How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

DREAM Act 101: The basics of the bill

Photo by DreamActivist/Flickr (Creative Commons)

DREAM Act supporters outside L.A. City Hall, June 2009

Since Tuesday, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced that he would attach the DREAM Act to a defense bill and move it toward a vote next week, the proposed legislation has been perhaps the biggest story involving the children of immigrants - in particular, young 1.5 generation immigrants here illegally after having arrived with their families as minors, many as young children. It is estimated that as many as 65,000 undocumented youths graduate from high school in this country each year, according to a fact sheet put out last year by the National Immigration Law Center.

So just what is the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act, and what is its intended efect?

The proposed legislation itself is not new. Several bipartisan versions have been introduced in Congress since 2001, always falling short of the requisite support to move forward. It was last voted on in 2007. The current version of the bill was introduced in March of last year.

Here are some of its key provisions, compiled from the DREAM Act Portal and the National Immigration Law Center:

- The bill would allow qualifying young people to apply for conditional temporary legal status, and eventually obtain permanent legal status and eligibility for U.S. citizenship, if they attend college or join the military.

- The bill would eliminate a federal rule that penalizes states for providing in-state tuition without regard to immigration status, allowing affected students access to cheaper in-state tuition.

The rules for qualifying for conditional legal status under the DREAM Act - good for a period of six years - are stringent. In order to do so, applicants must have: entered the United States before the age of 16; been present in the country for at least five consecutive years before the enactment of the bill; graduated from a U.S. high school, obtained a GED or been accepted to college or a university.

In addition, those who qualify must be between 12 and 35 at the time they apply and of "good moral character," i.e. not have committed a crime, been a security risk or otherwise been deemed inadmissible.

Students with conditional legal status under the DREAM Act would not be eligible for all forms of federal student aid, but they would be eligible for federal work study and student loans, as well as state financial aid. At present, undocumented students cannot qualify for any public financial aid, with private scholarships the only option.

In addition to critics who see the bill as rewarding their parents' illegal behavior, there have been critics of the bill's military component, which is supported by the U.S. Department of Defense and for which it serves as a recruiting tool. Among opponents of minority military recruiting, this aspect of the bill is seen as potentially driving young people who can't attend college to enlist in the military for fear of deportation.

However, many supporters of the bill, who in recent years have strategically moved the DREAM Act away from the bigger picture of comprehensive immigration reform, see the military component as a way of ensuring bipartisan support. As one young student activist I quoted in a post yesterday said, “If we get rid of the military aspect, we get rid of our support from Republicans, and from some Democrats."

Since Reid's announcement Tuesday, college students and other supporters of the legislation have been putting together makeshift phone banks around the country to call key legislators.

The Senate vote on the defense bill, which also includes a provision that would repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military, is anticipated to take place next next Tuesday.

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