DREAM Act Passes in House

December 9, 2010

News coverage of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which passed by a thin margin in the House and will presumably be voted on today in the Senate, focused yesterday on the kind of polemical soundbites which have come to dominate public discourse on immigration. On the one hand, conservative senators called the bill a “nightmare act” that would further chip away at ordinary Americans’ tenuous economic footholds. On the other, liberals fruitlessly prodded their opponents with the provocative human element of the bill: at its core, the DREAM Act is meant to provide a path to citizenship for the several hundred-thousand undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. 

Of course, no representative thoughtfully considered the voices on the other side of the aisle and changed the vote they walked in the door with -- it’s pure naivete to think that any ever do.

There are a few reasons why it’s unfortunate that the DREAM Act has been swept up in such politico-theatric hysteria. Not the least important of these reasons is the fact that it’s a relatively short and simple piece of legislation. You can read the full text here, but why bother? You’re eligible for the benefits rendered by the DREAM Act if you:

  1. Are an undocumented immigrant who came to the US before the age of 16
  2. Have been here continuously (unbroken by a period of absence exceeding 90 days) for the last five years
  3. Have a high school diploma, GED, or have been accepted to an institution of higher learning (including 2-year colleges with fully transferable credit towards a bachelor’s degree)
  4. Are under the age of 30
  5. Have not been convicted of a felony or three misdemeanors (this stipulation persists through the probationary period detailed below).

If you fulfill these provisions, you are granted a six-year reprieve from threat of deportation, during which time you must either:

  1. Complete two years of higher education towards a bachelor’s or higher degree, for which you may receive federal loans and/or work-study aid, but not in-state tuition or free money in the form of grants; or
  2. Complete two years of military service without being dishonorably discharged.

After ten years from the date of passage (and no sooner), beneficiaries of the DREAM Act have the chance to apply for citizenship (under the same stipulations as any other petitioner, e.g., paying back taxes, passing a civics test, and demonstrating English facility).

That’s it. The act targets a relatively specific population and gives them two ways out of undocumented status.

The most dramatic of those for the bill have argued that it would give undocumented high schoolers incentives to stay in school, and would alleviate the day-to-day fear of deportation that all too many of them experience. The most dramatic of those against* the bill have argued that it would constitute yet another incentive for undocumented migration, and would expose American citizens to competition for scarce jobs.

Both sides have their merits. It’s clear that passing the bill would be a significant victory for undocumented youth, who would not only have incentives to earn high school diplomas or GEDs, but also to go to college and/or join the military. They would be able to apply for federal aid in the form of student loans or work-study. Perhaps most importantly, they wouldn’t, like most other English-speaking, been-in-the-US-for-basically-all-of-my-life kids, have to worry about getting deported.

But, on the other hand, it’s unrealistic to think that we can definitively predict the economic effect of suddenly and dramatically altering the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Opponents of the bill might very legitimately suggest that the current age cap of 30 is too high, that the bar for evidence of educational attainment is conversely too low, and that proponents are misrepresenting the bill by using anecdotal evidence only from high-achieving students to support it.

But we need also to be quite careful about sucking down the ominous fear-mongering without chewing it some. Yes, the DREAM Act might influence some people to hazard the undocumented journey who might’ve otherwise stayed in the home country. But it seems plausible (to me, at least) that this incentive would only function indirectly in a web of reasons to migrate, by demonstrating a national sympathy towards undocumented migrants. People have been crossing the border illegally since there was a border to cross. And would the DREAM Act, with all of its stipulations, be any more of a “pull” factor than the strength of the dollar versus the peso? Any more of a reason to migrate than your police chief(s)' getting executed by drug runners? People don’t migrate for one reason -- they migrate for many. Yes, the DREAM Act will give people the tools to compete for jobs they couldn’t before. But does it really behoove the United States to have kids in classrooms who have no reason to be there? Who belong already, by definition, to a marginalized segment of society? And then to have these kids funnel into low-wage labor from which (it seems to me) they have no way out? And isn’t it at least plausible that having a growing number of people in these situations will ultimately cost taxpayers more in terms of bankrolling welfare services, police, and jails? What is the compelling alternative that the detractors are pushing?

There is, of course, a moral dimension to this debate that I have wholly ignored.

Today, the DREAM Act goes to the Senate. It is unlikely to garner the 60 votes it needs to avoid filibuster. Given that control of the House will soon turn over to the right, it is unlikely that the act will pass anywhere for at least the next few years, and probably more.

I’ve tried, in this post, to avoid some of the polemical partisan traps that have far too often, in my opinion, waylaid reasonable debate about the DREAM Act. You might disagree of course -- what have I gotten wrong? What do you think about the bill and our obligation to either pass it or tear it up?

p.s. I have no qualms about castigating the pure political gamesmanship of senators like Kay Hutchison (R-TX) and John Cornyn (R-TX), who plan on voting down the bill because it’s the “wrong way and the wrong time” for this type of reform, and because its scope is vaguely too expansive. These statements misrepresent the relative clarity of the act and its quite specific stipulations (targeting, contrary to Hutchison’s statements, precisely those individuals who migrated as children and who were and will be educated in the United States). They are an utterly gutless scheme to slither out of any civic responsibility to, as an elected representative of people who presumably have opinions, take a stand.

*I have left out here the incredibly disingenuous commentators who allege that the DREAM Act grants "amnesty to criminals." It simply (and quite reasonably) allows those with two misdemeanors or less to apply for the six-year probationary period, after which they must comply with the terms of the act without getting into any more trouble. By their utterly bizarre logic, we shouldn't pave roads because -- shockingly -- criminals drive on them.


Winston Chou


Winston Chou is a graduate student in sociology at UCLA. He is especially interested in issues of immigration and second-generation assimilation, but would almost always rather talk about obscure NBA players from the '90s. (Remember Chris Gatling?)



Appreciate the measured piece on the issue; often I feel we at Hyphen are as guilty as anyone, of being too bound by our partisan allegiances to debate with clarity the merits of a/the particular bill being proposed -- as opposed to the ideology for or against it.

Once they become U.S. citizens, these individuals would by law be able to petition for family members to also gain citizenship.  This would therefore expand citizenship beyond the intended students. Is that so ?

That's an excellent question, and one I should have addressed in the post. As I understand, these individuals would, for a minimum of ten years, be considered "conditional nonimmigrants" under the letter of the law -- not "lawful permanent residents" or U.S. citizens. As such, they would be unable to sponsor their families either to enter the United States and/or to gain citizenship.

However, after the ten years, provided they have fulfilled the terms of the law (completing two years either the military or in higher education with good moral standing) and can pass the citizenship test, they would be considered full citizens (e.g. able to sponsor family members).

You can read the revised bill here. It seems clear that the DREAM Act as such doesn't grant amnesty or legal residency to individuals, but rather creates a new category with some very limited rights (e.g., you have to go to college or join the military, and you can't be convicted of a felony or more than two misdemeanors... or not only are you illegal, but the government knows you're illegal).