What's the difference between "amnesty" and "comprehensive immigration reform"? In theory, the answer is simple: Under the latter, an illegal immigrant must satisfy strict requirements to qualify for the former. Various enforcement measures designed to deter further illegal immigration -- i.e., future comprehensive reform beneficiaries -- are also thrown in.
In practice, the answer is even simpler: Not much. Scrutinized carefully, the conditions for legalization that are supposed to set comprehensive reform apart from a blanket amnesty are usually riddled with loopholes or totally unenforceable within the shambles that passes for America's immigration system. So instead of targeting a small, sympathetic subset of illegal immigrants, the legislation would wind up benefiting a much larger population -- not much different from the 1986 amnesty.
That brings us to the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act for short, now pending before the lame-duck session of Congress. (The bill was a key Harry Reid campaign promise.) Supporters say it is designed to help high school students whose parents brought them into the United States illegally when they were small children. Guilty of no crime of their own, under the DREAM Act these youths could adjust their legal status by attending college or serving in the military.
An American Immigration Council fact sheet in support of the bill says, "The DREAM Act is not an amnesty. No one will automatically receive a green card. To legalize, individuals have to meet stringent eligibility criteria: they must have entered the United States before age 16; must have been here for five years or more; must not have committed any major crimes; must graduate from high school or the equivalent; and must complete at least two years of college or military service."
Hardly anyone wants to deport young people who have only known the United States as their home, did not voluntarily break our immigration laws, and do not even speak the language of their country of origin, even if they didn't have bright futures ahead in either college or the U.S. military. The trouble is, as usual, the DREAM Act's "stringent eligibility criteria" fall apart on close examination and its possible implications stretch far beyond youngsters caught in this unfortunate set of circumstances.
First, an illegal alien doesn't have to provide real evidence that he meets these criteria to keep the immigration authorities at bay. Simply filing an application is good enough. Until the application process is complete, the potential DREAM beneficiary cannot be removed from the United States for any reason. If the application is rejected and amnesty is denied, the applicant reverts to his previous immigration status -- and none of the information gathered during this process can be used against the illegal immigrant in future deportation hearings.
DREAM thus provides a huge incentive to apply for amnesty and see what happens. The burden of proof falls on the federal government, not the illegal immigrant. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that about 2.1 million people would qualify, but as staffers for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) point out (see their fact sheet about the bill), "we have no idea how many illegal aliens will apply." There are no numerical limits on potential beneficiaries and currently no end date for the application process. Sessions argues: "Clearly, the message sent by the DREAM Act will be that if any young person can enter the country illegally, within five years, they will be placed on a path to citizenship."
Then there is the question of how "stringent" the bill's requirements really are. DREAM doesn't require applicants to finish any degree program or even be particularly good students. For those who go the military route, honorable discharge is not required. "Good moral character" can include up to two misdemeanor convictions, including drunk driving. In any event, if the DREAM beneficiary can prove that their removal from the country would result in hardship to themselves or someone here legally who is a spouse, child, or parent, both the college and military service requirements can be waived.
Finally, those who are amnestied under the DREAM Act and ultimately become U.S. citizens can sponsor their siblings and parents for immigration -- including the parents who brought them here illegally. As the bill's supporters point out, this is not a speedy process. But the parents would at least have the advantage of not having to petition from overseas like other prospective legal immigrants.
DREAM is being tweaked to satisfy skeptics' objections. The maximum age for applying has been reduced from 35 to 30 (past versions of bill have had no age requirement). Another sticking point is in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. DREAM retroactively repeals a federal ban on the practice, but it would allow states to retain their prohibitions on such tuition breaks.
In the end, all comprehensive immigration reform packages and their DREAM-style mini-mes falter on this challenge: they rely on an already overtaxed immigration bureaucracy to enforce their elaborate conditions for legalization. So applicants must either be buried in a morass of paperwork or the conditions have to be so full of loopholes to make the distinction between reform and amnesty almost meaningless.
It's the stuff that DREAMs are made of.