DREAM Act May Ultimately Serve Fewer Immigrant Youth Than Predicted

Dream Act Protesters Mohamed, Lizbeth, Tania and Yahaira in Tucson, AZ - Photo: Valeria Fernandez

Dream Act Protesters Mohamed, Lizbeth, Tania and Yahaira in Tucson, Ariz. (Photo: Valeria Fernandez)

Prying open the door of citizenship for young, undocumented students in the country through no fault of their own is the goal of the Congressional proposal known as the DREAM Act.  But it seems the youth will have to jump through many hoops to get past the threshold.

A study released July 8, by the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington DC, estimates that though there are currently more than 2.1 million potential beneficiaries of the legislation, only 38%, or 825,000 people, would actually obtain permanent legal status through the DREAM Act’s education and military routes.

“Many potential DREAM Act beneficiaries would face difficulties in meeting the legislation’s higher education or military service requirements because of hardship paying for college tuition, competing work and family time demands and low educational attainment and English proficiency,” said Margie McHugh, who is co-director of MPI’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy.

According to the study, entitled “DREAM vs. Reality: An Analysis of Potential DREAM Act Beneficiaries,” only about 726,000 undocumented immigrant youths would be “immediately eligible” for conditional legal status, and could apply for permanent status after a six year wait. Of that number (assuming they have maintained “good moral character”) roughly 114,000 are shoe-ins because they already hold an associate’s degree. The act would also allow an estimated 934,000 children under 18 to age into conditional status eligibility in the future.

But the remaining 489,000 young undocumented adults between 18 and 34 years old who currently have neither a high school diploma nor a GED will face tough challenges.  To get conditional status, they’ll have to meet those educational requirements, plus go to college or enter the military for two years. About 19 percent of this group would need English language instruction in order to do it.

“They are not eligible at this time, but they can try under the provisions of the new law,” said McHugh in a conference call with reporters.

Study co-author Jeanne Batalova said this group faces the “most arduous path” to legal status.

Poverty is another hurdle. Half of potential beneficiaries eligible for conditional status come from families with lower than a $40,000 median annual family income. The others are from families with even lower financial resources. The average cost of two years of post-secondary college will be beyond the means of many, and the study reminds readers that the DREAM Act “explicitly bars beneficiaries from accessing Pell Grants, the main federal grant program for higher education that provides support to low-income students.”

Authors say that in addition to financial barriers, poverty negatively impacts a student’s “ability to concentrate, learn academic content and perform in and graduate from school.”

The study also released the following findings:

56 percent of potential DREAM Act beneficiaries are male;

62 percent of potential beneficiaries are from Mexico;

Among young adults, more women (52 percent) than men have at least an associate’s degree;

1.6 million (75 percent) of potential beneficiaries live in 10 states, led by California (26 percent), Texas (12 percent), Florida(9 percent), New York (7 percent) and Arizona (5 percent). The others are Illinois, New Jersey, Georgia, North Carolina and Colorado.

To qualify under DREAM Act legislation, the youngsters must satisfy some basic requirements – to have been under 16 when they arrived in the U.S.; to have been living in the U.S. for at least five years; to have obtained a high school diploma or equivalent; and to be under 35 when the law is enacted. With continuous good behavior over a period of six years, they can apply to elevate their conditional status into a permanent status. The study makes clear that “all must satisfy the good moral character requirement.”

The DREAM Act – formerly known as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act – has a good chance for passing Congress if filed as a “standalone bill in a piecemeal legislation,” Muzaffar Chishti, director of the MPI office at the NYU School of Law, told the conference call. He said the DREAM Act has a legislative history dating back to 2001 and has consistently passed both the Senate and the House. The latest version is a bill filed in 2009 by Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). It enjoys “huge support” from Congress and major universities and colleges, he said.

MPI said the DREAM Act may be up for discussion by the Senate later this month.

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