The DREAM Act would give undocumented immigrant youth the chance at conditional citizenship – meaning, legal residency and a green card – by joining the U.S. military or attending a university for two years.

This bill, introduced  in Congress this session on March 26, is old news on Capitol Hill. Sponsors have introduced a version of the bill several times over the last decade, but it has repeatedly failed to garner enough support. The last time the bill “died” was Oct. 24, 2007, when it received 52 votes – with four senators absent – and fell short of the 60 Senate votes required to overcome a Republican filibuster.

The word “DREAM” stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors. Introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin (IL) and Rep. Howard Berman (CA), the DREAM Act is not a comprehensive immigration policy overhaul. Rather, it is a potential policy shift that will affect a small segment of undocumented residents: students who have lived most of their lives in the US and, in most cases, did not immigrate illegally by choice.

If the bill passes, it will affect 65,000 undocumented students, a small slice of the 2.8 million high school seniors who graduate annually. The DREAM Act applies to those who:

  • came to the US before the age of 16
  • have no criminal record
  • have maintained continuous residence for 5 years
  • graduated from high school or obtained a GED, and
  • will attend  two years of college or join the military
If it passes, undocumented students will receive a six-year temporary residency – a cushion period that will begin after they “serve” their time in the military or in college. If they fail to do so, they will be deported. During this six-year temporary residency period, beneficiaries of the act will be able to drive, work and qualify for federal work study and Pell Grants. They can partake in most activities legal residents do, except traveling abroad for more than an aggregate period of 365 days.
Since it was first introduced, the DREAM Act has changed form. For instance, the 2007 version of the bill had an age cap of 30, but the newest version has increased the age limit to 35. All undocumented residents who are under the age of 35 at the time the bill passes will qualify, as long as they meet all requirements.

The DREAM Act has galvanized a grassroots movement in support of its passage. On DreamActivist.org, an online network for undocumented students who support the bill, students can post testimonials in the hopes that their personal stories will lead to political will.

One of these stories is by an undocumented Brazilian student who was brought to the U.S. at the age of nine – a time when she was “old enough to know right from wrong, yet naïve enough to believe that I would soon return to where I was born,” she said.

“I have come to love America for what it is and for what it stands for,” the student writes. “And now my only wish is to remove this unsightly undocumented blemish from my soul so that I can pursue my studies here in the land of the free.”

The bill is supported by President Obama. Appearing on the nationally-syndicated Spanish language show El Piolin por la Manana, Obama said, “I support the Dream Act 100 percent.”

“In these times, these students are sons and daughters of the Untied States,” Obama said about undocumented youth.

But the bill also faces staunch opposition from Republicans, Democrats such as Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Kent Conrad of North Dakota, and lobbying groups. The last time the DREAM Act was up for debate, a group called Numbers USA took action, calling the bill “nightmarish amnesty” for immigrants. The organization, which strives for “lower immigration levels” nationwide, organized a grassroots fax-and-phone campaign against the bill and succeeded in stalling it, at least for the time being.