As a vote is pending in the Senate, activists are urgently calling for the bill’s passage.

by Cynthia Hess, Ph.D.

Last week the U.S. House of Representatives did something it had tried unsuccessfully to do in the past: it passed the Development Relief and Education of Alien Minors, or DREAM Act. The House’s action has sparked considerable hope among young immigrant activists, although their struggle is not yet over (the Senate delayed its vote on the DREAM Act last week and is expected to vote this week).

For months DREAM Act activists (whose efforts have often been led by undocumented students, particularly women) have publically marched and demonstrated in Washington to support the bill, risking arrest and deportation. These activists argue that the risk is worth it because if the DREAM Act were to become law, it would have an enormous impact on the lives of many young immigrants. According to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, approximately 726,000 unauthorized young adults would immediately be eligible to benefit from its provisions.

Specifically, the DREAM Act would give undocumented youth and young adults who were brought to the United States as children a chance to apply for legal permanent resident status (on a conditional basis) if they are under the age of 35, migrated to the United States before the age of 16, have lived in this country for at least 5 years, and have graduated from high school. Those who go on to successfully complete at least two years of college or military service and show good moral character can have the conditional basis of their status removed.

Activists, service providers, and others working with immigrant communities maintain that the act could not only help immigrant youth and young adults, but also have at least two additional positive effects. First, it would help revive the sagging economy by allowing those who would benefit from the legislation to develop and realize their full potential. Currently, many undocumented youth graduate from high school to find that their immigration status prevents them from attending college or securing a high quality job. This wastes a valuable resource in our economy.

Second, some maintain that the DREAM Act could benefit organizations that provide resources to immigrant communities by expanding their options for hiring individuals who both understand the immigrant community and have the education and legal status that allows them to work with that community. In an interview with researchers from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a service provider in Atlanta, GA said, “A policy that would really help us provide more effective services to the immigrant community is the DREAM Act. We have so many teenagers who are undocumented, and that really stifles their options for the future. And we need to be able to hire people and to be able to go back and serve the community.”

Yet the DREAM Act continues to face stiff opposition from individuals who worry that it could encourage more illegal immigration or lead to the mass migration of families of the act’s beneficiaries (some counter this charge by noting that it would take about 25 years for a DREAM Act beneficiary to secure a green card for their parents, and 30–40 years for their siblings). And so supporters and potential beneficiaries of the proposed legislation anxiously await the Senate’s decision. They realize the urgency of the moment: the DREAM Act was first introduced in 2001 and has been introduced a number of times since then, always without passing the Congress. Some predict that if it fails now, it will have less of a chance with a more conservative Congress in the next session. This leaves many activists and immigrants hoping, once again, that this time victory does not elude them.

Cynthia Hess, Ph.D., is a Study Director with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. She is also a frequent contributor to the Social Security Media Watch Project.