Reconsidering the DREAM Act

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act) is a piece of legislation which aims to provide paths to permanent residency for undocumented youth. Organizations like United We Dream and the United States Student Association have come out in support of the legislation, arguing primarily that not providing permanent residency for undocumented youth is manifestly unjust. Penalizing immigrant youth for being undocumented — something they had no control over — runs against the basic tenets of fair and equitable treatment.

The DREAM Act is supposed to remedy this injustice by creating two specific paths to residency. There have been various versions of the bill over the years, but the present version in the senate basically lays out a two step process. Undocumented individuals under 35 years of age with a high school diploma or GED will be eligible in most circumstances to apply for conditional permanent residency. Once individuals are granted that status, they have 6 years to either complete a two-year post-secondary degree, complete 2 years of a four-year post-secondary degree, or enlist in the military for 2 years. After doing so, they can apply to have the conditional status removed from their permanent residency.

Advocates of the DREAM Act have focused much more attention on the education track of the bill than on the military track. The defenses of it tend to rely on conjuring up the idea of students getting a college degree while also getting out from under their unjust second class status. However, in reconsidering the DREAM Act, I think it is important to determine what percentage of undocumented youth would even make it through the much praised education track provided in the bill. Given that Latino immigrants are the primary constituency that will be affected by the DREAM Act, I will focus on them.

According to a report from the Pew Hispanic Center, 18 percent of Latino immigrants do not graduate from high school. Of those non-graduates, 57 percent have not passed the GED by the age of 26. So, slightly more than 10 percent of Latino immigrant youth receive neither a high school degree nor a GED, and would thus be ineligible for even the initial process of receiving conditional residency status.

As far as I know, there is no reliable data on the percentage of Latino immigrants who obtain post-secondary degrees. Those numbers would not be helpful in any case because they are certainly skewed downward due to the difficulties of attending college as an undocumented student. Nonetheless, there are numbers for the overall Latino population which should approximately reflect how Latino immigrants would fare if they were given the same opportunities to attend college as non-immigrant Latinos already have.

According to another report from the Pew Hispanic Center, 82 percent of Latinos who graduate from high school go on to college. Of those who attend college, 36 percent go on to achieve a bachelor’s degree, certificate, or associate’s degree. These are the types of degrees that are required to complete the second step of the permanent residency process under the DREAM Act.

With these numbers, a rough estimate of the reach of the DREAM Act’s education track can be derived. If we generously assume that all of those who receive a GED fare as well as high school graduates in obtaining post-secondary degrees, a representative group of 100 undocumented Latino youth would achieve the following on the education track:

  • 10 — No GED or high school degree — permanent residency denied
  • 16 — GED or high school degree, but no post-secondary education — permanent residency denied
  • 48 — Post-secondary education attempted, but no certificate, associates degree, or bachelor’s degree achieved — permanent residency denied
  • 26 — Post-secondary degree achieved — permanent residency granted

So on the education track, the DREAM Act, even when making generous assumptions, will only provide permanent residency to 26 percent of undocumented Latino youth. Admittedly this is an approximation, and challenges to the effect that it is too low or too high can certainly be brought against it. It could be challenged, for instance, that the incentive of permanent residency will drive undocumented Latino youth towards education more than documented Latino youth, and so using data from the latter generates an estimate lower than it should be. On the opposite side, it could be challenged that the lack of Pell Grant access and other difficulties associated with being undocumented might actually generate hardships that documented Latino youth do not face, making the 26 percent number too generous.

With those objections noted, it appears that 26 percent is at least somewhere near what the actual number will be. This number, I think, poses challenges for the DREAM Act campaigners. For 10 percent of undocumented Latino youth, the Act provides no help at all; for 64 percent, the Act forces them into an unjust position where they must choose between deportation, living life undocumented in a permanent underclass position, or joining the U.S. military.

Forcing nearly 3 out of 4 undocumented Latino immigrants to make a choice like that is as equally unjust as the problem the DREAM Act is set up to remedy. Putting someone into an extraordinarily loaded situation like that for reasons totally outside of their control — their immigration status — is exactly the kind of thing that proponents of the DREAM Act criticize in the status quo.

Instead of fixing the injustices the immigration system forces on undocumented youth, what the DREAM Act primarily does is set up an easy road for military recruiters to fill the ranks of the armed forces with vulnerable populations that have no other option. In a candid reconsideration of the legislation, it is hard to see how one could support it. The education track is great — even if limited in reach — but if coupled with the military track, the bill as a whole slants heavily towards encouraging the exploitation of the overwhelming majority of undocumented youth.