DACA Recipients and DREAMers: Who Are They?

On Jan. 19, Democrats shut down the federal government when Republicans refused to attach to the budget bill legislation to permanently legalize current DACA recipients: 690,000 immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally and have been protected from deportation by President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, announced in June of 2012. (The initial two-year deferral of deportation was renewable.)

On Jan. 22, Congress agreed to fund the government until Feb. 8, based on promises to address a permanent solution for DACA recipients, increasingly referred to as DREAMers.

Over the next three weeks, discussions in Congress and in the media about DACA recipients and DREAMers — already heated — will intensify. On Jan. 12, Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos announced that he will donate $33 million dollars for college scholarships for DREAMers. Locally, the District government and Georgetown University earlier allocated funds to defend them from deportation.

Who are they, exactly, these DACA recipients and DREAMers? With so much public time and money invested in them, it is vital to know.

The definition in general circulation is that DACA DREAMers are immigrants who were brought into the country illegally at an early age by their parents, have lived here their whole lives and only know this country as their own. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) often says they were brought here “as infants.”

However, none of this verbiage exists in the specific requirements for DACA or DREAMer status, either in President Obama’s DACA order or in any version of the DREAM Act.

DACA Recipients

According to the three-page Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals memorandum sent by President Obama to the Department of Homeland Security on June 15, 2012, “The following criteria should be satisfied before an individual is considered for an exercise of prosecutorial discretion pursuant to this memorandum:

  • came to the United States under the age of sixteen;
  • has continuously resided in the United States for a least five years;
  • is currently in school or has graduated from high school or has obtained a general education development certificate, or is an honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States;
  • has not been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor offense, multiple misdemeanor offenses, or otherwise poses a threat to national security or public safety; and
  • is not above the age of thirty.”

In sum, almost 100 percent of DACA recipients are adults between the ages of 18 and 30 — in other words, millennials.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services statistics, about 24 percent of DACA recipients came into the U.S. under the age of 3 (eight percent under age 1). About 10 percent came in as teenagers.

There are no statistics about what percentage of the 690,000 DACA recipients came in legally, illegally or alone; were brought in by parents, relatives or paid traffickers; rode on the top of a train, climbed over a border wall or swam across a river; or crossed a border legally with a temporary visa.

DACA does not confer legal status, though it documents immigrants and makes them eligible for temporary (two-to-three-year) work permits and other benefits, depending on the state.

Presidential executive orders and memos like DACA are not legislation. They can be rescinded anytime by a sitting president — which is what happened.

President Donald Trump rescinded his predecessor’s DACA order effective March 5, 2018. All DACA recipients will lose their deportation waiver and their job permits on that date; they will then be legally vulnerable to deportation at any time. But no one in the Trump administration has indicated that there will be a massive sweep of DACA recipients. Realistically and politically, mass deportation is highly unlikely.

President Trump left it to Congress to decide what to do.


DREAMers are a much broader group. It can be said that all 690,000 DACA recipients are DREAMers, but not all DREAMers are DACA recipients.

DREAM is an acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors. The latest DREAM Act proposed is S. 1615, submitted on July 20, 2017, by the following senators: Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois).

To qualify as DREAMers and be eligible for “permanent green cards on a conditional basis,” individuals (referred to as “aliens” in S. 1615) must:

  • Have been continuously physically present in the U.S. since the date of enactment for four years;
  • Have been younger than 18 years of age on the date they initially entered the U.S.
  • Have not been convicted of more than three federal offenses and imprisoned for an aggregate of 90 days or more;
  • Have earned a high school degree or the equivalent;
  • Have been admitted to an institution of higher education; and
  • Have been DACA recipients unless they engaged in conduct that would make them ineligible.

There are pages of exemptions, exceptions and waivers, even for documentation to prove any of the above. As with DACA recipients, DREAMer status would be decided on a case-by-case basis.

There are three basic differences between the DACA and DREAMer requirements. DREAMers have a broader age of entry (18 years old for DREAMers; 16 for DACA); they are required to be in the U.S. for fewer years (four rather than five); and they can serve 90 days in jail for a felony offense and still qualify.

Experts estimate that between 1.5 and 3 million individuals — or more — are initially qualified to be DREAMers under these criteria, compared to 800,000 who initially got DACA status.

As Margaret Sands Orchowski, Peggy Sands is the author of “The Law that Changed the Face of America: The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965,” published in 2015.



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