As President Donald Trump pledges to roll back Obama-era protections from deportation, lawmakers are working to provide a new legal pathway to citizenship for the group of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. They hope to reimagine and reintroduce the proposed DREAM Act of 2001, before existing immigration legislation is completely dismantled.
A new report from the Migration Policy Institute examines the five different legislation proposals currently in the pipeline, all of which would address the legal status of these DREAMers. Each proposal is broken down by its breadth of coverage: how many would be eligible for legalization; how many could eventually gain conditional permanent resident status; and how many could then, finally, get green cards.
The swift passage of one of these immigration bills matters because many of the people they aim to support are faced with a looming threat of deportation. By March, Congress has pledged to eliminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a legal protection for undocumented children implemented by President Obama via executive order in 2012. If they deliver on that promise, the approximately 690,000 people currently enrolled in the program would be vulnerable.
While the original proposal for a DREAM Act existed long before DACA, there is significant overlap between the groups they protect. To be eligible for DACA, people must prove that they were brought to the U.S. before the age of 16. If granted “DACA-mentation,” they are given work authorization and temporary immunity from deportation—but not a clear pathway to legal status. These new iterations of the DREAM Act proposal are also tied to strict age eligibility criteria, but for those covered, they do offer a future that could include legal citizenship.
This fall, Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer met with President Trump over Chinese food and came to what looked like an agreement to pass the DREAM Act. Days later, the president reversed his support. Now, immigration activists worry that new legislation will be packaged with “poison pills” that slip in border enforcement regulations, or kill the bill entirely. The MPI report outlines the legal requirements (poisonous or not) affiliated with each, and quantifies the number of DREAMers who could find a path to legality, should they pass.
Here’s a handy guide to their findings on the five different DREAM-like proposals.
What the Democrats want
Introduced by Democratic representative Rep. Luis Gutierrez (IL) and co-sponsored by 112 (primarily Democratic) representatives, the American Hope Act is the proposal with the broadest and most inclusive criteria. More than 3.5 million people meet the minimum threshold to apply under the Hope act, and all 3.5 million of them have a path to legal residency.
To apply, a child must have come to the U.S. before the age of 18 and have lived here continuously since December 31, 2016. After eight years of conditional status, they can automatically go on to file for a green card; there’s no educational attainment requirement, no military service requirement, and no medical exam. And for those previously supported under DACA, they can use those years in the program to count towards the total eight.
The other four proposals would all also accept over two million people in the first round, but that number would be whittled down more significantly during the second and third. “Some [proposals] are most stringent and would be more difficult to fulfill even if people would qualify because they pass minimum threshold,” says Jeanne Batalova, lead author of the report.
What the GOP wants
Introduced by a trio of Republican senators (Thom Tillis of North Carolina, James Lankford of Oklahoma, and Orrin Hatch of Utah), the SUCCEED Act is the legislative plan with the strictest rules and the smallest scope. While more than 2 million people are eligible for legalization (those who were younger than 16 at the time of their arrival and who have been living in the U.S. since June 15, 2012), only 1.25 million would be able to eventually acquire a green card.
To apply for legal permanent residence, one must have graduated from a higher education institution or attended a postsecondary school for at least 8 semesters, served in the military for three years, or been continuously employed for four years—all in the first 5 years of conditional status.
The SUCCEED Act would also halt chain migration, the process by which legal permanent residents can sponsor their spouses and children for a green card. “The SUCCEED Act would require that recipients wait until they are citizens before being able to sponsor a spouse or child,” says MPI spokesperson Michelle Mittelstadt in an email. This is a process that could take up to 15 years—under the SUCCEED Act, recipients would have to spend 10 years in conditional status before becoming eligible for green cards, and then wait three to five years more before applying for citizenship.
“In reality, however, the affected numbers would be likely to be small,” says Mittelstadt. “Because legalizing immigrants under SUCCEED have to by definition have been in the U.S. since before age 16, and the likelihood is that very few would have had spouses or children before coming here.”
Outside of the individual requirements to entry, the SUCCEED Act emphasizes that it also includes border or enforcement provisions.
All the others
The other three—the Dream Act, the Recognizing America’s Children Act, and the Border Security and Deferred Action Recipient Relief Act—fall somewhere along a middle continuum.
There’s the DREAM Act of 2017, the latest iteration of the bipartisan 2001 proposal first advanced by the GOP’s Hatch and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin. This time, Durbin’s GOP co-sponsor is Lindsay Graham. The updated DREAM Act of 2017 would offer 1.7 million a path to citizenship, enforcing an age limit of 18 and lower educational or military requirements. It’s a major departure from the most recent DREAM iteration, which passed in the House in 2010 and was filibustered in the Senate. That DREAM had a lower age limit of 16. This 2017 update also provides a third pathway to full legal citizenship, allowing those who work for at least three continuous years to apply. “For those who could pursue or obtain legal residence, that’s a difference between 1.7 million compared to 395,000 under the 2010 DREAM Act,” says Ariel Ruiz Soto, a co-author of the report.
The remaining two proposals are sponsored by Republicans, with marginal Democratic support. The Recognizing America’s Children (or RAC Act) and the Border Security and Deferred Action Recipient Relief Act differ only slightly in their legal requirements. Both require an arrival date after January 1, 2012, and both cover 1,399,000 people—only 150,000 more than the austere SUCCEED Act.
To apply for conditional permanent residence, all five of the acts require applicants to lack a criminal record and have “good moral character,” but none have a minimum age threshold to apply for conditional permanent residence; only the Border Security Act has a maximum age threshold (under 31 as of June 15, 2012).
Whichever version of the legislation prevails (if any), its effects will be most noticeable in urban area, where undocumented immigrants are more likely to settle. Since the DREAMer population has significant overlaps with the DACA recipient population, looking at where DACA members live is a good proxy for determining the impact of any such legislation. In September, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services released approximate numbers of active DACA recipients in each city: The Los Angeles area had 89,900, New York City 47,200, Dallas/Fort Worth 36,700, and Houston 35,800. Texas and California cities dominated the chart, both of which had more than 100,000 active recipients living across the state.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle contributed to these drafts, but the relative stringency or lenience falls relatively cleanly along party lines. As for which proposal has the best chance of gaining traction with both parties—the HOPE Act, with its sweeping coverage; or the SUCCEED Act, with its baked-in limitations—Batalova says it’s anyone’s guess.
“It’s probably easier to read the tea leaves at the moment rather than to predict which of these legislations will move forward,” she says. “Now that there’s this set date of March 5 for the program to terminate, there is much more political pressure for Congress to act.”
Congress has plenty of rival priorities, from an imminent tax bill to heath care, and having five slightly different immigration bills on the table means that immigration faces stiff competition for political oxygen. This could lead to delays in moving the bills out of committees and onto the Senate floor—but, Batalova says, it might also “force coalitions that would not have existed otherwise.”
“It will also depend on whether Trump will follow through on one of his statements,” she adds. “That if Congress doesn’t do anything, he may extend the program past March 5, 2018.” With no clear indication of the president’s plan, however, Batalova suspects that one of the five stand-alone bills, or a combination of them, will be discussed as soon as this winter. Because it’s also when Congress will decide on the big budget appropriation legislation, she says, “December 8 might be the perfect target date.”