Real Reform?

A new study questions the impacts of the proposed DREAM Act

Amid all the chest-pounding over immigration law, a few politicians have quietly pushed a humble measure offering certain young people a shot at legal residency.

But a new study shows this proposed reform to be even more modest than its proponents had hoped.

The so-called DREAM Act, or Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, was introduced in 2001 under the bipartisan sponsorship of Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, and Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois. While it would only offer legal residency to undocumented immigrants if they attend college or sign on with the military, the measure has nonetheless become a symbol of hope for immigration reform.

And that could be a recipe for disappointment, according to a study by the Migration Policy Institute, based in Washington, D.C. While more than 2 million young people might be eligible to participate in the DREAM Act, these researchers estimate that a mere 38 percent of them could actually take advantage of it.

Barriers such as poor English proficiency, time demands and the high cost of college tuition—coupled with a prohibition on obtaining federal education grants—mean that a majority of these immigrants would be left behind.

"Our report clearly shows that 2.1 million individuals would be eligible based on their age and the date they arrived in the country and other requirements of the legislation," says co-author Margie McHugh. (Approximately 114,000 of them would be in Arizona.) "But once you start to walk through who's likely to satisfy the education requirements of the bill, the number one could expect to succeed goes down dramatically."

Nor was DREAM Act intended to do anything more, she says.

"My guess is that the people who wrote the bill wanted to provide an opportunity for young people who we already knew were succeeding. Those are the valedictorians—you know, all these students who have such compelling stories, but who have been blocked in trying to further their education. They obviously have so much to contribute to the U.S. if they're given lawful permanent status.

"Some of them will make it, and some of them won't," she says. "It might be that the people who framed the original legislation are comfortable with that."

Calls to the offices of Sen. Durbin, and to Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana—the bill's current Republican sponsor—had not been returned as of press time.

But even as questions arise about whom the DREAM Act would and would not help, immigrant-rights advocates still see it as the best opportunity for any progress in the near-term. And President Barack Obama recently stoked their expectations when he praised the legislation in a speech calling for immigration reform.

The DREAM Act has also become the focus of student organizations across the county, and was the apparent impetus for a May 17 sit-in at the Tucson offices of Arizona Sen. John McCain. In the past, McCain repeatedly co-sponsored DREAM Act legislation; today, he opposes it. The demonstration resulted in the arrest of four students, three of whom were in the country illegally. Their arrests prompted a similar sit-in at the San Francisco offices of California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, as well as a hunger strike in Michigan.

Such civil disobedience is the result of pent-up frustration over stalled reform, says Kat Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the Tucson immigrant-rights group Derechos Humanos. "People have been waiting for this for a long time. These are students who want to live here and make their lives better. It's wrong that these young people are denied a chance to do that."

John Garcia, a political science professor at the University of Arizona, does see a growing student movement behind the DREAM Act. But he's less certain that those campus passions will translate into congressional action.

Given that the intended beneficiaries were brought here as children by their parents, providing them an opportunity for legal status "would be both a rational and humane response," Garcia says. "But the case is that a lot of people get hung up on saying, 'Hey, they weren't supposed to be here in the first place. They're here illegally.'

"Once you've said that, no matter what else takes place, you've just shut off. If that mode of thought is more prevalent among Republicans than Democrats, then more Republicans are not going to risk taking a (political) hit, even if they think the measure is reasonable."

On the other hand, there are fundamental reasons why even conservatives should find this legislation attractive, says Garcia. "In a way, it fits the American ethos of people trying to improve themselves, trying to maximize their potential. You've got kids who've gone through the school system and want to go on to higher education.

"We need more college graduates in some fields, so it's also a human-resource issue. We want to make use of the people we have, and these students have demonstrated academic viability and motivation—the kind of things we want to represent this country."

At the same time, say reform proponents, the measure hardly offers carte-blanche amnesty. To be eligible, immigrants must have been younger than age 16 when entering this country; must be younger than 35 when and if the measure becomes law; and must have a high school diploma or GED.

Although the Obama administration has apparently slowed the deportations of people falling into this category, it's far from clear whether the DREAM Act will ever arrive on the president's desk—or how many will be helped if it does.

That may be by design, says Margie McHugh.

"This is not comprehensive immigration reform that would try to simply make these young people eligible, prospectively, based on their work history and their ability to learn English."

Those who think otherwise are destined for disappointment, she says. "The DREAM Act was always intended to be a narrower—and in a sense, more difficult and selective—process for allowing a small number of people to make their way toward citizenship. Our study shows that, because of the higher-education component, it's actually a much tougher path than any traditional legalization program has ever been."