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Breaking Down the DREAM Act

The House of Representatives on Wednesday advanced the so-called DREAM Act, a top priority of Democrats who will lose control of the House in January and have less power in the Senate, making it all but certain that the initiative will languish for years if not enacted now.

Politically active Hispanic groups see the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, which would give illegal immigrants who attend college or join the military a path to legal status, as a pivotal step toward comprehensive immigration overhaul. But critics denounce the legislation as backdoor amnesty for lawbreakers.

While there are four different versions, most of the provisions are the same, save for a couple of exceptions. The latest version has been changed to improve its chances of passage.

Here's how it would work: Immigrants who were brought to the United States before the age of 16 would be eligible for conditional status for up to 10 years if they've lived in the country for at least five years and have graduated from an American high school or obtained a GED.

After 10 years, those immigrants can apply for permanent legal status if they've completed two years of college or military service. Previous versions would have granted permanent legal status immediately to those eligible.  

The Department of Homeland Security can terminate the conditional status of those immigrants if they committed crimes or were dishonorably discharged from the military. If those immigrants lose their conditional status, their prior immigration status would be restored.

The legislation does not provide automatic citizenship. It would take at least 13 years for immigrants to become U.S. citizens and it is estimated that less than 40 percent of immigrants will meet the requirements to maintain their conditional status.

There are different estimates as to how many immigrants would be eligible for some sort of legal status under the measure. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that one version of the bill that applies to immigrants aged 35 and under would let more than 1 million apply for legal status over the next 10 years, and potentially allow 500,000 to receive it.

Others have estimated that more than 2 million immigrants aged 35 and under could apply.

But this version only applies to those under 30, which supporters say would limit it to 300,000 or so.

As for the cost, there's also been widely differing estimates.

The Center for Immigration Studies pegs the cost at $6.2 billion a year. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that one version of the bill could add between $5 billion and $20 billion to the deficit by 2060 due to additional benefit program costs.

But the CBO also said the bill would reduce the deficit by $1.4 billion over the first 10 years because of increased tax revenue from immigrant residents.