The DREAM Act—Shrinking Towards Reality

Posted on 07 December 2010

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By Marcelo Ballve

As it inches forward in Congress, the DREAM Act has grown more restrictive.

The DREAM Act—or Development, Education, and Relief for Alien Minors Act—would provide a chance at legal residency for young undocumented immigrants who graduate from high school and go on to college or the military. But how many stand to benefit? How likely are immigrants in their teens and twenties to avail themselves of the opportunities if, as advocates hope, the act passes?

That question has driven much of the debate around the legislation in Congress, where it’s believed the Dream Act has a chance at being voted on and even passing (though it may be an outside chance) in the current lame duck session.

Republicans have been dragging their feet on any legislation tied to immigration, and much of the tinkering with the Dream Act has been geared toward attracting their support, according to Jeanne Batalova, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

“The Republicans tend to favor a tougher stance,” she says. “The conditions are getting more and more restrictive.”

Batalova co-authored a report, published this past summer, that estimated 2.1 million undocumented immigrants would be eligible for DREAM Act benefits under then-current versions of the bill.

Yet the DREAM Act that was actually introduced Nov. 30 tightened age requirements, lowering the age of those eligible for benefits from 34 to 29. That means young undocumented immigrants will have to be 29 or younger when and if the bill passes to be eligible. As in previous versions of the bill they have to have arrived in the United States before age 16 and lived here for five years.

The age limit change sounds dramatic, and for individuals hoping to be covered by the DREAM Act and left out by the modification, it surely is. Yet Batalova’s revised estimates, still unpublished, show the bill’s new age restriction only eliminates an estimated 140,000 individuals from DREAM Act eligibility.

In other words, roughly two million undocumented immigrants would still be eligible for conditional or permanent status.

But the new DREAM Act has become more exclusionary in other ways. During the ten year conditional period, Dream Act beneficiaries would not be eligible for Medicaid, or for the subsidized health insurance exchanges planned by President Obama's health care reform bill. An analysis by the American Immigration Lawyers Association points out the bill has become more exclusionary in other ways: it creates stricter rules for barring those with criminal records (three misdemeanors will now disallow participation) and it makes the path to permanent legal residency and full citizenship more drawn out.

For example, a student with a high school degree who attends college under the DREAM Act would apply for “conditional status” and wait ten years before applying for permanent legal status, and eventually citizenship. In previous versions of the bill the conditional period was only six years.

On the other hand, Batalova says the new version of the bill allows DREAM Act beneficiaries to fulfill their college requirement by attending vocational schools, something that previous versions did not make allowances for.

In the end, though, it is not the bill’s design but barriers to education within immigrant communities that will prevent many potential beneficiaries from availing themselves of the opportunities offered by the DREAM Act, if it passes.

The Migration Policy Institute estimated in its July report on eligibility that only 38 percent of potential beneficiaries, or 825,000 people, would manage to obtain conditional or permanent legal status under the Dream Act.

The reason? The main obstacle cited by the report are the high levels of poverty in immigrant communities, particularly in young households where many potential beneficiaries live (for example, the estimated 934,000 undocumented immigrants who are younger than 18 and would need to graduate high school and then go on to college or the military to get legal status).

Because of changes in the new bill, it’s unclear whether the proportion of eligible immigrants obtaining benefits under the Dream Act would be higher or lower than the 38 percent estimated for the previous version.

The country’s stalled comprehensive immigration reform efforts target a much larger proportion of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. The DREAM Act has a much narrower focus.

“It captures a very select and numerically small group,” says Batalova.

But even this limited effort to link immigration policy to education and military service (and the creation of a skilled workforce) has encountered stiff opposition.

The DREAM Act’s detractors characterize it as an attempt to pander to Hispanic voters with a watered-down immigration amnesty.

In his weekly address, Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republican from Kentucky, demanded attention to the issue of extending tax cuts instead of dwelling on things like immigration policy that “Democrats put off … until after the election.”

Senate Democrats, led by Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada and Dick Durbin of Illinois, will push for a vote on the bill next week. Time is running out for the Dream Act, since Congress is scheduled to begin its holiday recess Dec. 17.

Immigrant rights grassroots organizations at the state and local level have invested money and time to help student groups and youth organizers build a base for the legislation. The DREAM Act has become basically a household word in immigrant communities and media.

“The DREAM Act is an important means of strengthening our economy bolstering our military, and upholding American values of community, opportunity, and hard work,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice.


Marcelo Ballve is a Contributing Editor at New America Media. Marcelo writes on immigration, national affairs and Latin America. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The L.A. Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Baltimore Sun, among others.

Just to be clear, there is NO DEBATE on whether the DREAM Act will be a boon to the US will (aside from also being good for our military). Yes, there is a lot of misinformation out there, so there is a debate in the sense that people who don't know what they're talking about are upset.

But, the Congressional Budget Office "scored" the DREAM Act on Friday (, and found that putting thousands of young, undocumented immigrants on a path to legalization would increase revenues by $2.3 billion over ten years and reduce the deficit by $1.4 billion over the same time period.

Rather than working in the underground economy, DREAM Act students who receive a bachelor's degree would have the opportunity to actually use their college education to boost their income which results in increased tax revenue.

A recent study by the UCLA North American Integration and Development Center showed that the total earnings of DREAM Act beneficiaries over the course of their working lives would generate approximately $1.4 trillion to $3.6 trillion over a 40-year period. Arizona State University found that people who obtain a bachelor's degree earn approximately $750,000 more over the course of their lifetime than those who only have high-school diploma. Though the CBO did note that "the bill would increase projected deficits by more than $5 billion in at least one of the four consecutive 10-year periods starting in 2021," it did not provide a complementary estimate of how much money legalized youth would continue to pay into the system after 2020. It's reasonable to expect that if they contribute $2.8 billion during their first ten years working in the U.S. with a "conditional nonimmigrant" status, this number will continue to grow as they progress in their careers and eventually qualify for legal permanent residency and, ultimately, citizenship.

Unfortunately, neither the revised version of the DREAM Act nor the positive CBO score seem to have had a significant impact on the Republican mindset. Yet, the alternatives the GOP proposes would cost billions more than even the most far-fetched estimates put forth on the DREAM Act so far. The Center for American Progress recently found that a successful policy of mass deportation would total approximately $285 billion within five years alone. It would also cost each American man, woman, and child $922 in new taxes.

Mass deportation would amount to a $2.6 trillion in cumulative lost GDP over ten years, not including the actual cost of deportation. Since it costs approximately $23,148 for each person to be apprehended, detained, legally processed, and finally transported it would cost about $25.5 billion to deport the 1.1 million undocumented immigrants who would actually receive legal permanent resident status as a result of the DREAM Act.

Of course, these costs don't even take into account the lives enforcement-only immigration policies destroys and the communities it tears apart. Meanwhile, it is projected that by 2025, our nation will be short 16 million college-educated workers. To retake that top spot in educational attainment, the U.S. would have to add 1 million college degrees per year through 2025. Put simply, passing the DREAM Act could help abate a national crisis. Deporting talent will only make a bad situation worse.

If immigration were an unalloyed blessing, California - with its many immigrants and unauthorized aliens - would be in much better shape than it is. What am I missing?

Progress, sadly, always comes very, very slowly, especially in a world where the Republican Party and their knuckle dragging racist hordes exist. Nonetheless, the House passed the DREAM Act yesterday by a vote of 216 to 198! Watch Rep. Howard Berman's impassioned speech on the House Floor:

Now we face an obstructionist GOP in the Senate that would rather give tax cuts to billionaires than extend unemployment to the jobless...and hungry. Worse, they won't allow EVEN A VOTE on anything anymore. So, I'm not holding my breath with these guys, but this is a small victory in a much larger struggle for justice.