E.g., 11/30/2023
E.g., 11/30/2023
Legalization for DREAMers: A Realistic Appraisal of Potential Chain Migration
Peter Holderness/WBEZ

Amid growing momentum in Congress to pass DREAM Act legislation before the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program expires, critics are arguing that legalization would spur vast new “chain migration” because DREAMers could eventually sponsor their family members for green cards. In fact, they argue that each unauthorized immigrant legalized via the DREAM Act could sponsor as many as 6.4 relatives, on average, for legal permanent residence.

While research shows that after obtaining legal permanent resident (LPR) status or citizenship, immigrants in past decades have sponsored an average of about 3.5 relatives each, these comparisons cannot be applied to DACA recipients and the broader population of young unauthorized immigrants brought to the United States as children (known as DREAMers). There are two key reasons for this, as will be outlined below: DREAMers have very different characteristics than most green-card holders, and their family members face constrained immigration possibilities.

The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) estimates that by the time DREAMers obtain citizenship—a process that would take at least five years—an average of 0.36 of their spouses and parents would be able to obtain a green card under the most generous of the DREAM Act-type bills introduced in Congress. Because of existing visa backlogs, it would take them another 13 years or more to sponsor 0.34 to 0.67 siblings (a number that includes the spouses and minor children of those siblings).

In other words, over a lifetime, the average legalizing DREAMer would sponsor at most about one family member—a number that is a far cry from the estimates of 3.5 to 6.4 relatives that rely on older data and cover different populations.

For a detailed methodology explaining the assumptions MPI researchers used in reaching these estimates, click here.


The Current State of Play

Five key bills are pending in Congress—several introduced in the wake of the Trump administration’s September announcement that it would terminate the DACA program—that would legalize unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the United States as children, provided they meet educational achievement and other criteria. The Recognizing America’s Children Act; the DREAM Act of 2017; the American Hope Act; the Solution for Undocumented Children through Careers, Employment, Education, and Defending our Nation Act (SUCCEED Act); and the Border Security and Deferred Action Recipient Relief Act differ in their details, but all target the same general population of unauthorized immigrants who entered the United States before age 16 or 18 and can meet a range of criteria, including years of U.S. residence and passing a criminal background check. All five bills would initially offer a period of conditional permanent residence, during which recipients could earn a path to a green card by meeting education, military, or continuous employment requirements.

While DREAMers would be able to sponsor spouses for a green card after earning legal status, they would have to wait to become citizens before being able to sponsor other categories of relatives, including parents and siblings.

Limited Family Sponsorship Possibilities

Under current law, upon getting a green card, LPRs can sponsor their spouses, minor children, and adult unmarried children. U.S. citizens can additionally sponsor parents, siblings, and adult children, whether married or single.

But the family immigration sponsorship prospects for DREAMers are more limited than these possibilities, and narrower than for earlier cohorts of immigrants. First, newer immigrants have more limited ability to help family members obtain green cards than earlier arrivals because U.S. immigration policy has changed significantly since implementation of the only prior broad-based legalization program, which dates to 1986. Congress in 1996 restricted the ability of most immigrants staying in the United States unlawfully for a period of months or more to legalize their status. They are now required to leave the country and wait for three or ten years before applying for immigrant visas to re-enter. This provision would severely limit the ability of many qualifying family members of DREAM Act recipients to obtain green cards, because many are currently living in the United States without authorization.

Further, DREAMers entered the country when they were young and thus are highly unlikely to have children they left abroad whom they could eventually sponsor for immigration. Having arrived as children, it is also quite likely that they will have met their spouse inside the United States, meaning that most of these spouses are already either U.S. citizens, green-card holders, or are themselves DREAMers. For the small share who might be unauthorized immigrants ineligible for the DREAM Act, most would need to wait three or ten years outside the country before they could immigrate legally—a significant barrier most would be unlikely to contemplate.

DREAM Act recipients could also eventually sponsor their parents, but as most parents are likely already in the United States without authorization, they too would also face three- or ten-year bars on legal re-entry. Realistically, only parents who overstayed legal visas or those residing outside of the country would likely be able to obtain a green card. Moreover, most parents of DREAMers also have U.S.-citizen children, who as a result could sponsor them under current law once 21 or older. Thus, legalization of DREAMers would have little effect on the ability of most of their parents to gain legal status.

Finally, legalized DREAMers would be able to get green cards only for those siblings who are outside the country. Considering many of these prospective immigrants already have U.S.-citizen siblings, they could already be sponsored for a green card under current law—whether Congress acts to legalize DREAMers or not.

Estimated Rates of Family Sponsorship for DREAMers

Drawing on the best available data on the family relationships of this population of unauthorized immigrants who came to the United States as children, as well as general naturalization and visa overstay rates and other data, MPI estimates that sponsorship by each DREAMer could result in an average of 0.65 to 1.03 family members getting a green card over their lifetime, depending on the bill in question.

Under the DREAM Act of 2017, which was introduced by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Richard Durbin (D-IL), MPI estimates that an individual DREAM beneficiary could result in the immigration of, on average:

  • About 0.07 spouses approximately two years after receiving legal status, given existing visa backlogs for the spouses of green-card holders
  • An additional 0.01 spouses and about 0.28 parents upon receiving citizenship, a status that would take five years or more to achieve after first obtaining legal status
  • Between 0.36 and 0.67 siblings (including their immediate family members) another 13 to 23 years later, due to long wait times for sibling visas.

Estimates of how many family members could gain a green card under the other DREAM Act-type bills fall into similar, but slightly lower, ranges.

In general, MPI estimates the maximum number of family members a legalizing DREAMer could help immigrate over a lifetime. The estimates assume, for example, that every parent or sibling residing outside the United States would be interested in and able to apply for a green card despite the costs and long wait times (which can reach two decades for a sibling coming from Mexico, for example). And it is worth noting that even without considering existing visa backlogs, under the most generous legislative proposal this new family immigration would occur over a period of at least two decades.

The current debate over resolving the status of DREAMers should reflect a realistic, evidence-based assessment of the likely family immigration impacts for this unique population rather than mechanistically using earlier estimates for different populations—or reaching well beyond that.