Young undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers” once had the political leverage to force a vote on a bill that would help them earn citizenship. But in the now-defunct Senate bipartisan immigration proposal, Dreamers were ignored altogether, a casualty of the rightward shift on immigration.
This is true despite poll after poll over a number of years showing support for these immigrants who’ve lived most of their lives in the U.S., having arrived as young children with parents and family who either remained here after their visas expired or entered the U.S. without authorization.
While some lawmakers say recent years’ arrivals mean “we don’t know who is coming in,” they once again chose to leave in the shadows hundreds of thousands of Dreamers and other people who have lived and worked in the U.S. most of their lives without legal status.
“Dreamers” is a term based on legislation introduced in 2001 to provide a path to citizenship for this category of young immigrants. It includes the more than 500,000 who have protection from deportation through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which allows eligible young adults to work and study in the U.S. It’s been compared to the GI Bill in its ability to launch some young adults into the middle class, thus benefiting their communities, too.
Young undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers” once had the political leverage to force a vote on a bill that would help them earn citizenship. But in the now-defunct Senate bipartisan immigration proposal, Dreamers were ignored altogether.
Not all Dreamers are eligible or can afford to enroll or are accepted into DACA, an Obama-era program, which is also at risk: Then-President Donald Trump tried to stop it, and it has been blocked from accepting new applications by a Republican -led court challenge. An estimated 1.1 million eligible Dreamers don’t have DACA.
In the early 2000s, Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, drew blowback from immigration advocates when he called on them to break apart a comprehensive immigration bill to address Dreamers as a stand-alone issue. It didn’t happen, and the comprehensive effort failed.
“Relief for DACA recipients and other Dreamers should have been enacted as a stand-alone bill a long time ago and it should be enacted as stand-alone today, mainly because of the urgency of the precarious situation they are in today,” Saenz told NBC News.
Saenz noted that along with strong support for Dreamers, many of the immigrants are playing important roles in the workforce — including in essential jobs like health care roles during the height of the Covid pandemic.
“So there is not a reason, not a political reason, why relief for the Dreamers should not be enacted down the road,” he said.
The omission of Dreamers is a stark difference from the previous decade, when Congress could not ignore them. They formed a powerful youth-led lobby, staging nonviolent sit-ins in congressional offices, led rallies and marches, and worked on campaigns.
But Congress has rebuffed them for so long and missed so many opportunities to reconcile their status in the U.S. that many of the first Dreamers to press for legalization are well into adulthood; some who were eligible to change their status have become citizens, professionals and members of the military, while others are still struggling as longtime residents without legal status.
Nonetheless, there’s still support for Dreamers, as demonstrated by the conservative National Association of Evangelicals: Although it praised the bipartisan Senate proposal, the group noted a permanent solution for Dreamers was one of the bill’s “missing pieces.”
The looming presidential election and the record numbers of immigrants arriving at ports of entry and between them complicate that possibility.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who introduced a Dreamers bill in 2017, told Reuters that helping Dreamers or other people in the U.S. without legal status is “toxic” and “tabled for years now” because of the current situation at the southern border.