Congress Pushes Path to Citizenship for ‘Documented Dreamers’

There is a growing bipartisan push to protect the children of nonimmigrant visa holders who were raised in the United States but cannot obtain green cards.

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Congress pushes for a path to citizenship for ‘documented Dreamers.’

A march for workers’ and human rights in Los Angeles on May 1.Credit…David Mcnew/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Sept. 15, 2021, 7:47 p.m. ET

Senators introduced a bipartisan bill on Wednesday that would create a pathway to citizenship for some children and young adults who were raised in the United States but face deportation at age 21.

The legislation, called the America’s Children Act, was introduced after the House this week advanced the text of a sweeping $3.5 trillion spending plan that would also write into law a pathway to citizenship for the same group, known as documented Dreamers. They are young people who lived in the country legally until age 21 as the dependents of parents who hold nonimmigrant visas. But many never qualify for permanent residency. And some that are eligible for green cards as children get stuck in the vast green card backlog and are unable to gain residency before they turn 21 and are kicked out of line.

The moves indicate broad bipartisan support in both chambers for documented Dreamers following a yearslong push for them to be included in an immigration overhaul.

“For too long, young immigrants like us, who have been raised and educated here as Americans, have been forced to leave the country we call home,” said Dip Patel, the founder of Improve the Dream, an organization that advocates for documented Dreamers. “The introduction of America’s Children Act means so much to thousands of us who have only known America as their home.”

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program introduced by President Obama in 2012, which protects about 650,000 young immigrants from deportation, requires applicants to be undocumented, leaving out documented Dreamers.

Under the proposed legislation, at least 200,000 young adults who have lived in the United States for at least 10 years on a valid visa and have graduated from an institution of higher education would be eligible for permanent residence.

Mr. Patel, 25, a Canadian citizen, has lived in the United States for more than 16 years. His parents came to the United States on E-2 visas, a program that allows small business investors to reside in the United States, and opened a grocery store in Southern Illinois.

It was not until he was in high school that Mr. Patel realized that his dependent visa would expire when he turned 21, complicating his future. An E-2 visa is one that can be renewed endlessly, but it does not offer a pathway to citizenship.

“It’s such a little-known thing,” said Mr. Patel. “Most Americans don’t even know that it’s possible for someone, an immigrant child, to be brought here under a legal status but still not have a path to citizenship.”

The America’s Children Act is the first effort to create a path to citizenship for documented Dreamers that has broad bipartisan support in the House and Senate. The Senate bill is co-sponsored by three Democrats who sit on the Judiciary Committee and have jurisdiction over immigration legislation, including the chairman, Senator Dick Durban of Illinois. The Republican Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Susan Collins of Maine are also co-sponsors.

Democrats hope to pass broad immigration reform, including for documented Dreamers, through the $3.5 trillion social policy package, but it is unclear whether it will ultimately be included. Because Democrats are seeking to pass the bill through a unilateral maneuver known as budget reconciliation, the Senate parliamentarian, who is the chamber’s top rules enforcer, will ultimately rule on whether including an overhaul of immigration law in the economic package would violate a Senate rule dating back to the mid-1980s.

Representative Deborah Ross, Democrat of North Carolina, who led the effort to introduce stand-alone legislation to protect documented Dreamers and co-sponsored the House bill, said that she thought the case for including immigration reform in the legislation was clear. She cited the tens of billions of dollars in growth that experts have estimated that documented Dreamers alone would add to the economy if allowed to live in the United States.

Mr. Patel, a clinical pharmacist in Illinois, has been able to stay in the United States, first on a student visa and now on an employer-sponsored work visa. But many in his position are not able to find alternative visas and must leave the country. And Mr. Patel still must renew his current visa every three years. The process is challenging because the terms of a nonimmigrant visa require the applicant to demonstrate that they do not intend to settle permanently in the United States.

“In my case and that of many others, it’s almost impossible to do that when you’ve lived in America for basically your whole life,” Mr. Patel said.

He began Improve the Dream to create a supportive community for other families in his position, he said, many of whom were afraid to speak up for fear that they might lose what immigration status they had. The organization grew quickly, and ultimately helped draft the America’s Children Act.

“I have confidence that documented Dreamers won’t be ignored anymore,” Mr. Patel said. “This broad bipartisan support shows that this solution should be included in any efforts at immigration reform.”

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