Senate Negotiations Narrow DREAM Act’s Scope as Vote Nears

Age limits, benefit restrictions and biometric data are added as Reid tries to pull in GOP votes.

By Julianne Hing Dec 01, 2010

Julieta Garibay came to the country when she was 12 and grew up in Texas, where she got her undergrad and then masters degrees in nursing from the University of Texas at Austin. "I consider myself an Austinite," she said, but because she’s undocumented, she hasn’t been able to put her nursing degree to use the way she wants to. So she’s been fighting for the DREAM Act, a bill that would offer undocumented students like her a pathway to citizenship.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made good on his pre-election promises to bring the DREAM Act up for a vote in lame duck session when he filed a new version of the bill, S. 3992, late Tuesday night. The new version contains several major compromises designed to win the necessary 60 votes for the bill when it comes up as early as next Monday. 

Garibay dreams of one day working as a military nurse. But in the meantime the campaign coordinator for the University Leadership Initiative has turned to activism. She’s been organizing for the DREAM Act for six years and was a founding board member of United We DREAM. She sent a message to her fellow DREAM Act activists last night that as the clock counts down to the vote–she doesn’t want them to give up fighting.

Her message of encouragement was especially poignant because under the revised version, Garibay will no longer be eligible to benefit from the DREAM Act should it pass. The new language of S. 3992 brought the age cap of those who can apply from 35 down to 30 years old. Garibay turned 30 this summer.

"I am still hopeful that Congress members will recognize that we were minors when we were brought here," Garibay said.

After a decade of advocacy, there are multiple versions of the DREAM Act floating around in both the Senate and the House. The one Reid introduced last night appears to be one of the harshest, strictly limiting how many and what kinds of undocumented youth will be able to benefit from the bill. At its core, the DREAM Act would allow undocumented youth who entered the country before the age of 16 and commit two years to higher education or the military to be eligible for permanent residency and ultimately, American citizenship.

Under S. 3992, the age cap for those who can benefit has been brought down from 35 to 30. It’s a significant compromise; some older versions of the DREAM Act didn’t even contain an age cap, which enraged immigration restrictionists. S. 3992 also institutes a 10-year waiting period, during which DREAM Act youth will be classified as "conditional non-immigrants" before they can be granted a permanent residency. The temporary-status waiting period used to be six years. But after that hurdle, the waiting period would begin anew. Once they’ve obtained green cards, DREAM Act youth would have to wait an additional three years before being eligible for citizenship.

According to immigration policy experts, the provisions of the new DREAM Act mimic existing immigration proposals on the table. "It’s the exact same language that’s used in the comprehensive immigration reform bill of [Illinois Rep. Luis] Gutierrez’s proposal," said Mark Silverman, director of immigration policy at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

The new Senate bill also excludes any undocumented youth who’s ever been convicted of any crime that carried a maximum one-year prison sentence. Older versions of the DREAM Act allowed the so-called "good moral character" requirements to go into effect only back to the date the DREAM Act is enacted. But under this version, DREAM Act youth would have to prove they had "good moral character," a euphemism for a clean criminal record, for the entirety of their time spent in the country, according to Jenny Werwa, the outreach and communications manager with the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

S. 3992 also requires any person who wants to benefit from the DREAM Act to submit biometric data to the country and allows the Department of Homeland Security more access to monitor them. Under the new language DREAM Act youth will be ineligible for the benefits of health care reform for 10 years, another new compromise.

"What they did is, they took all the special protections, all the favored provisions that DREAM Act students had that their parents didn’t or wouldn’t have had, and got rid of them," Silverman said. "Now they’re treating undocumented DREAM Act students in the same way they’re treating their parents."

The win, if it can be called that, remains a purely political one for DREAM Act advocates. "If they’ve put together this to create a new version," Werwa said, "They must think they are going to get votes out of it. So for me, I’m optimistic about that, in terms of politically pushing the ball forward."

"This legislation, in many ways with the way it’s drafted, emphasizes how narrowly defined the bill is," said Matias Ramos, a DREAM Act activist and founding member of the organizing group United We DREAM. Ramos said S. 3992 spells out explicitly many of the provisions that were mere talking points before.

Other activists and advocates said that the late-night, intra-movement discussions after Tuesday night’s news were full of heavy-hearted frustration, but, as Ramos said, "At this point these compromises are all internal."

"Especially with Republicans who are really just throwing dirt," Ramos said. "All their advocacy is beyond the level of logical reasoning, it’s just fear-mongering."

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions last week circulated a four-page document called "Ten Things You Need to Know About the DREAM Act," which was riddled with exaggerations, inaccuracies and in most cases, flat out lies about about what the DREAM Act would do. Yet it seemed to have been enough to force DREAM Act champions Reid and Sen. Dick Durbin to further narrow the bill.

"We weren’t consulted," Ramos said. "I trust it’s Durbin and Reid’s work to push this bill forward to get three Republicans to the table and get those votes." In recent days Republican Sens. Richard Lugar and Bob Bennett have pledged to vote for the bill, but advocates are waiting for a third Republican to commit.

"I think now Republicans, and even more than them, Democrats like Sen. Ben Nelson, do not have any right to call this amnesty," Gaby Pacheco, a DREAM Act activist and organizer with said.

S. 3992 adopts many of the provisions that Republicans said they wanted to see before they would support the bill. "The new bill is nearly identical to what [Texas Sen. Kay Bailey] Hutchison said she wanted in 2007," said Mohammad Abdollahi, a DREAM Act activist who co-founded "At this point there shouldn’t be anymore reasons for her to continue to back out."

Still, the narrowing of the DREAM Act, which is seen by many as low-hanging fruit in the fraught fight to win just and humane immigration reform overhauls, means that the options for undocumented immigrants in the country are ever shrinking. While the Senate stalls on the DREAM Act, young people’s lives are waiting on hold for reform. Last night’s compromises are more than just bargaining chips. The new restrictions will close off the futures of many undocumented young people.

Garibay, who was nicknamed a DREAM Elder by her fellow activists, said she is not going to stop her advocacy even after being cut out by these eleventh hour compromises. "This is the win that our community needs," Garibay said, her soft voice faltering between tears. "There are many amazing DREAMers that have gone above and beyond what I’ve done educationally, and we need to make sure that they get some type of relief."

She got into the fight because she wanted to work as a nurse and win citizenship for herself, but her fight for other undocumented youth will continue. "We always said we would commit to continue to fight for other DREAMers, we need to keep focusing on what it is that we’ve been fighting for."

An immigration policy advocate who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly comment estimated that the new age cap would affect about 5 percent of DREAM Act-eligible youth.

"We’ve committed enough now," Garibay said she wants fence-sitting senators, like her own Sen. Hutchison to know. "Hutchison keeps saying she wants to change the DREAM Act but has never met with Durbin to talk about amendments. Enough talking. It’s your turn to commit."