A Deeper Look at the DREAMers Who Could Feature in the Legalization Debate in Congress
The election of Joe Biden has ushered in sharp rhetorical and policy shifts towards the nation’s immigrants, including those who are unauthorized. In addition to announcing his intent to “preserve and fortify” the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that his predecessor sought unsuccessfully to terminate, President Biden is championing a sweeping new immigration bill that, among other things, would extend a pathway to citizenship to most of the nation’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants. These include DACA recipients and the broader cohort of DREAMers brought to the United States as children. Even as the administration and its allies on Capitol Hill are pressing for a broad-scale legalization, many also recognize that narrower proposals—for DREAMers, essential workers, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients, and farmworkers—might stand a better chance of passing in a narrowly divided Congress. One bipartisan proposal, the DREAM Act of 2021, could be perhaps the most likely targeted legalization up for a vote.
Legalization and the Young Adult Population
To qualify for the DREAM Act of 2021, unauthorized immigrants would have to meet several criteria (which have been a recurring feature of various iterations of the DREAM Act introduced over the past two decades). Two key requirements for eligibility would be: 1) Potential beneficiaries must have arrived and continuously resided in the United States for four or more years before the date of enactment; and 2) they must have been under age 18 at the time of arrival.
DREAMers who have obtained at least a high school education or are enrolled in school could apply for permanent resident status (also known as getting a green card) on a conditional basis. In general, beneficiaries who meet additional educational, military service, or employment criteria (and others outlined in the bill) within an eight-year period would then be eligible to apply to remove the conditions of resident status. (Some already have acquired postsecondary credentials and enough work experience to meet the criteria for a green card. These individuals would have to apply for conditional permanent resident status first and then apply for the removal of the conditions.) The conditional permanent resident status is temporary, but for the most part grants similar rights as legal permanent residence. The bill would automatically grant conditional permanent residence to DACA recipients.
Created in 2012 during the Obama administration, DACA was modeled on the DREAM Act. To qualify for DACA under its original terms, recipients must meet several criteria: They must have arrived and continuously resided in the United States since June 15, 2007 or before; been under age 31 as of June 15, 2012; been under age 16 at the time of arrival; have at least a high school education, be enrolled in school, or have served honorably in the military; and have no criminal background. The DACA program has been kept alive by court order and presently is only open to those who currently or have ever held DACA. Nearly 641,000 people held DACA status as of last September.
Drawing on its unique methodology to assign legal status in U.S. Census Bureau data, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) has modeled the number of unauthorized immigrants who could potentially benefit from the DREAM Act of 2021. MPI estimates a maximum universe of close to 3 million unauthorized immigrant youth and young adults who meet the minimum age of arrival and years of U.S. residence criteria. Of these nearly 3 million individuals, a smaller pool of 2 million currently meet the critical educational requirement that would be needed to receive conditional permanent residence under the DREAM Act. DACA recipients represent a key group here as they are automatically eligible for conditional permanent residence. And a smaller pool yet of those meeting the criteria for conditional permanent residence are likely to obtain the additional educational or professional attainment to gain a green card given historical patterns of educational attainment, military service, and labor force participation among Hispanic and non-Hispanic men and women. MPI estimates this group at 1.7 million. The 993,000 individuals who do not currently meet the educational criteria for conditional permanent residence could become eligible with school enrollment.
Figure 1. MPI Estimates of Potential Beneficiaries under the DREAM Act of 2021
DREAM, DACA, and Essential Workers
Both the DREAM Act and DACA include education or military service requirements that signal their beneficiaries’ potential for contributing to society. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a powerful additional rationale for extending legal presence or citizenship to this population: Majorities of DREAM and DACA-eligible adults are essential workers. MPI estimates that 50 percent of adults who would be eligible for conditional permanent residence under the DREAM Act and 57 percent of those potentially eligible for DACA are essential workers (see Table 1).
Table 1. Unauthorized Immigrants Potentially Eligible for the DREAM Act of 2021 and DACA, Total and Essential Workers, by Age Group
**Refers to adults ages 15 and older. The numbers vary slightly from Figure 1, which includes these adults as well as children under 15.
Notes: The eligible but for education category covers adults who do not currently meet the educational criteria for conditional permanent residence under the DREAM Act of 2021 but who could become eligible with school enrollment. The essential worker definition derives from the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The CISA definition encompasses critical infrastructure industries, including those that directly provide and maintain critical infrastructure, as well as those involved in associated supply chains. For details about the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) approach to estimating the number of essential workers, see Jessica Bolter, Muzaffar Chishti, and Doris Meissner,Back on the Table: U.S. Legalization and the Unauthorized Immigrant Groups that Could Factor in the Debate (Washington, DC: MPI, 2021. For MPI’s methodology for estimating the number of persons potentially eligible for the DACA program, see MPI Data Hub, “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Data Tools,” accessed February 21, 2021. For MPI's methodology to assign legal status to noncitizens, visit: bit.ly/MPILegalStatusMethods
Source: MPI analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data from the 2014-18 American Community Survey (ACS) pooled and the 2008 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), drawing on an MPI methodology developed in consultation with James Bachmeier of Temple University and Jennifer Van Hook of The Pennsylvania State University, Population Research Institute.
Essential DREAMer Workers in Health Care
Given the persisting workforce shortages that the U.S. health-care system has faced since the pandemic hit in March 2020, it is useful to know how many potential DACA and DREAM Act beneficiaries work in the health-care field. While COVID-19 has imposed enormous pressures on many workers and their families across the labor market, health-care workers are carrying perhaps the heaviest burden. From the pandemic’s onset they have faced higher risks of infection than the general population, the stress of working long hours, and the heavy emotional toll of confronting high, sustained infection and death rates.
MPI estimates that about 75,000, or 4 percent, of the 1.8 million unauthorized immigrant adults who would be immediately eligible for legalization under the DREAM Act work in health-care occupations or health-care industries—including doctors, nurses, and home health aides as well as hospital custodians and cafeteria workers.
Shares are somewhat larger among the more highly educated DACA population. Here the authors find that of 1.3 million unauthorized immigrants who meet all the criteria to apply for DACA, whether they ever did or not, 6 percent are in the health-care field.
Table 2. Unauthorized Immigrants Potentially Eligible for the DREAM Act of 2021 and DACA, Total Adults and Health-Care Workers, Adults Ages 15 and Older
Notes: Health-care workers include workers in health-care occupations or health-care industries. This definition includes health-care professionals (e.g., doctors, nurses, and therapists), health-care support workers (e.g., home health aides, nursing assistants, personal care aides) and other workers in the health-care industry (e.g., hospitals, doctor offices, and nursing care facilities). The eligible but for education category covers adults who do not currently meet the educational criteria for conditional permanent residence under the DREAM Act of 2021 but who could become eligible with school enrollment.
Source: MPI analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data from the 2014-18 ACS and the 2008 SIPP, with legal-status assignments using an MPI methodology developed in consultation with Bachmeier and Van Hook.
The public-health crisis has raised Americans’ awareness of how essential workers, including large numbers of immigrants, are critical to preserving the vital functioning of the societal infrastructure. It also has prompted governments to identify and then develop policies to protect these workers through targeted health, social insurance, and other safety-net policies. The broad, sustained bipartisan political support for DREAMers in evidence for many years—coupled with the growing recognition of essential workers’ contributions—provide powerful starting points for Congress and the Biden administration in realizing at least some of their immigration reform ambitions.