How Dreamers Can Prepare for Whatever Congress Does Next

Exhausting every option under our existing immigration laws

Feb 15, 2018

With the Senate engaged in open-ended debate on immigration this week, lawmakers are focused on how (and whether) to protect Dreamers, the nearly 2 million undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. Predicting what the Senate—let alone the House of Representatives and the White House—will do next is extremely difficult. While a bipartisan deal in the Senate could provide Dreamers with legal status and a path to U.S. citizenship, it’s highly unclear what kind of bill will pass the House and ultimately be signed into law. The Trump Administration has declared March 5 as the termination date for the Obama-era program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), at which point a large number of Dreamers will start to lose their work permits and become deportable.

We can, however, identify three broad potential outcomes:

(1) Congress makes a long-term deal: In exchange for increased border security and measures to satisfy immigration hard-liners, 1.5–2 million Dreamers become eligible for 8-10 years of conditional permanent residency, followed by full permanent residency and ultimately citizenship.

(2) Congress makes a short-term deal: For one extra year or so, DACA recipients are able to maintain their temporary work permits and deportation protections. There would be no guarantees about what Congress will or won’t do next year.

(3) Congress does not act: DACA is allowed to terminate with no immediate legislative replacement.

Given the immense uncertainty, what can Dreamers do right now to prepare for whatever the next several weeks and months may bring?

Filing DACA renewal applications as soon as possible: After President Trump announced the winding-down DACA in September of last year, it seemed that the door would close forever on past DACA beneficiaries seeking to re-apply. But then, on January 9, a federal judge in California ordered the government to start accepting DACA renewals again (and a New York judge issued a similar injunction this week). This means that the door is open but the clock is ticking: The Supreme Court is stepping in and could decide to shut the door again as early as February. Although it’s not cheap to renew DACA, with $495 in government fees plus any attorney expenses, it’s an important insurance policy, as there is no guarantee Congress will deliver enduring work authorizations and deportation protections for Dreamers this year.

Taking advantage of existing green card options: Current immigration law allows the undocumented spouse of a U.S. citizen to apply for a green card with no special hurdles—as long as the spouse originally came to the United States by “overstaying” a valid visa, rather than entering the country without permission. This is a much faster path to permanent residence (less than a year) and ultimately U.S. citizenship (three additional years) than even the most generous proposals that Congress is currently considering for Dreamers (10-12 years until citizenship). Other Dreamers may also be eligible for a green card right now, even if they were brought to the United States without a valid visa. For example, someone who applied for DACA before turning 18 (or within 180 days of turning 18) should be able to return to their country of origin and apply for a green card through the U.S. embassy or consulate, just as anyone would do if living abroad and applying for a green card based on marriage to a U.S. citizen (or other valid family sponsorship). These scenarios can get complicated, but it’s important for Dreamers to understand their options—again, as an insurance policy in case Congress fails to act.

Getting to the Front of What Could Be a Long Line: If Congress does take action to protect Dreamers, this will lead to a surge of applications that federal agencies may not be well-equipped to process quickly. Although specific new forms and application requirements wouldn’t likely be available until at least 90 days after a bill is signed into law, it could be helpful to plan ahead of time to assemble the kinds of documents that any variation on the Dreamer visa is likely to require—not just the documents previously required for DACA, but also for existing green card applications.

Because nobody can predict what Congress will or won’t do to replace DACA in the weeks ahead, Dreamers can and should exhaust every option under our existing immigration laws.

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