Undocumented immigrants growing up in the United States face many challenges. In addition to the threat of deportation, they often encounter obstacles in receiving a college education or finding gainful employment in a recognized occupation. A provision within the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996 restricted public colleges from offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, making higher education too expensive for many students without legal resident status who may otherwise have been able to afford it. Faced with higher tuition, these students often deferred their education or chose not to pursue college. In 2001 lawmakers introduced several bills in the House of Representatives aimed to address obstacles preventing undocumented immigrants from attaining an education, including the Immigrant Children’s Educational Advancement and Dropout Prevention Act and the Student Adjustment Act. These bills inspired Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah to introduce a similar bill in the Senate called the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, on August 1, 2001. Since Hatch, a Republican, first introduced the DREAM Act, the bill has received support from both Republicans and Democrats. Despite the bill being introduced several times in both houses of Congress, as of November 2017, opposition from both political parties has prevented the DREAM Act from becoming law.
Benefits and Requirements of the DREAM Act
If enacted into law, the DREAM Act would not automatically make anyone eligible for US citizenship. Instead it would provide certain key benefits of legal immigration status and a path for young immigrants to eventually attain citizenship. To qualify for conditional permanent resident status under the provisions of the DREAM Act, undocumented immigrants would be required to have first arrived in the United States before the age of sixteen. They would also be required to reside in the United States for at least five years, earn either a high school diploma or a general equivalency diploma (GED), register with the Selective Service, and be between twelve and thirty-five years old at the time of the bill’s passage. The applicant would also have to meet the legal definition of “good moral character,” which means that the applicant cannot have committed a serious crime, including most drug-related offenses, posed a security threat, or provided false documents or information during the application process.
Immigrants who wish to pursue this course to permanent resident status and ultimately citizenship would be required to provide the government with a significant amount of personal data, submit to a series of background checks, and undergo a medical examination. Then, following two years of either college or military service, qualifying applicants would be granted permanent resident status. After living in the country with permanent resident status for five or more years, a person can apply for citizenship.
In its initial introduction, the DREAM Act garnered support from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers but could not secure enough votes to pass through the Senate. Lawmakers continued to introduce the bill in subsequent congressional sessions, usually attached to other more comprehensive bills including the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Acts of 2006 and 2007. In 2007 legislators added it to the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act, and it again failed to pass. Lawmakers were also unsuccessful in 2009 despite introducing the DREAM Act in both houses of Congress. In 2010 the DREAM Act failed to pass in the Senate. After receiving encouragement from then president Barack Obama, the House passed an amended version of the bill that failed in the Senate. This amended bill received fifty-five votes in the Senate. However, several Republican senators stalled the act through use of the filibuster, a tactic used to prevent legislative action through prolonged debate, that could have been prevented had five more senators voted in favor of the bill. The act once again failed to pass when reintroduced to the Senate in 2011.
Numerous colleges, military personnel, and religious groups, including the United Methodist Church, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bend the Arc Jewish Action, and the National Council of Jewish Women, expressed support for the DREAM Act. Many lawmakers, however, continued to oppose the bill. Republican senator John Cornyn of Texas, who had previously supported the bill, criticized the bill in 2011 for failing to provide enhanced border security and workplace enforcement. Florida senator Marco Rubio, also a Republican, expressed concern that the DREAM Act would encourage future immigration and reward people who broke the law with citizenship. Rubio did, however, offer what he considered a compromise in 2012 that would not provide a path to citizenship or permanent residency but would allow temporary visas for school and employment. Rubio’s compromise failed to receive significant support from either Republicans or Democrats.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals
Frustrated that the DREAM Act had repeatedly stalled in Congress, President Obama issued an executive order in June 2012 aimed to provide relief to young undocumented immigrants. While Obama’s executive order did not create a path to citizenship, the directive declared that the US government would no longer deport undocumented immigrants under age thirty who arrived in the United States before age sixteen, have resided in the country for at least five years, pose no security threat, have not been convicted of a felony or more than three misdemeanors, and have met requirements regarding education or military service. The order created a new immigration policy and program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Qualified applicants in the program are referred to as DREAMers, a reference to the DREAM Act. Because of this, many people have confused the DACA program with the DREAM Act.
The DACA program allows those who qualify the opportunity to get drivers’ licenses and work permits and to apply for college in the United States. They may also be eligible for health insurance and in-state college tuition benefits. On August 15, 2012, when US Citizenship and Immigration Services officially adopted the DACA program, tens of thousands of young immigrants lined up at immigration offices across the country. At the same time, however, many opponents of the legislation took steps to block its effects. Arizona governor Jan Brewer, for example, issued an executive order that denied many benefits, including driving privileges and state-funded insurance and childcare, to program applicants throughout the state.
In November 2014 President Obama proposed expanding the opportunities of DACA to the undocumented parents of US citizens and permanent residents. The proposed program, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), faced a legal challenge from twenty-six states in United States v. Texas at the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Louisiana. The plaintiffs argued that Obama had violated the Take Care Clause, also referred to as the Faithful Execution Clause, of Article Two of the Constitution, a clause that aims to clarify the extent of executive power. The court ruled in the states’ favor, and the US Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s judgment.
In the following years, however, a rising number of states passed their own programs that reflected goals of DREAM, particularly focusing on helping young illegal immigrants gain access to higher education. By July 2017 undocumented students could receive in-state tuition at public colleges and universities in over twenty states as a result of either state legislation or institutional policy.
An Uncertain Future
Obama’s successor Donald Trump campaigned heavily on the promise to curb illegal immigration. His election brought additional uncertainty to DREAMers, young people who had placed their trust in the US government without a guarantee that enrolling in DACA would result in a path to citizenship. On January 27, 2017, Trump issued an executive order titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” which included a provision that rescinded privacy protections for immigrants in the United States without permanent resident status, including undocumented immigrants as well as students and asylum seekers. Democratic and Republican lawmakers introduced a revised version of the DREAM Act to the Senate and the House of Representatives in July 2017.
On September 5, 2017, President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the end of the DACA program, contending that undocumented immigrants took economic opportunities away from citizens and lawful permanent residents. By that time, nearly 800,000 applicants had had their DACA requests approved by US Citizenship and Immigration Services. The decision received opposition from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers as well as protests from immigration activists and statements from business leaders, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Others, however, heralded the decision as a firm stance against illegal immigration. In the month following Trump’s announcement, almost two hundred members of the House of Representatives, most of them Democrats, signed on to cosponsor the DREAM Act of 2017. Two senators also responded by adding their support to an identical bill in the Senate, bringing its total number of cosponsors in the Senate to nine.