US Senate immigration reform bill would expedite citizenship for undocumented students known as 'Dreamers'

Undocumented students and supporters at a recent rally at the Roybal Learning Center in Los Angeles.
Undocumented students and supporters at a recent rally at the Roybal Learning Center in Los Angeles.
Nataly Tavidian/KPCC

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There are an estimated 1.5 million people living in the U.S. who came here illegally as children. The U.S. Senate’s immigration reform bill, formally introduced early Wednesday morning, would put these so called Dreamers on an expedited path to citizenship.

Erick Huerta, for example, came here illegally from Mexico with his parents and siblings when he was 7-years old. Today he’s studying journalism at Cal State Los Angeles. In his spare time, he advocates on behalf of Dreamers like himself. They were named after the DREAM Act, an earlier proposal to give undocumented students a path to citizenship. Huerta welcomes the Senate’s current proposal for immigration reform.

“It’s pretty much what we’ve been asking for the last couple of years,” he says.

RELATED: 3 key components of the expected Senate immigration bill, explained

Under the bill, undocumented students would be able to apply for green cards after five years and would be eligible for citizenship immediately thereafter. Manuel Pastor, Director of the Center for the Study of Immigration Integration at USC, thinks the measure would be good for students and the state. 

“When you have the president of the Berkley Math Society, who happens to be undocumented, being left out of being able to fully participate in the workforce in our society, boy that’s a tremendous loss,” Pastor says. “And this is going to be extraordinarily important to a large number of youngsters here in Southern California and throughout California.”

Under the proposal, Huerta’s parents and sisters, much like the majority of the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US, could face a wait that’s twice as long as his –10 years – to obtain a green card that would give him legal residency.

“When it comes down to it I am in many ways happy that if things go down the way it is now, I’ll be one of those folks that gets a front of the line pass,” Huerta says. “I’ll be a legal permanent resident in no time, within five years a U.S. citizen. But at the same time, I can’t leave my sisters out. I can’t leave my parents out.”

His parents would also have to pay a $1000 fine and prove that they’ve paid their taxes. Finally, Homeland Security would have to certify that controls in so-called high-risk sections of the border are 90% effective.

Those provisions don’t apply to Dreamers. But Huerta worries that those requirements or triggers, as they’re called in portions of the bill (read below), could be a sticking point for the rest of his family getting their green cards.

“Until they feel that the border is secure, then we can move forward with letting folks in and adjusting their statuses, but that ‘s not going to be the case any time soon,” he says.  “I don’t think the border could ever be 100 percent safe or secure.”

Dreamers like Huerta have been pushing for legal status for more than a decade and the Senate proposal is a major milestone in their fight.

Betty Hung, the Policy Director for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, says Dreamers from the Los Angeles area were among the first in the country to openly declare themselves undocumented and mobilize for a change in the laws.

“They really led the way here in Los Angeles for deferred action, but they didn’t stop there,” Hung says. “They have been organizing themselves for their parents, who they call original dreamers.”

Both Hung and Huerta say they realize the bill faces stiff opposition, will likely go through months of debate and is almost guaranteed to be amended. But they will take that over the immigration laws as they stand now.