Opportunity is often synonymous with the ‘American dream,’ but for one group of young
dreamers it is embodied in the form of a tangible document on Capitol Hill. Comprehensive
immigration reform is an elusive prospect, but one that is seemingly picking up momentum after
the 2012 Presidential race forced Republicans to face the growing influence of Latino voters.
Even before this recent urgency around comprehensive immigration reform, an ever-changing group of legislators have been trying to pass one component of reform: the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act). The DREAM Act should be used as a case study for how the systems in the House of Representatives and Senate, as well as popular opinions within congressional districts, work against the passage of this piece of legislation. There is no doubt that legislating is a tricky process, but the ever-changing current of popular opinion can function as a political minefield for otherwise well-intentioned legislators.
The DREAM Act has evolved and taken different forms and names through the years.
Typically, the DREAM Act contains three essential components; restore states’ ability to
determine residency for purpose of educational benefits, grant amnesty to current alien college
students, and permanent residence status for these students. These three criteria come largely
from the first introduction of the Development, Relief, and Education of Alien Minors Act by
Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah in 2001.
The first component of this legislation relates directly to how states decide who is eligible to
receive in-state tuition prices for public colleges and universities. Before 1996, states had the
ability to dictate who is eligible to receive state paid higher education benefits. After 1996,
Section 505 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act prevented
anybody in the country illegally from receiving any kind of post-secondary education benefits
from any state, in addition to preventing any kind of Federal financing for college expenses. The
DREAM Act would repeal this mandate, and allow each state to dictate who is eligible to claim
residency for the purpose of financing or getting financial aid for higher education within their
The second component would grant amnesty to all petitioning current and future undocumented
students under the age of 21 currently enrolled in an institution of higher education, given the
meeting of certain residency, upstanding moral character, and location requirements.
Basically, if you are enrolled in college full-time, and are positive members of the community,
you will be allowed to complete school without threat of deportation.
Finally, in the words of Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, “if you get an advanced degree
here, we want you to stay here. So I’d staple a green card to the diploma of someone who gets
an advanced degree in America.” When the DREAM Act was originally drafted, it would have granted permanent residence status to all students that qualified based on a set of four criteria: college graduation, good moral character, not convicted of any offense, continuous physical residence.
First Introduction in the House
In May 2001, months before the DREAM Act was formally introduced in the Senate, Republican
Chris Cannon of Utah introduced a more expansive piece of education along the same lines in
the House of Representatives. The Student Adjustment Act of 2001 had similar points to the
DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill that would come later. The Student Adjustment Act would
again make it legal for alien college students to get the in-state tuition rates at state colleges
and universities if they met the general residency requirements. It would also grant amnesty to
alien minors (they could not be arrested simply for being undocumented), and it would grant
permanent resident status to certain alien middle or secondary students as long as they have
lived in the United States for five continuous years prior to application.
This legislation was introduced May 21, 2001, and referred jointly to the Committee on
the Judiciary as well as the Committee on Education and the Workforce (as provisions fall
within the jurisdiction of each of these committees). Within a week, the Judiciary referred it
to the Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims, and the Committee on Education and the
Workforce refers it to the Subcommittee on the 21st Century Competitiveness. At this time,
the House of Representatives was under Republican control and the Republican leaders of
these committees weren’t exactly in a hurry to report such a generous piece of legislation
with 62 co-sponsors and Republican Chris Cannon of Utah sponsoring it. This example, in
addition to being the legislative primer for the DREAM Act, illustrates the influence and power
of committee chairmen. When a piece of legislation is referred to committee, the committee
assesses the legislation and places it into one of three categories: legislation that has no real
chance of passage, legislation that is non controversial, and legislation that will go to floor and
consequently take up time for debate.
In this case, it seems that the committee had decided that this legislation had no real chance of
passage, and did not actively pursue it, illustrating the power held by committee leadership to
nearly unilaterally kill legislation.
Unable to gain passage of similar legislation in the House, Senator Orrin Hatch, also of Utah,
introduced The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act to the Senate a few
months later. This legislation did not arrive to great fanfare at its first introduction. On August
1, 2001, it was read twice and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary by the Senate
Parliamentarian. It was reported on nearly a year later, on June 20, 2002. It had been amended
to clarify a substitution in the bill and reported favorably to the floor, without a written report. It
was placed on Senate Legislative Calendar under general orders.
This legislative progression illustrates two important distinctions between the differences in
process between the House of Representatives and the Senate. First, it is important to point
out the partisan makeup in the Senate at the time. The Democrats had 50 Senators caucusing
with them, and the Republicans had 50 Senators as well. The Republicans were in control of the
Senate at the time (Dick Cheney had been sworn in as the Vice-President, and consequently
the deciding vote in the event of a tie), and the Majority Leader was Tom Daschle.
Even though the Democrats had not been the majority party at the time, it’s reporting out of
committee points to the fact that the Senate is a chamber that relies more heavily on personal
relations rather than party lines. Secondly important to note in the inability for this legislation
to make it to the floor for debate points out the power of the majority leader in the Senate.
Tom Daschle has the two tools required to decide whether this legislation will reach the floor
for debate – the Senate precedent allowing for first recognition on the Senate floor, and the
conceded right to schedule the Senate’s business.
The Comprehensive Reform Strategy
Except under extreme circumstances or a greatly unbalanced Senate, the body must operate
under the parameters of bipartisanship. Any legislation that proceeds to the floor of the Senate
is done under the threat of filibuster, and has to be done under the condition of unanimous
consent (UC). In 2006, a bi-partisan Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act was introduced
and was able to proceed under this requirement. The DREAM Act (using the same language
as 2001) was incorporated into this legislation under Title VI Subtitle C when introduced on
the floor of the Senate on April 7. The legislation was laid before the Senate by unanimous
consent on May 15, and the amendment process began. This process continued until May 25,
2006 when it passed the Senate by a vote of 62-36. Unfortunately, the Democrat-led House of
Representatives never took up this legislation.
This comprehensive strategy was tried several more times. In March 2007, the DREAM Act
was included verbatim in a House bill titled the STRIVE Act (Security Through Regularized
Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act). This legislation was granted hearings in the
Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International law,
and sequentially referred to the Committee on Homeland Security. This committee broke up
the legislation and referred it to multiple subcommittees, which did not discharge it due to the
fact that major provisions of the legislation were incorporated into other legislation with a better
chance of passage.
This illustrates the fact that some procedures are better than others for passing legislation;
attaching one or two key provisions to an appropriations bill is more likely to produce results
than attempting to coordinate the passage of a large-scale comprehensive reform.
In May 2007, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act was introduced in the Senate.
Again the DREAM Act was included and this legislation was carried by a unanimous consent
agreement upon first reading. It was debated and amended on the floor, but after the legislation was modified, the UC had been strained and ultimately fell apart. This killed any chance of bipartisan approval and in essence tabled the legislation. This harks back to the fact that everything in the Senate has to be done under the precondition of meeting requirements to invoke Rule XXII if necessary. The inability to meet these requirements essentially renders a piece of legislation moot.
Senator Dick Durbin introduced the DREAM Act again as a stand-alone bill in the Senate in
2007, despite warnings that “it was clear at this point that bipartisan support, particularly for a
stand-alone version of the DREAM Act, had begun to erode.”
It was read first on October 18, again the next day, and a motion to proceed to consideration of
measure was made on October 22. The same day, a cloture motion on the motion to proceed
was presented and immediately withdrawn. Two days later, a motion to proceed to the measure
was considered in the Senate, but cloture failed by a vote of 52-44. This again shows the need
for bipartisanship in the Senate. Without the ability to invoke cloture, legislation is immobile.
This was a haphazard attempt by Senator Durbin (perhaps out of frustration) to try to push this
legislation through quickly and fiercely. This is nearly impossible in a body that is considered to
be deliberative and calculated as opposed to the purely popular House.
Determined, Senator Durbin introduced the DREAM Act again on March 26, 2009. It was
read twice and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary, where it languished. The Obama
administration, while being committed to the DREAM Act, had publicly made it clear that
passing the DREAM Act would be a priority after the 2010-midterm elections. This impact of
the President changing the balance of gravity away from the DREAM Act, coupled with some
unfavorable media narrative, led to the 2009 downfall of the DREAM Act.
It is hard to gain the press required to pass relatively unpopular (albeit good intentioned)
legislation in an election year, and points to the fact that while examining congressional
structures and systems is enlightening, oftentimes legislation is at the mercy of the media and a
perhaps undiscerning public. At this point, the DREAM Act was a lost cause, at least for now.
The Final Attempt
Hoping to hold the Obama Administration to it’s promise, Senator Durbin introduced the
DREAM Act for the last time on November 30, 2010. A motion to proceed to consideration of
the measure was made in the Senate on December 6, and a cloture motion on the motion to
proceed was filed at the same time. Unable to get the requisite 60 votes to invoke cloture, a
motion to table the motion to proceed to the bill was agreed to in the Senate by a vote of 59-
40 on December 9. After a decade of trying, Senator Durbin was unable to proceed on the
DREAM Act due to 1 vote. Many argue this is due to the breakdown of bipartisanship in the
Senate. “A major hurdle for the DREAM Act came from Republican senators who one supported
immigration reform, but did not vote to support the bill this year, including John McCain, and Orrin Hatch.”
This final attempt illustrates one last recurring theme in our course- the breakdown of
bipartisanship within Congress. At its height, the stand alone version of the DREAM Act had 40
co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle. By the end, it had only one. There is no doubt that
a breakdown between civility and cooperation led to the downfall of the current renderings of
this piece of legislation. It seems as if the catalyst for this breakdown in bipartisanship, at least
in terms of this bill, occurred around the 2008 Presidential elections. Perhaps the elections
sparked a partisan battle from which the Senate was unable to recover in the two years interim.
The DREAM Act provides a relatively broad cross-section of some of the developments of
structural limitations of Congress. The early efforts in the House with The Student Adjustment
Act of 2001 reaffirms the power of committee chairmen within the House of Representatives.
While these the balance of power has tended to drift away from these Chairmen in recent
decades, they still are able to exude quite a bit of leverage in crafting and reporting legislation to
the House floor. Inclusion of the DREAM Act into the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of
2006 shows the Chairmen’s’ counterbalance- House leadership and its ability to set legislative
priorities and agenda for the body. Finally, the practical aspects of politicization in the House are
addressed in the dismemberment of the STRIVE Act. Systemic limitations often make it more
difficult to pass comprehensive legislation which garner much scrutiny, and make it easier to
attach a few provisions to legislation with a better chance of favorable outcome. Whether or not
this is a good legislative strategy is open to debate.
The lessons in the Senate are twofold. First, is the ideological theme that everything in the
Senate has to be done in bipartisan fashion? The momentum of legislation in the Senate
is oftentimes based more on personal connections rather than on issues of that which is
popular or deemed worthy of passage. The procedural limitations of overcoming the filibuster
are difficult to achieve; Rule XXII can only be invoked with 60 votes. There are tools used in
attempting to overcome this obstacle, such as unanimous consent agreements (as used in the
Comprehensive Reform Act of 2007), but the use of these tools do not themselves guarantee
The other important lesson is the power of the Senate Majority Leader to set the agenda of
the body. The Majority Leader uses precedent of first recognition and the conceded right
to schedule the business of the Senate. Without the leadership of the Senate being behind
a bill it is nearly impossible to achieve favorable legislative outcomes. One final note is the
breakdown of bipartisanship in both Houses of Congress. While this is by no means a new
phenomenon, there is little doubt that these ideological divides are deeper than any time in
recent history. In modern times, Congress has a historically high workload, and in many ways
while fractionalization prevents tyranny, coupled with polarization it renders the Congress
helpless and immobile. This begs the question: is this truly the American dream?
Political Science ’13
Notes on Introduction
1 Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, S.1291, 107th Congress, 1st Sess.
2 Ibid., Sec. 3
3 Ibid. 1, Sec. 4
Notes on FIRST INTRODUCTION IN THE HOUSE
4 Student Adjustment Act of 2001, H.R. 1918, 107th Congress, 1st Sess. (2001).
5 Ibid. Sec. 2
6 Ibid. 4, Sec. 3
7 Library of Congress, THOMAS. (2001). Bill Summary and Status: 107th Congress (H.R.1918).
8 Arenberg, Rich. “Congressional Committees.” POLS 3300. Northeastern University. Boston.
22 FEB 2012. Lecture.
Notes on SENATE INTRODUCTION
9 There is an option for popular legislation that is being held up in committee, a Discharge
Petition. This technique is a long and oftentimes unfruitful process, however, and consequently
10 It is important, however, to note the decline in the unilateral power of committee chairmen
since the 1970s, when the Legislative Reorganization Act changed the responsiveness of
chairmen back toward the party caucus.
11 Ibid. 1
12 Library of Congress, THOMAS. (2002). Bill summary and status: 107th Congress (S.1291).
13 Ibid. 8
14 Arenberg, Rich. “Congressional Leadership.” POLS 3300. Northeastern University. Boston. 8
FEB 2012. Lecture.
Notes on THE COMPREHENSIVE REFORM STRATEGY
15 Library of Congress, THOMAS. (2006). Bill Text: 109th Congress (S.2611.PCS).
16 Library of Congress, THOMAS. (2006). Bill summary and status: 109th Congress (S.2611).
17 Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008, H.R. 2764, 110th Congress, 2nd Sess. (2008).
18 Library of Congress, THOMAS. (2007). Bill summary and status: 110th Congress (S.1348).
19 Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act of 2007, S.2205, 110th Congress,
1st Sess. (2007).
Notes on SENATE RECONSIDERATION
20 Barron, E. (2011). Recent Development: The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien
Minors (DREAM) Act. Harvard Journal on Legislation, 48(3), 623-655. Retrieved from http://
21 Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act of 2009, S. 729, 111th Congress,
1st Sess. (2009).
Notes on THE FINAL ATTEMPT
22 Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act of 2010, S.3992, 111th Congress,
2nd Sess. (2010).
23 Adams, J. (2011). Current development: Development in the legislative branch. Georgetown
Immigration Law Journal, 25(4), 545-548. Retrieved from http://www.lexisnexis.com
OTHER WORKS CONSULTED
Murray, P., Cardin, B. & Durbin, R. (2010, November). Legislative background on the
dream act. Congressional Digest, 89(9), 257.
Murray, P., Cardin, B. & Durbin, R. (2010, November). The dream act. Congressional
Digest, 89(9), 257.
Zimmerman, A. (2011). A dream detained: Undocumented latino youth and the dream
movement. NACLA Report on the Americas, 44(6),