Every time I hear someone use the word “dreamers” to define children brought to this country by undocumented parents, I think back to when the so-called D.R.E.A.M Act - which stands for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors – was first introduced in Congress in early August, 2001.
The measure originally co-sponsored by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, of Illinois, and Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, of Utah, would grant conditional resident status to young people whose parents had entered the country illegally provided they were under 16 when they arrived in the United States, had graduated from a U.S. high school or earned a GED, could demonstrate good moral character, and pass criminal background checks. If they met those conditions, they could also qualify for financial aid.
Under the DREAM ACT, the so-called Dreamers could seek permanent residency if they attended college or served in the U.S. military for at least two years, and passed more background checks.
That would even be a high bar for many native-born American kids to scale. Nevertheless, the DREAM Act has repeatedly failed in Congress. Perhaps it’s been a victim of its own timing, in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Or maybe those young people are being punished for their parents’ decisions. Frustrated by Congressional gridlock on the issue, President Obama resorted to creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which protects some people from deportation if they pass a background check and are either in school or employed.
This long-running battle highlights the power of words to sway emotions. In the DREAM Act, the letter “a” stands for “alien” – suggesting a potentially dangerous being from outer space. A group of students from Dartmouth, where I now work, managed, for a short time, to get the Library of Congress to stop using "illegal aliens" in its cataloguing system. But under pressure from Republican members of Congress, that decision has sadly been reversed.
Calling undocumented students “aliens” may have made it difficult for the original DREAM Act to win friends in Congress. Now these same students are being called “dreamers,” as in “American dream,” by the very President who has just made their deportation more likely. Maybe that’s why he’s see-sawing on DACA. “We love the dreamers,” says President Trump.
But love has to be something you do, not just something you say.