Democrats hoping 16-year-old Dream Act can be model for DACA's replacement

Sixteen years ago, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard of California helped file legislation that would have allowed people brought to the country illegally as children to stay in the United States.

That bill became the Dream Act. Its failure to pass Congress led to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which President Donald Trump this month decided to end as he urged Congress to find a replacement.

If Democrats have their way, DACA’s replacement will look a lot like what Roybal-Allard proposed in 2001. Democratic leaders emerged from a meeting with Trump on Wednesday night saying Roybal-Allard’s bill, which includes a path to citizenship for some immigrants in the country illegally, must be part of Congress’ plan to protect DACA recipients.

Roybal-Allard said she started working on the legislation after a late-1990s conversation with a worker in her office who was worried about a college friend living in the country illegally.

“She was telling me about her friend who had graduated from college and could not get a job, and that she was always living in fear of being deported,” Roybal-Allard said.

Roybal-Allard teamed up with now-former Democratic Rep. Howard Berman of California and now-former Utah Republican Rep. Chris Cannon. They proposed a bill that would have given permanent legal status to some young immigrants and removed a ban on nonresidents using student aid. It died in committee without a hearing. The first Los Angeles Times article on the initiative focused on how the bill would make it easier for students in the country illegally to pay for college.

It was the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who changed its drab title, the Student Adjustment Act, to the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or the Dream Act. The title became a rallying cry for people brought to the country illegally as children, and they began calling themselves “Dreamers.”

Durbin’s name change helped the bill catch fire because it spoke to much more than paying for college, Roybal-Allard said.

"I think it represents what every young person has, their dreams for the future, their dreams to go to college or whatever their aspiration is,” Roybal-Allard said. “That one word encompasses all of that, and I think that’s why it’s caught on.”

The bill, which has evolved from emphasizing financial aid for higher education to focusing on a path for citizenship for children who were brought here illegally, has been filed again and again. In 2006 and 2007, the bill’s text was inserted into a bipartisan immigration policy overhaul that failed. In 2010, a version that outlined details such as application fees and work requirements for Dreamers passed the House, but a companion bill died in the Senate.

“One of the things I’ve learned since I’ve been here [is] things move really slow even when they seem to me [to be] no-brainers, things that should be very, very simple,” Roybal-Allard said.

Frustrated that Congress couldn't pass it, Roybal-Allard and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus pleaded with President Barack Obama to do something. He created DACA in 2012, which protected some people brought into the country illegally as children if they passed a background check and were in school or employed.

About half of those estimated to be eligible, more than 800,000 people, gave the government personal information such as their fingerprints and home addresses to get a two-year reprieve from deportation and a work permit. A quarter of them were Californians.

Now Trump has halted new DACA applications and given Congress six months to pass legislation for Dreamers before he shutters the program. Recipients have until Oct. 5 to apply for a renewal, so Democratic leaders, and some Republicans, want Congress to pass legislation by then.

At least four bills are in the mix to address the millions of people thought to have been brought to the country illegally as children.

Most of the bills offer an eventual path to citizenship for Dreamers. One, The Bridge Act, does not and would simply enshrine Obama’s DACA program into law for three years, giving Congress more time to come up with a solution.

Roybal-Allard's newest Dream Act is similar to the 2010 version, but includes immediate protection from deportation for the Dreamers who signed up for DACA. Democrats say the bill’s age, work and education requirements would allow a broad group of Dreamers to qualify while maintaining some of the limitations Republicans want.

Rep. Linda T. Sanchez of California, who is the vice chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus, said Democrats want a permanent solution that protects as many people as possible who were brought to the country as children illegally. Almost 200 Democrats and four Republicans back Roybal-Allard’s bill. Democrats are trying to force a procedural move that would send the Dream Act to the House floor for a vote.

“We want a clear legislative resolution so that we don’t have to keep kicking the can down the road. Sustaining something that was always meant to be a temporary program doesn’t resolve the issue,” Sanchez said.

Any whiff of a path to citizenship for people who entered the country illegally has been a non-starter for many Republicans. With the GOP controlling both chambers, it will likely be a sticking point.

Rep. Jeff Denham of California, one of four Republican co-sponsors of Roybal-Allard’s bill, said he’s trying to get bipartisan discussions started in order to make a deal by October. He’s co-sponsored some of the other bills as well, and isn’t set on a particular plan.

“It’s important to send the right message that we’re looking for a path forward and that Republicans and Democrats should work together,” he said.

Roybal-Allard said she hopes the president's sympathy for Dreamers, and public support for them, will sway Republicans to seriously consider her bill this time.

"This is an issue, really, that should have been done a long time ago,” she said.

sarah.wire@latimes.com

@sarahdwire

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette
48°