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In debate on ‘dreamers,’ an unresolved question: How many should benefit?

“Dreamers” protested outside the U.S. Capitol on Sunday as lawmakers debated their future.
“Dreamers” protested outside the U.S. Capitol on Sunday as lawmakers debated their future. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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The debate in Congress over how much in border security upgrades to hand President Trump in exchange for his granting legal status to younger undocumented immigrants has obscured another thorny unresolved issue: How many immigrants should benefit?

While both advocates and border hawks publicly profess to support a deal to protect undocumented people who have lived in the country since they were children, known as "dreamers," there is little consensus on how to define that population.

The number of immigrants who arrived under age 18 is estimated to be as high as 3.6 million — about one-third of the total undocumented population of 11 million. The number covered by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals when Trump terminated the Obama-era program last fall is dramatically lower: 690,000.

It is within this vast range that lawmakers must decide how many, ultimately, are eligible for permanent legal status and, potentially, citizenship.

The Trump administration is appealing an injunction on the phaseout of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and asking the Supreme Court to get involved. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

"We will continue to push for what gives us the greatest and broadest protections," said Cristina Jiménez, executive director of United We Dream, the nation's largest advocacy group for dreamers.

Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, which advocates lower immigration levels, said his organization made a major concession this year by supporting "amnesty" for dreamers as a way to help fix a broken immigration system. But he is firm that any deal should cover only the narrow group that received DACA status.

"These were the people who it meant so much to that they made the effort," Beck said. "It seems to us very reasonable this would be the number."

Lawmakers are facing a Feb. 8 deadline for a must-pass spending bill to keep the government open, giving themselves less than three weeks to hammer out a deal on the future of the dreamers, which have been at the center of the funding debate. People on both sides of the issue say that the prospects of an immigration deal remain exceedingly fraught and that it is unclear how Congress — if it gets to a deal — will define the dreamers.

‘Language as a weapon’: In Trump era, immigration debate grows more heated over what words to use

The uncertainty is rooted in the moniker itself — the concept of dreamers comes from the Dream Act, bipartisan legislation first proposed in 2001 that has, despite several attempts, never been passed by both chambers of Congress. The closest it came was in 2010, when the House approved a version only to have it fall five votes short in the Senate — a crushing loss for immigrant advocates and one that prompted President Barack Obama to authorize DACA two years later through executive action.

The Dream Act is an acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, a name coined by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), one of the original sponsors. The bill aimed to grant legal status to immigrants who arrived before the age of 16, had lived in the country at least five years, were between the ages of 12 and 35 when the bill was enacted, and had obtained a high school degree or met other educational or military criteria.

Advocates said a dreamer was an immigrant who was largely raised in the United States and had demonstrated a particular level of academic achievement.

"They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper," Obama said in a Rose Garden speech in June 2012 when he announced DACA, which offered renewable two-year work permits to immigrants who qualified.

The moniker was a success in raising public sympathy. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in September, shortly after Trump terminated DACA, found that 65 percent backed legislation to allow dreamers to remain in the country along with increased border security.

DACA had slightly different requirements than the Dream Act. Applicants were required be younger than 31 when Obama announced the program on June 15, 2012.

The Migration Policy Institute estimated that about 1.3 million immigrants were immediately eligible. Not all have applied, however, which advocates attribute to a fear of registering with the government, as well as application fees of nearly $500.

"You just start off with the broad universe of people who came as children before age 18. That's the 3.6 million," said Randy Capps, the institute's director of research for U.S. programs. "Then you start having the different restrictions such as how long they've been in the U.S., what age they arrived at. The big screening thing is the educational requirement."

Some immigration advocates argue for no educational hurdles. Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), who sponsored a similar bill preceding the Dream Act in 2001, last year proposed the American Hope Act, which would benefit anyone who arrived under age 18 and had not committed a crime — in other words, nearly all 3.6 million, according to MPI's analysis last fall of several legislative proposals.

"For a long time, advocates and members of Congress have approached the immigration debate from the posture of earned citizenship — the idea that you have to earn your way," said Lorella Praeli, the American Civil Liberties Union's director of immigration policy and campaigns and a former adviser to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

By contrast, Praeli said, the baseline assumption of the Hope Act is that "if you enter the U.S. as a child, then you are just as American as the person to your right."

Most advocates acknowledge that Gutiérrez's bill, with no GOP co-sponsors, has no chance of passing Congress. Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, said they have coalesced instead around the latest version of the Dream Act, introduced last year by Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

The MPI study estimated that 1.7 million immigrants would achieve permanent legal status under that legislation.

But Trump rejected Durbin and Graham's plan that included the Dream Act, a down payment of $1.6 billion for Trump's proposed border wall with Mexico and trims to some legal immigration programs.

An internal administration analysis asserted that the deal would potentially grant citizenship to 3 million immigrants and their parents, according to a memo first reported by Axios. In fact, the proposal would allow the parents to obtain temporary legal status that could be renewed, but not green cards.

The White House has remained vague on what the president would support.

"This is something that we're going to work with Congress and look for the best solution for our country," press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said this week. "We're open to having a debate."

Some Republicans have offered competing proposals. Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) have introduced bills to help roughly 1.4 million dreamers. A joint proposal from Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Hatch would benefit about 1.3 million, according to MPI.

Asked whether dreamers would support a compromise deal, Jiménez, the activist leader, said her group is "not there yet."

"We're going to continue to push for the broadest policy," she said. "We're under an administration that is relentlessly going after our community. We want to protect as many people as possible."