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Tempered optimism over a new 'Dream Act' in the Trump era

A new version of legislation long known as the Dream Act has returned to the Senate, but the bipartisan bill that seeks to protect young immigrants who arrived in the United States as minors likely faces an uphill climb.

On Thursday morning, young immigrants and activists gathered at the offices of a local immigrant advocacy group near downtown L.A. to watch on a large screen as Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) discussed their new bill. 

“It gives us hope that there are people out there, both parties, a bipartisan agreement that is actually fighting for us," said Manuel Jimenez, a 19-year-old college student, who arrived with his family from Nicaragua when he was a year old. 

Much like previous Dream Act proposals, the bill would let certain young unauthorized immigrants get on a path to permanent legal status if they came to the U.S. prior to age 18 and have been continuously present in the country for at least four years.

Among other things, beneficiaries would need to have a relatively clean record without any serious offenses. Those eligible for permanent resident status would need to have completed at least two years of college or two years in the military, or have worked legally in the U.S. for three years. 

The bill also seeks to grant conditional permanent resident status to those who already have Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a 2012 program that gives temporary legal status and work permits to young immigrants who arrived before age 16.

That program’s future has been uncertain under the Trump administration. President Trump has sent mixed messages on whether he will support the continuation of DACA. Meanwhile, a coalition of 10 states has threatened to sue if the government does not discontinue the program.

Melody Klingenfuss, 23, who arrived at age 9 from Guatemala and has deferred action, was among those watching the senators onscreen at the Coalition for Humane Immigrants Rights of Los Angeles on Thursday. She said young immigrants are greeting the bill with tempered optimism.

"Definitely we are having the conversation of not getting our hopes up," she said. "Because we don't know what is going to happen with this administration. Sometimes they give us good news, sometimes they give us bad news. It's kind of like a mixed rollercoaster."

Multiple proposals for a Dream Act that have been introduced since 2001 have failed. In 2010, a version cleared the House, but failed to make it through the Senate.

Some political experts are skeptical about the new bill's chances of success. Louis DeSipio, University of California Irvine political scientist, called them "almost none."

DeSipio said while the bill might get a better reception in the Senate, "in the House, a majority of the members of the Republican Caucus have indicated an unwillingness to engage in any sort of what they call legalization.”

Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director for Center for Immigration Studies, the immigration-restriction advocacy think tank in Washington, D.C., said the bill will have plenty of opposition.

"It is an open-ended legalization program for anyone who makes it here as a minor and ends up staying for four years, which is a lot of people," Vaughan said. "It would create an incentive for people to send their kids to the United States, or to bring them along when they come to the United States illegally."  

According to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., as many as 1.5 million people could be eligible for a path to permanent legal status under the new bill.

The bigger question is whether DACA will survive. Close to 800,000 young people have obtained DACA protection since that program began almost five years ago. De Sipio said if there is a legal challenge, the courts could look at DACA in much the same way they viewed a different Obama administration initiative that would have given temporary protection to parents of U.S. citizens.

That effort, known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents or DAPA, was never implemented because it was blocked by a lower court. A 4-4 tie in the U.S. Supreme Court simply affirmed the lower court's decision last summer. 

Durbin and Graham both urged the Trump administration to exercise compassion for the so-called "Dreamers" who were brought to the U.S. as children by their families. Graham went so far as to say "to the people who object to this, I don’t want you to vote for me because I cannot serve you well.”

"It's Sen. Graham, to his credit, sort of saying, 'Look, we still care about this,' and maybe to put some pressure on the Trump administration to maintain and defend DACA," DeSipio said. "That is the most positive reading of it."