What is the DREAM Act?

Ten-year Legislative Limbo: The DREAM Act Debate

The DREAM Act would open a pathway to U.S. citizenship.
The DREAM Act would open a pathway to U.S. citizenship.
David McNew/Getty Images

Not just any illegal alien wishing to attend college or join the armed forces could automatically pursue the DREAM of full U.S. citizenship. In order to qualify for the policy's provisions, immigrants would be required to meet the following criteria [source: White House]:

  • Be under the age of 35 on the date of the legislation's enactment
  • Have arrived in the United States before the age of 16
  • Have lived in the United States for at least five years since the enactment of the legislation
  • Have obtained a U.S. high school diploma or educational equivalent
  • Have maintained a "good moral character" throughout their residence in the United States

From there, potential DREAM Act recipients, sometimes referred to as DREAMers, would be granted a conditional permanent resident status in the United States, which would serve as an intermediate step on the way toward legal permanent resident status. DREAMers would have a six-year window to either complete two years of post-secondary education or two years of military service. Following that trial period, DREAMers could apply for U.S. citizenship. That way, as the Obama administration has emphasized, the people in this group could become active, tax-paying American citizens who would have a positive impact on the federal economy and national security.

There's disagreement over the possible economic impact of the DREAM Act. On one hand, analysis from the Congressional Budget Office estimated that passing the DREAM Act would result in $2.3 billion in federal revenues over 10 years from the new taxpayers [source: Congressional Budget Office]. But DREAM Act opponents have countered that the legislation would stress an already depressed economy. The Center for Immigration Studies calculated that an influx of 1 million DREAMers into public colleges and universities -- each of whom would receive a $6,000 tuition subsidy annually -- would cost taxpayers more than $6 billion per year, negating any income tax boon the DREAMers might drive in the long term [source: Knickerbocker].

Economics aside, immigration is one of the most polarizing issues in U.S. politics today. By opening up a path toward full citizenship for undocumented people under 35 years old, the DREAM Act has been interpreted as a form of amnesty for illegal immigrants, which many politicians oppose. For that reason, Senator Orin Hatch, a Republican from Illinois who originally co-sponsored the legislation, withdrew his support in 2010 when Senators Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) reintroduced the bill and attempted to fold it in to the defense authorization bill. Instead, Sen. Hatch shifted his immigration focus toward enhancing border security [source: Wong].

The Obama administration has repeatedly underscored the multiple requirements for qualifying for DREAM Act assistance, as outlined above. DREAMers wouldn't be permitted to petition for citizenship for foreign relatives, in which case the legislation could function as a gateway for immigrants to enter the country more easily. In addition, the DREAM Act only allows recipients to qualify for federal student loans that they must repay, rather than free federal money, such as the Pell Grant. And the estimate of 11 million undocumented people living in the United States may imply that, whether the DREAM Act is ever passed or eventually fades away, the reality of undocumented youth in the United States remains.