‘Dreamers,’ DACA and Biden’s First Try on Immigration

The young immigrants known in the U.S. as Dreamers, and the federal program known as DACA that was designed to protect them from deportation, have dominated the fraught debate over immigration reform in Washington for the better part of a decade. President Joe Biden wants to put Dreamers on a fast track to citizenship, an idea sure to face at least some resistance in Congress.

1. Who are the ‘Dreamers’?

The term refers to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and have lived in America much or most of their lives, despite technically not being allowed to be there. The name originated with a bill first proposed in the 2001-2002 Congress, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, that aimed to help such undocumented immigrants attend college in the U.S. and earn legal permanent residency upon graduating. Though revised and re-introduced many times, the bill has never passed Congress, and it’s been upstaged in recent years by the more pressing debate over DACA, which President Donald Trump repeatedly vowed to repeal.

2. What is DACA?

It’s a program -- Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals -- established by President Barack Obama in 2012 without congressional involvement to shield many of the Dreamers from deportation. The program allows them to apply for renewable, two-year permits that protect them from deportation and allow them to work legally. Applicants must have arrived before 2007 at an age younger than 16 and must have been younger than 31 as of 2012. They must have no significant criminal record and be enrolled in high school or have a diploma or the equivalent. The program doesn’t provide a path to permanent residency or citizenship. Obama said it was not intended as “a permanent fix” but was merely “a temporary stopgap measure” until Congress finally approved the Dream Act. (Critics say Obama’s action was an egregious example of presidential overreach.) Nevertheless, DACA is still around, almost nine years later.

3. How many people are protected by DACA?

The Migration Policy Institute estimates that 646,000 people are enrolled in DACA. The vast majority are from Mexico, with smaller contingents from Guatemala, El Salvador and other countries. Most had no connection to their previous countries. Some didn’t know they were undocumented until they sought driver’s licenses or college aid. Current law makes it difficult for them to obtain legal status unless they leave the U.S. and apply. Another 685,000 people meet all the criteria to apply for DACA, the institute estimates. Under Trump, whose efforts to abolish DACA were thwarted by the courts, the government stopped accepting new applications for more than three years. In December, a district court ordered officials to resume taking them.

4. What does Biden propose?

In one of his first acts as president, Biden issued an executive order calling on the secretary of homeland security to take all appropriate actions to “preserve and fortify” DACA. Of greater potential consequence, Biden urged Congress, as part of an overhaul of U.S. immigration policy, to pass legislation making Dreamers eligible to apply for permanent residency in the U.S. immediately and for citizenship after three years. Biden also proposes allowing other immigrants living illegally in the U.S. to become candidates for residency in five years and for citizenship in eight. Many Republican lawmakers in Congress have opposed creating a pathway to citizenship for the roughly 11 million immigrants living illegally in the country as “amnesty” for people who broke the law.

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