Undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children would be eligible to apply for a quicker path to citizenship, regardless of their current age, under the bill proposed by the Senate's so-called gang of eight and released in full on Wednesday.

The measure is based on the Dream Act, a decade-old bill to give legal status to undocumented young people. But while that bill in its most recent iteration would have left out anyone over the age of 29, the gang of eight bill has no age cap -- a significant victory for the so-called Dreamers, who have long fought for stronger protections, and for Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who made strengthening the Dream Act provisions a "top priority" during the group's negotiations, according to his spokesman.

The Dream Act was first introduced in 2001, and has been championed by Durbin ever since. At the time it was first released, he cited the stories of some undocumented young people who were brought to the country as children and who were now unable to become legal residents or citizens.

But as the bill has awaited passage in the intervening years, some of those immigrants have aged out of eligibility under more recent iterations of the act. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the Obama administration policy that allows some undocumented young people to remain in the U.S., also leaves out older undocumented immigrants, with an age cap of 30.

The new gang of eight bill would allow undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as children to attain lawful permanent resident status more quickly, with a wait time of five years rather the 10 required of others. Dreamers would be eligible if they entered the country under the age of 16, earned a high school diploma or GED here, and attended college for at least two years or served in the military for at least four years.

Under the legislation, Dreamers who have been deported could also apply to reenter the United States, so long as they were in the country prior to 2012 and were not deported for criminal reasons.

Jose Antonio Vargas, an undocumented journalist and activist who has become a face of the immigration reform movement, wasn't available for deferred action because he is 32 years old. But he said Wednesday that it appears he would be eligible for a Dreamer path to citizenship under the new immigration reform bill, which he said is less than perfect but has "some very good things in it." His organization, Define American, will "keep engaging media stakeholders in elevating how we talk about immigration and humanizing immigrants" by discouraging the use of the term "illegal immigrant," he said.

"[A]s someone who's from the 'elder DREAMer' generation (those of us over age 30 who were educated here in the U.S. and consider America our home) -- I am more than elated," he said in an email. "In my travels around the country talking about immigration reform and asking people how do they define American, I've met numerous DREAMers in their 30s and 40s who tell me, 'I am a DREAMer before there was a DREAM Act. I have a dream, too.' I cannot help but think about all of them today."

Of the 36 Dreamers on the cover of Time magazine last year, four (including Vargas himself) had aged out of deferred action, he said.

Other longtime Dream Act advocates also applauded the decision. Undocumented 28-year-old Gaby Pacheco would have been eligible for the Dream Act -- as would her elder sister, but for the fact that her sister is over the age of 30.

Pacheco said the stronger Dream Act provisions are in part thanks to the Dreamers who "came out" as undocumented and shared their stories. Since the last vote on the Dream Act in 2010, even Republicans who voted against it then, such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), have endorsed the idea.

"We've been doing so much work for years now to get to the hearts and minds of people ... even Republican senators, Republican members of the House, they'll say, 'Yes, we'll vote on Dreamers,'" she said. "And I think that's a testament to the work that we've done, but also the power of stories."

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