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Government, Politics & Issues

For millions of undocumented who came to U.S. as children, Dream Act is their shot

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 9, 2010 - Senate Democrats again postponed a vote on the DREAM Act cloture today, which means they didn't have the 60 votes necessary to proceed. The House passed the Dream Act Wednesday (216-198). The office of Sen. Richard Durbin told the Beacon's Washington correspondent that he may try to bring up the Dream

Act in the Senate next week, after the vote on the tax plan. Politico reports that supporters are planning a vote on the House version next week.

The following article originally ran on Dec. 3.

For the past nine years, the DREAM Act, in one form or another, has been talked about, studied, tweaked and changed.

Now, in the lame-duck session of Congress, it may actually have a chance to be voted on by both the House and Senate, even though most Republicans are opposing the bill.

Late Tuesday night, a new version of the DREAM Act was introduced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., making some changes in response to concerns about the bill. The bill is expected to be debated next week in the Senate.

But what is the DREAM Act, whom does it impact and what are its chances of actually becoming law?

They Have A Dream

DREAM stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors and was first introduced by Durbin and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in 2001.

"We should stop punishing innocent young people for the actions of their parents by denying them the chance to stay here and earn an education and contribute their talents to build the country where they have grown up," Durbin said in a speech about the DREAM Act. "The DREAM Act would do this."

The bill has changed over time but essentially would offer a way toward legalization for a specific group of people.

"It creates a pathway to legalization for undocumented youth who've been here for a long time," says Adey Fisseha, policy attorney, National Immigration Law Center.

As an analysis from the nonprofit, non-partisan Migration Policy Institute points out, the DREAM Act wouldn't automatically award legal status but rather requires a certain number of requirements be met over time.

Those most current standards are: A person must be under 29, have been in the states before the age of 16, have been here for five years and have a U.S. high school diploma or GED. Other new language includes restrictions for eligibility if certain misdemeanor crimes are committed by the applicant and a limited ability to sponsor family members in the future.

Once people met those conditions, they would then have 10 years to complete two years of college or military service. If they did that during that time, maintained "good moral character," and paid back taxes, among other requirements, their conditional status would be removed and they'd become legal permanent residents.

It then takes another three to five years to become eligible to apply for citizenship. Even at that point, however, the newest version of the bill limits "chain migration," prohibiting people who qualify from ever sponsoring extended family members and limiting the sponsorship of parents and siblings for 12 years. If those family members were here undocumented, they'd have to return to their country of origin for 10 years before the process could even begin.

The institute's analysis estimates that while 2.1 million people could be eligible to apply for the conditional legal status under the DREAM Act, only about 38 percent, or 825,000, would actually make it because of the standards, English language skills and the ability to pay for college.

Amnesty Or Fixing A Gap?

While groups against the bill call it amnesty, Fisseha points out that it's not a new visa category, but rather a one-time act that would address a specific gap in immigration.

"We all recognize these kids didn't make the decision to come to this country," she says.

And for many who've been here nearly all their lives, she says, it's simply unfair to punish them for the choices their parents made.

"The reality is that they don't know any other home and they were brought here by their parents," says Jennifer Rafanan, executive director of MIRA, Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates.

For Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation For American Immigration Reform, that's a lamentable fact but not something that should require legislation. When you ask most immigrants, documented or undocumented, why they come here, he says, their answer is to do better for their children.

Providing a path to legalization for those children is rewarding parents who came here without documentation.

"We also have to remember who put them in that situation," he says. "It was their parents."

To Rafanan, the entire debate over the DREAM Act needs to be reframed, she says, from focusing on the undocumented as people here to receive benefits to providing opportunities toward legalization for people who are essentially American. New language in the latest version also addresses that, making people who get conditional legal status through the act ineligible for food stamps and Medicaid, among other things.

And while arguments have been made by supporters of the bill as to the value of American-educated youth, both economically and in the work force, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano also sees a security advantage to the law.

"The DREAM Act fits into a larger strategy of immigration enforcement and would actually compliment the Department of Homeland Security's efforts to prioritize our enforcement resources on removing dangerous criminal aliens from the country," she said Thursday in a press conference.

It makes sense, she said, to put energy into enforcing border and interior security.

"What doesn't make as much sense is the idea of spending our enforcement resources to prosecute young people who have no criminal records, who were brought here through no fault of their own, so they have no individual culpability and who now want to go to college or serve in our armed forces."

But will the DREAM Act become law?

"It's a timing situation," Rafanan says. With some major economic issues up, including extension of tax cuts, immigration legislation may not make it through. Still, she says, "it's the best chance we've had."

If the DREAM Act doesn't survive the lame-duck session in which the Democrats still control the House, Mehlman says, its future doesn't look good.

"It's highly unlikely that it would ever make it to the (Republican-controlled) House," he says.

The Dream Act and the States

That could leave the issue of offering in-state tuition to undocumented students to the states. Currently, 10 states have made it possible for undocumented students to receive in-state tuition.

The University of Missouri system does not, according to Rafanan. "In Missouri, they actually have difficulty even enrolling."

State Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, has introduced a Missouri Dream Act in the past, but so far it hasn't made it through. Rafanan isn't sure it could make it in the next session either.

"It's difficult to say because I think immigration has moved down the totem pole," she says, giving way to pressing state budget concerns.

Whether the bill becomes law or not, immigration reform still looms as an important issue, Napolitano says.

"The DREAM Act is not a substitution for comprehensive immigration reform," she says, and there are many issues that relate to border security and enforcement that Congress needs to address. Still, she says, this is something they could do now.

In the meantime, the legal status of millions of youth and young adults, raised and educated in this country, remains at issue. Around the country, Fisseha has seen young undocumented people speak out for themselves more and more, engaging in the political process.

"I don't know that there's any better testament of their American participation than there is with this battle," she says.

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