The DREAM Act: A Bipartisan Opportunity

In a year in which much of the immigration debate was dominated by polarizing legislation such as the Arizona Immigration law, the DREAM Act represents a bipartisan opportunity for the U.S. Congress to pursue a sensible first step toward greater immigration reform.

The Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act would offer conditional citizenship to a specific group of young individuals.  To gain conditional status under the DREAM Act one must have entered the United States before the age of 16, been in the country continuously for five years, earned a high school diploma (or GED) and not committed any crimes that would otherwise restrict someone from entering the country.  During a six-year period of conditional status, this group will have been required to complete two years in uniformed service or two years enrolled at an institution of higher learning, and must pass a second criminal background check before being considered for full citizenship.  It should also be noted that the DREAM Act only applies to young people currently in the country so that it will not encourage additional families to bring children to the U.S. looking for benefits.

Until recently, the DREAM Act has been the image of a bipartisan bill with both democratic and republican coauthors and over 130 cosponsors.  The Department of Defense sees the DREAM Act as a part of its plan to maintain a mission-ready All Volunteer Force, and the Department of Education sees the act as a way to help the United States stay competitive in the global economy.  Although previously a part of the Defense Authorization Bill, the arguments in favor of the act go far beyond the needs of the military.  By denying these young individuals conditional status, the U.S. is also denying them from contributing to an already ailing economy.  The Congressional Budget Office estimates that enacting the DREAM Act would reduce the budget deficit by $1.4 billion over ten years and raise revenues by $2.3 billion over the same period.  Moreover, by targeting these young people with deportation, the U.S. is punishing them for the decisions of their parents.  Under the current system, there are few other ways for these individuals to receive citizenship that do not involve returning to their country of birth and beginning a lengthy application process to obtain a visa. 

Despite the DREAM Act’s history of bipartisan support, it now faces new opposition.  Those against the act claim it allows undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation through a stipulation that restricts the Secretary of Homeland Security from deporting anyone who is awaiting the results of their application for DREAM Act benefits.  Through this stipulation, it is believed that illegal immigrants may attempt to stay in the country indefinitely by repeatedly applying for benefits.  Furthermore, there are fears that because the bill does not cap the number who may apply, there is no way to stop all of the currently estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants from applying for benefits in order to delay deportation.  Although it’s difficult to believe that undocumented immigrants who are aware of their ineligibility for DREAM Act benefits would risk capture by providing their contact information on an application, those opposed to this stipulation still have time to submit policy language that would close the alleged loophole.  Furthermore, the Migration Policy Institute estimates that of the 2.1 million who could be eligible for DREAM Act benefits, only around 825,000 would gain permanent status through the bill. 

Ultimately, those who oppose the DREAM Act must ask themselves a few reflective questions.  First, how would you measure the fairness of this bill if you stood in the shoes of these young people?  You have worked through the trials of school carrying the dream of one day attending college, but upon your application find that not only is the opportunity you worked to realize not an option, but that you are no longer welcome in the only country you’ve ever known to be your own.  Even if these young individuals do not have proof of their citizenship, the U.S. is still the place of their upbringing and the land they call home.

Overall, the arguments in favor of the DREAM Act come down to a belief in fairness - a belief that the gesture of conditional status is the only deserving treatment for those who were brought to this country as children and have built their lives within these borders.  The DREAM Act does not provide or promote amnesty, nor does it weaken the United States’ stance on the deportation of those who actively break the law to enter the country.  The U.S. Senate should vote to pass the DREAM Act not only on equity grounds, but because it seeks to reconcile the right to be a citizen with what it means to be a citizen.  If for no other reason then this, the DREAM Act should be passed so it may offer a little more harmony to U.S. immigration policy as it strives to align the spirit of citizenship with the recognition of being a citizen.  And while legislators continue to debate the shape of a wider immigration reform, the DREAM Act is one certain step toward progress.