Millions of undocumented immigrant youth called Dreamers live in the United States without legal status. A series of proposed laws, called the DREAM Act, could fix this problem by giving Dreamers a pathway to lawful status and, eventually, citizenship. Since 2001, the DREAM Act has never passed into law. But the DREAM Act’s most recent version was approved by the House of Representatives on March 18, 2021 and could go to a vote before the Senate. If you're looking to learn more about the history and future of the DREAM Act, this article has you covered!
Written by Jonathan Petts.
Written May 30, 2022
Who Are The Dreamers?
Dreamers are young undocumented immigrants who were born abroad but brought to the United States as children. When a child is born in the United States, they become an American citizen from the second they are born; this is called "U.S. birthright citizenship." But if that child is born anywhere else in the world, they do not get U.S. birthright citizenship. So if parents come to the United States without lawful entry and bring their child along, the child then grows up in the United States without U.S. citizenship or any other legal status.
That's where the Dreamer story begins. There are millions of young people whose parents brought them to America as children, who don't share the same legal protection as their friends and neighbors who were born here.
Until 2012, undocumented youth often could not obtain higher education because they did not qualify for in-state tuition or federal financial aid like federal student loans and work-study. In addition, undocumented youth couldn’t work legally in the United States because they didn’t qualify for work authorization eligibility.
In 2012, the Obama Administration created the "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" program, called "DACA" for short. DACA allowed Dreamers to obtain renewable two-year work permits and to qualify for federal student loans. To apply for DACA, Dreamers need to satisfy certain eligibility requirements with proof including things like a high school diploma, evidence of military service where applicable, among others. The DACA program has allowed over 700,000 young undocumented immigrants to live and work lawfully in the United States without the daily fear of deportation.
Court challenges to the DACA program
In 2017, the Trump administration ordered the Department of Homeland Security to end the DACA program. Fortunately, in June 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that the Trump Administration used improper procedure in ending the DACA program, providing some relief for Dreamers.
But the Court did not say that the government could never end DACA. Nor did the Court rule on whether DACA is legally valid. In other words, the Supreme Court refused to answer whether President Obama had the proper authority to create DACA in the first place.
At present, a federal court in Texas is hearing a case about whether DACA is legally valid. A group of attorneys general from Texas and other states are suing to end DACA. They argue that DACA must end because, they say, President Obama never had the proper authority to create DACA in the first place. The New Jersey Attorney General and several DACA beneficiaries argue that DACA is legal and that President Obama did have the proper authority to create it.
The federal court hasn't ruled yet. If the federal court agrees with the Texas Attorney General, it might order the government to end DACA and to stop accepting DACA applications. The case would likely then go to the Supreme Court.
How is the DREAM Act different from DACA?
DACA is currently the only legal protection undocumented youth have from deportation, but Congress has proposed an immigration reform bill called the DREAM Act to provide additional protection. The DACA program and the DREAM Act have similar goals of protecting Dreamers but they differ in the extent of protection they can provide.
The goal of the DREAM Act is to give Dreamers permanent legal status and a pathway to citizenship. On the other hand, DACA only offers "deferred action" that recipients have to renew every two years.
Deferred Action is not lawful status itself; instead, it's a government decision not to start removal proceedings (commonly called "deportation") against someone. Deferred Action has a long history in U.S. immigration law of protecting immigrants on humanitarian grounds. DACA fits with this history since it protects young undocumented students and workers from being kicked out of the country they grew up in. DACA applications are granted or denied at the discretion of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services ("USCIS"), the agency that processes immigration applications.
The DREAM Act would make Dreamers eligible for lawful permanent resident status (green card), which they'll never need to renew. Having a green card would also allow Dreamers to apply for lawful immigration status for their family members who are undocumented or have temporary non-immigrant visas (like student visas). The DREAM Act would also offer Dreamers a pathway to citizenship, protecting them from deportation forever.
What is the history of the DREAM Act?
Congress has considered the DREAM Act many times over the past two decades. The Act was first proposed in 2001, and the latest vote was in March 2021. Still, the DREAM Act has not become law.
The first time the DREAM Act came to Congress was in 2001. Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Orrin Hatch of Utah introduced a bill called the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act. Congress abbreviated it as the "DREAM Act," which is where the term "Dreamers" comes from. The Durbin-Hatch bill would have given lawful status to Dreamers who came to America before turning 16, could pass criminal background checks, and either graduated high school or earned a GED.
It would have made these Dreamers eligible for a "conditional residency" status that would let them live and work in the U.S. for six years. After six years, they could get lawful permanent resident status, better known as a "green card." Despite support from both Democrats and Republicans at the time, that bill never became law because it couldn't get enough support in the Senate.
Successive Legislative Failures
Since 2001, the DREAM Act has been introduced in Congress at least ten times. It has yet to pass. Some years, the DREAM Act was its own bill, such as in 2003 and 2005. Other times, members of Congress tried to introduce the DREAM Act as part of other bills. For example, some Senators planned to attach the DREAM Act to a defense authorization bill in July, 2007. This effort failed when Congress withdrew the authorization bill because of issues related to the Iraq War timetable. In 2010, another standalone DREAM Act passed in the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate by five votes.
What is the future of the DREAM Act?
We can't be certain what the future holds or whether Dreamers will ever become U.S. citizens. But we can share what’s happening now on Capitol Hill.
The most recent version of the DREAM Act was introduced in Congress in March 2021. That bill, called the "American Dream and Promise Act of 2021," passed the House of Representatives but has not gone up for a Senate vote yet. The bill proposes to create a three-step pathway to citizenship for Dreamers.
First, a Dreamer could apply for something called "conditional permanent residence," a special status that would grant the Dreamers work authorization and protect them from deportation. Second, any Dreamer with conditional permanent resident status could apply for "lawful permanent residence," better known as a green card. Third, Dreamers who have held green cards for five years could apply for citizenship by naturalization.
What has President Biden promised?
Joe Biden was Vice President in 2012 when President Obama created the DACA program. During his presidential campaign, Biden promised many times to protect DACA and Dreamers.
On his inauguration day, President Biden signed an Executive Order to reinstate DACA fully. He also expressed his support for legislation that would provide a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients and temporary protected status (TPS) for other undocumented immigrants. President Biden has promised to sign the DREAM Act into law if Congress decides to approve it.
What have members of Congress said?
Before President Biden can sign the DREAM Act into law, it would have to pass first in the House and then in the Senate of Congress.
Generally, U.S. lawmakers have opposing stances on immigration reform. The Democrats are virtually united: the Democratic leadership and most Democratic members of Congress support the DREAM Act. The Republicans are a little more divided. The Republican leadership opposes most immigration reform, including the DREAM Act, although some Republican senators support it.
So far, the 2021 DREAM Act has passed in the House of Representatives, where the Democrats control the majority. The Senate, which is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, has yet to vote on the Act.
For the DREAM Act to become law, it would likely need support from members of both parties in Congress. There is no telling how soon that could happen.