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A Brief History of the DREAM Act

Young undocumented immigrants known as DREAMers have become the public face of the injustice of the current immigration system, the heart and soul of the reform movement.  They’ve marched on Washington, held demonstrations across the country, and one has attended the State of the Union as Michelle Obama’s guest. Some states, like New Jersey and California, have even passed their own DREAM Acts for their undocumented residents. But what is the DREAM Act?

The DREAM Act has been around for nearly 15 years in one form or another.  Back in 2001, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. Although the bill received bipartisan support, it never passed.

Yet the name stuck.  And it’s easy to understand why.

The DREAM Act conjures up the most powerful and enduring ideal in American history and culture, the American Dream. The idea that no matter where you were born or who your parents are, you still have a chance at success is ingrained in the national ethos. That so many ambitious and hardworking young people who had been raised and educated in the US, who saw themselves as Americans but lacked the proper documents, that they are unable to get ahead because they couldn’t get a work permit or go to college smacks of injustice and contradicts this fundamental American value.

So, despite the initial bill’s failure, DREAM Act provisions have popped up in later legislative proposals over the years as part of larger immigration reform attempts or as stand-alone measures.

While the various bills differ in some of the details, the basic premise is the same: eligible undocumented immigrants would be able to apply for an adjustment of status and could eventually receive a green card- putting them on the path to citizenship. To be eligible, the applicant would have to prove that she had been physically present in the US for the last 5 years, had entered the country before the age of 16, and had never been in removal proceedings. And in addition to having a high school diploma or its equivalent, she would have to demonstrate good moral character.

Some of the bills would have granted conditional permanent status to eligible unauthorized immigrants using a mechanism known as cancellation of removal, a discretionary form of relief. Usually, an immigrant applies for this type of relief while in removal proceedings before a judge, but these bills would have allowed eligible individuals to apply affirmatively. After completing at least 2 years in a higher degree program or serving in the military, she would be eligible for legal permanent resident status and get a green card.

Unfortunately, despite coming close, the DREAM Act has failed to pass at the national level. The DREAM movement, however, has only grown stronger. Activists have broken the taboo and have “come out” as undocumented.  Several states have passed their own versions of the DREAM Act or have extended in-state tuition to undocumented residents.  In 2012, President Obama implemented the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) which granted temporary relief to those who would have been eligible under the DREAM Act, allowing them to get a work permit and avoid deportation for 2 years. And last week, the former CEO of the Washington Post announced a new $25 million scholarship fund called the  and backed by Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg that will award 1,000 full tuition scholarships to DACA recipients.

These recent successes prove that DREAMers are a force to be reckoned with. Hopefully this momentum leads to meaningful legislation because temporary relief and scholarships are no substitute for citizenship.

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