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Immigration 101: What is a Dreamer?

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Latest Update: In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of DACA and against the Trump Administration in June 2020, saying that the manner in which Trump ended DACA was “arbitrary and capricious”. Read our press statement here. And read the full decision here.

However, a new memo was issued in July 2020 by the Trump administration that barred new applicants and reduced renewal periods from two years to one. While the Trump team tried to spin the new policy as an extension of DACA, the reality is that the program is being killed in phases and the future of DACA is still in Jeopardy. 


First published July 20, 2017; last updated June 23, 2020

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

What is a Dreamer? When it comes to immigration reform, a “Dreamer” (often also spelled “DREAMer”) refers to an immigrant youth 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 for immigrant youth 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 participate in the country they call home.

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 legally work, while being protected from deportation. DACA status must be renewed every two years, which means it does not provide permanent protection.

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, strengthened civic ties, and helped Dreamers to flourish. 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, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that DACA was coming to an end. The recission of DACA happened despite polls finding that a majority (58 percent) of voters nationwide opposed the repeal of DACA, while just 28 percent supported its end.

Trump’s announcement initially created panic and confusion among immigrant youth, who were only given a month to renew their DACA status if their status was set to expire before March 2018.

Around 22,000 Dreamers who were eligible to apply were unable to do so, either because they could not afford the $495 renewal fee, got confused about the process, were unaware of the deadline, had privacy concerns, or feared deportation from the Trump Administration sharing DACA data with enforcement agencies.

4,000 Dreamers mailed in DACA renewals by the October 2017 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.

Even Dreamers who had active and current DACA status retained a risk of being detained. In November 2017, Border Patrol agents picked up Felipe, a 20-year-old Dreamer with active DACA status, no criminal history, and 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 remained in ICE custody.

DACA and the Supreme Court

Eventually, multiple lawsuits were filed, and a court ruled that the Trump Administration had to keep accepting DACA renewals from Dreamers who currently had DACA status. But after September 2017, Dreamers who aged into the program — or those who qualified for DACA but had not yet applied — were shut out of DACA.

The Supreme Court decided to hear a consolidated DACA case in 2019, and issued a 5-4 ruling in June 2020. The Supreme Court ruled that the Trump Administration illegally terminated DACA by failing to provide a good reason for the recission. The Court noted that Trump was free to try and terminate the program again if he wished, but it is currently unclear what Trump will be able to attempt before the 2020 election.

As of this writing, DACA continues as a program and will continue accepting renewal applications for Dreamers who already have DACA status. Advocates are pushing for a re-opening of the program for the 66,000 Dreamers who have aged into DACA eligibility since September 2017 but have been unable to apply. But, the continuation of DACA does not mean permanent protection for Dreamers. Only Congressional legislation can do that. 

Read more about our explanation on the DACA Supreme Court decision here.

Legislation and the Future of Dreamers

Over the years, Dreamers, immigrant youth, advocates, and allies have organized countless demonstrations calling for permanent status for themselves and their families. They have conducted acts of civil disobedience, been arrested, marched 1,500 miles from Miami to Washington, D.C., stormed Congressional offices, picketed ICE offices, conducted hunger strikes, and much more.

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 2017actions for the Dream Act included:

In the current 116th Congressional session (2019-2021), Dreamers and advocates are calling on the Senate to pass two bills:

  • The Dream and Promise Act, which the House passed in May 2019 and would grant permanent status and a path to citizenship for Dreamers and TPS holders
  • The Heroes Act, which the House passed in May 2020 and would grant work permits and other protections to immigrant workers and their families

Without legislation from Congress, Dreamers might be stuck in an uncertain immigration status forever, not knowing when the next challenge to DACA might come. Congress must pass permanent protections for the Dreamers who call the U.S. home.

What is a Dreamer? More Resources