Immigration Reform: What a New DREAM Act Should Look Like

On Sunday evening, before the fiscal cliff deal was reached, President Barack Obama sat down with NBC's David Gregory on Meet the Press for a rare interview heading into New Year's Eve. While the nearly 30-minute long interview was not about immigration reform, President Obama stated on immigration reform that he "will introduce legislation in the first year" of his second term as president and labeled immigration reform as a "top priority."

In 2012, President Obama surprisingly announced that his administration would stop deporting undocumented immigrants and allow temporary work permits from a program called deferred action targeting DREAMers. Up to this point on the scale of need-to-tackle domestic issues, immigration seems to be right behind the economy. The disheartening truth on immigration is that while it is a hot button issue, it is often one that is kicked down the road. With the heavily partisan bickering in Washington, is it the right time to pursue immigration reform and, more importantly, what does a bipartisan, quasi-DREAM Act law look like?

Thus far, twelve states — more recently California and Maryland — have pushed their own unique versions of the DREAM Act through state legislatures. The state passed DREAM Acts effectively give good standing, youth undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as minors and graduated high school the opportunity to pursue a college education or enlist in the military and effectively obtain legal permanent residency. 

For a more detailed comparison, visit the US. Visa and Immigration Portal.

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans have placed on the table a far-fetched counter offer called the ACHIEVE Act which contains stricter keeping of the laws, does not offer any form of financial aid to undocumented immigrants, and most importantly does not give a pathway to citizenship to undocumented immigrants. Even while ordinary Americans have trouble paying their way through college, Republicans believe marginalized undocumented youth have the means to pay for college tuition out-of-pocket and receive nothing for it. For immigration reform, this deal, while a step in the right direction in reaching a bipartisan deal, is flawed because it is too strict and unreasonable for most undocumented immigrants to complete and does not offer a pathway to citizenship (via legal residency). If it doesn't offer a pathway to citizenship and keeps undocumented immigrants in a limbo of conditional immigrant status, my question is: what's the point? 

Here's how Congress can reach a bipartisan deal:

1. Permanent residency (AKA, a pathway to citizenship must exist)

While Democrats argue that undocumented youth deserve a pathway to citizenship, Republicans slam the idea because they believe this would incentivize more illegal immigration to the United States. Senators have expressed their concern that the DREAM Act, if passed, would require more surveillance of the U.S.-Mexico border. Regardless, ACHIEVE Act sponsors must understand that undocumented youth who consider the U.S. their home and have stayed in the U.S. for a continued presence have no place else to call home. As stated earlier, if the ACHIEVE Act only allows a temporary four-year, renewable work visa, then the mission of developing and relieving undocumented youth to their highest potential is not accomplished. A halfway approach to this is making it so that obtaining legal permanent residency for undocumented youth more stringent by required applicants to have longer continued presence in the U.S. before applying and more education/military service (like the ACHIEVE Act proposes, four-year college degrees/4 four years of military service). 

2. Financial assistance is a must

When applying for college, large amounts of undocumented youth are currently looking at schools that offer 100% need-based financial aid to their students that offer financial aid to undocumented students. This is just one more way undocumented students are working their way through college educations but we know that this isn't the whole story.

The National Center for Education Statistics finds that two-thirds of all undergraduate students received some type of financial aid in 2007-2008. There should be no contest on why students need some form of financial assistance to get through college, especially for undocumented youth and their families who are consistently vilified and marginalized by society. Perhaps a bipartisan approach on this end is making it so that students can receive extended loans, but not state funded financial aid or Federal Work-Study. Or states can even try to mobilize to set up privately funded scholarship funds for undocumented youth, like Illinois did in 2012.

3. Meet halfway on other smaller issues

The other talking points are really within reach for a bipartisan approach. For example, based on the chart above, perhaps Congress can agree upon undocumented youth entering the U.S. by age 15 and being 30 as a reasonable compromise. Congress can also meet halfway on application fees, legal standing, and whether or not undocumented youth receive some public benefits.  

But then again, I had hoped Congress knew a thing or two about multitasking and not coming to a complete standstill (see: fiscal cliff). Upcoming is sequestration within the next two months and the debt ceiling in another year. Let's hope that they prove me wrong.