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Immigration 101: What is a Dreamer?


What is DACA? What is the Dream Act? And why must Congress take action to protect immigrant youth?

Updated by Anna Núñez on December 26, 2017

What is a Dreamer? When it comes to immigration reform, a “Dreamer” (often also spelled “DREAMer”) refers to a young person who qualifies for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.

Dreamers are also frequently referred to as “DACA recipients”, though the latter specifically refers to Dreamers who have applied for and received DACA status (more about that below).

While the majority of Dreamers are Latino, they are a diverse group and come from a multitude of countries and cultures. Seven of the top 24 countries for Dreamers are in Asia, Europe, or the Caribbean. Tens of thousands of young Dreamers come from South Korea, the Philippines, India, Jamaica, Tobago, Poland, Nigeria, Pakistan, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Guyana. Stories highlighting the lives and struggles of a number of Dreamers and DACA applicants are featured here:

  • Mariam, 25, Texas hospital worker and single mother of three children.
  • Sergio, 28, Texas Dreamer
  • Ebba, 28, JD and Ph.D. student in the Northeast
  • Christian, 24, New Jersey clinical research coordinator
  • Carlos, Venezuelan national AP scholar and tech worker
  • Carlos C.V., 27, Texas public school teacher and graduate student
  • Gabriela, 21, Northern Virginia college student

Dream Act and DACA

The Dream Act is a piece of legislation first introduced to Congress in 2001 that would create a pathway to citizenship to young people who were brought to the United States as children without documentation. These are young people who are American in every way, except on paper. They have grown up in this country and consider themselves to be American, but lack the documents to fully engage in society.

After Congress failed to pass the Dream Act in 2010 (despite 70 percent of Americans supporting the proposed legislation), the Obama Administration on June 15, 2012 announced a temporary program allowing Dreamers to come forward, pass a background check, and apply for work permits. The program is called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and allows applicants to request consideration of deferred action for a period of two years, subject to renewal. Deferred action does not provide lawful status.

DACA allowed nearly 800,000 young undocumented people to come out of the shadows, work legally, and live without fear of deportation. It helped drive economic growth, kept families together, promoted education and community integration, and strengthened civic ties. However, Dreamers were still not provided a pathway to citizenship under the DACA program. And, since it was created through an executive order, presidents after Obama had the authority to rescind the DACA program at any time.

Trump Ends DACA

On September 5, 2017, on behalf of President Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that DACA was coming to an end. The recission of DACA happened despite polls finding 2:1 that a majority (58 percent) of voters nationwide opposed the repeal of DACA, while just 28 percent supported its end.

The DACA program is being phased out gradually, as outlined by the Department of Homeland Security Memorandum on Rescission of DACA. Every Dreamer whose DACA would have expired between September 5, 2017 and March 5, 2018 was allowed to apply for one last two-year renewal — but only if their paperwork was received by October 5, 2017.

Every Dreamer whose DACA expires on or after March 6, 2018 will only continue to have DACA status and work permits until their next DACA expiration date, unless their status is terminated or revoked. Because DACA only lasts two years, this rescission means all DACA recipients will eventually lose protected status and potentially face deportation by early 2020.

For more information about the end of DACA and related deadlines, see here.

The Status of Dreamers

As of December 2017, some 13,000 Dreamers have already lost DACA status. Under the deadline set by Mr. Trump, nearly 1,000 Dreamers will lose their protection from deportation each day beginning March 5.

Around 22,000 Dreamers who were eligible to apply for a DACA renewal were unable to do so between September 5 and October 5, 2017, either because of they could not afford the $495 renewal fee, experienced confusion or were unaware of the deadline, had privacy concerns or feared deportation from the federal government sharing DACA data, or for various other reasons.

4,000 Dreamers mailed in DACA renewals by the deadline, but were rejected because they were marked “late” at USCIS designated filing centers. Almost a quarter of them were late due to USPS’ failure to deliver on time, or because they arrived by the deadline at the USCIS’ mailbox but were not picked up until the next day . One Dreamer was rejected because a clerk misread the date on her check (that she used to pay for the DACA renewal application) as “2012” rather than “2017” and sent the application back, with no time for the recipient to correct the clerk’s error. Another Dreamer sent his application by certified mail weeks before the Oct. 5 deadline, but the application circled in a mysterious holding pattern, lost “in transit to destination” until October 4. One day after the deadline, his renewal application was delivered to USCIS, where it was immediately rejected.

Initially, USCIS said that they would not reconsider late applications for any reason. But after a national outcry, the department reversed course and ordered the federal government to accept DACA renewal applications that arrived late due to postal and USCIS delays.

As of this writing, even Dreamers who still have active and current DACA status are at risk of being detained. In November, Border Patrol agents picked up Felipe, a 20-year-old Dreamer with active DACA status, no criminal history, an a painful handicap related to his amputated leg. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) accused Felipe of human smuggling because he was riding in a car with undocumented relatives. He was detained, his DACA status was revoked, and he briefly faced deportation proceedings before being allowed to go home.

Six days before his son’s birthday while driving five minutes from his job, 27-year-old Dreamer Osman Aroche Enriquez was pulled over by a Pennsylvania State police officer for an expired vehicle registration. A Guatemalan native, Enriquez was handed over to ICE and placed into detention after his DACA renewal application was delayed by Chicago postal service errors and rejected. After four days in detention, Enriquez was released in time to celebrate his son’s first birthday. Other relatives who were in the car during the arrest are still in ICE custody.

Legislation and the Future of Dreamers

To counteract the end of DACA, Dreamers need Congress to pass the Dream Act in order to permanently secure their legal status and ability to work.

This is the moment,” said Cristina Jiménez, executive director and co-founder of United We Dream, the nation’s largest Dreamer organization.

To date, Dreamers and advocates across the country have galvanized a strong tidal wave of actions, loudly demanding Congress pass a clean Dream Act. Advocates want Congress to pass the Dream Act in conjunction with the FY2018 omnibus spending bill, which must be passed in order for the government to keep functioning. Attaching the Dream Act to the omnibus is considered to be the Dream Act’s best chance of passing, considering the difficulty of passing a standalone bill through a Republican Congress, especially during a midterm election year.

On December 6, 2017, advocates gathered in Washington, D.C. for a massive rally — accompanied by an act of civil disobedience where 200 movement leaders were arrested on the Capitol steps. This event was echoed in Congressional districts across the country. Just a few weeks later, Dreamers took over the Congressional tunnels and passageways, blocking members of Congress and their staff from being able to freely move around the Capitol.

Other aggressive December actions for the Dream Act include:

Despite the valiant and heroic actions of passionate Dreamers and advocates, Congress failed to take action in 2017 and hundreds of thousands of Dreamers remain at risk of losing DACA status and facing deportation.

Short-term spending legislation was approved on December 21, 2017, which averted a government shutdown. Despite the intense lobbying efforts of immigrant rights advocates for members of Congress to withhold their vote on the must-pass spending bill if it did not include protections for Dreamers, the House and Senate did nothing for young undocumented immigrants.

The FY2018 omnibus spending bill has been postponed until January and must still be passed. As of this writing, Dreamers and advocates have been striving to make clear to both Democrats and Republicans that they must attach the Dream Act to the omnibus spending bill, and pass both in January — or face the wrath of Dreamers and their allies in the 2018 elections.

“In January, Democrats have leverage and need to deliver; Republicans have control and need to govern,” stated Frank Sharry, the Executive Director of America’s Voice. “If Democrats insist the Dream Act is a must-pass priority and Republicans are willing to negotiate a decent policy approach, it will pass and both parties will benefit.”

What is a Dreamer? More Resources