Study questions how many would qualify for immigration 'Dream' act

Less than half of the 2.1 million young people who entered the U.S. as illegal immigrants would qualify for citizenship under the “Dream Act,” according to a new study released Thursday.

The legislation drafted by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) has been seen as a piecemeal approach to immigration that might find bipartisan support and move through Congress as prospects for a broader immigration bill disappear.

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It would put illegal immigrants who came to the country at a young age on the path to legal permanent residence. Illegal immigrants between the ages of 12 and 35 would be eligible for the bill’s benefits.

Obama made a pitch for the legislation in a high-profile speech on immigration last week. Obama said “innocent young people” should not be punished for the actions of their parents, and should be able to stay in the U.S. and earn an education.

But only about 825,000 — or 38 percent — of those 2.1 million potential beneficiaries would be likely to meet other requirements set out by the Dream Act, according to a report released by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) on Thursday.

The report finds hundreds of thousands of young, illegal immigrants wouldn’t have enough education to qualify to start the program. Others won’t make it all the way through the program because they lack English proficiency, live in poverty or are already in the workforce.

“It really will be beyond means of many who are struggling and who are in poverty to go to school,” Jeanne Batalova, policy analyst at MPI and one of the report’s co-authors, said in a conference call with reporters.

Under the legislation, illegal immigrants who entered the U.S. before they turned 16 and who have spent at least five years in the country are eligible. They also must have at least a high school degree or the equivalent.

Those who meet these requirements would receive conditional legal status and start on the Dream Act’s pathway to permanent status. Participants would then have to complete two years of military service or college and maintain “good moral character” for six years to become eligible to seek residency and citizenship.

The new study estimates 726,000 undocumented adults would immediately meet the criteria for conditional status; 114,000 already have at least a two-year college degree and would just have to finish the six-year moral character requirement.

People in these categories would be the most likely to eventually earn citizenship if the bill became law.

But many others who would meet the age requirements would be unlikely to meet all of the other criteria, the study warned.

It notes the relatively high college-dropout rate among immigrants, especially among the immigrant-heavy Hispanic population.

The report’s findings were produced with population and demographic data from 2006-2008. The authors warned that the number of potential beneficiaries was difficult to estimate because unauthorized immigrants tend to be highly mobile and many may have left the country since the economic recession started.

One-fourth of all potential DREAM Act beneficiaries would come from California, while 12 percent would come from Texas and 9 percent from Florida.

Differences in educational services that the states offer their residents “could have an impact on the ability of potential beneficiaries to succeed in legalizing,” the report said.

This story was updated at 5:04 p.m.