If the Senate had approved the defense authorization bill this week which included the long-debated DREAM Act, more than 500,000 young immigrants who are in California without legal authorization would have been eligible to apply for legal status, at least on a "conditional" basis.
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act provides a path to legalization for eligible high school students and adults who came to the United States before the age of 16 – and then at a minimum completed two years of higher education.
But supporters, including Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., vowed to bring the issue up again for a vote, so the DREAM Act could still have major ramifications for California. The defeat of the defense authorization bill was more a referendum on repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" legislation than on the DREAM Act. At least two senators – Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett from Utah – indicated that they would have voted for the defense bill if it had not included repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."
According to a recent report by the Migration Policy Institute [PDF], some 2.1 million youth and young adults could be eligible to apply for "conditional legal status" under the legislation. By far the largest number – 553,000, or 26 percent – live in California, according to the report, which includes the most detailed, and credible, estimates of any attempt so far.
But the report points out that not all of those eligible to apply would qualify for permanent residence.
Under the legislation, unauthorized immigrants could apply for conditional status if they are under the age of 35, arrived in the United States before the age of 16, lived in the country for at least the past five years and obtained a U.S. high school diploma or GED. In six years, the conditional status would be removed if applicants completed two years of post-secondary education or military service, and if they "maintain good moral character" during that period.
That is very much in line with President Obama's goal to make the United States a global leader in college attendance. But Jeanne Batalova and Margie McHugh, the report's authors, estimate that many of those who are potentially eligible in California would not have the financial resources to go to college, which would render them ineligible for legalization.
"Just looking at poverty and graduation rates in California, many of them will face great challenges in making it to permanent legal status through the bill," McHugh told me in a telephone conversation this week. Another complication in California, she noted, is the severe cuts in adult school programs that in the past may have helped young immigrants acquire English proficiency.
McHugh said that the requirements for legalization under the DREAM Act are more onerous than those required in broader comprehensive immigration reform bills Congress has considered in the past, in that every applicant would have to successfully complete two years of college. "It is asking of these young people something that we don't even expect of native-born young people in terms of educational attainment," she said.
Other barriers include the fact that many unauthorized immigrants are already in the workforce and/or are parents, which would make it even more difficult for them to go to college.
Based on all these factors, the authors project that nationally only 38 percent – or 825,000 – of potential beneficiaries would actually achieve lawful permanent status under the legislation.
The report does not calculate how many of these potential beneficiaries live in California. But based on the estimate that 38 percent of eligible young people will meet the requirements of the bill, California's share of how many will ultimately become legal residents could be more than 200,000.
That is still a very substantial number. The report's authors make it very clear that their numbers are estimates, are based on 2006-08 data, and don't take into account the number of unauthorized migrants who may have returned to their home country since then.