Will the DREAM Act Be Watered Down to Get Republican Support?

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 Yet Batalova’s revised estimates, still unpublished, show the bill’s new age restriction only eliminates an estimated 140,000 individuals from DREAM Act eligibility.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.

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