Like the student sit-ins and Freedom Rides of 1960-61, wave after wave of immigrant students succeeded Friday in persuading an African American president, born during the high tide of those earlier student movements, to recognize their quest for dreams instead of deportations.
When the presidential order was announced today, 150 student interns preparing to organize a Dream Summer, modeled on the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, broke into cheers at UCLA’s downtown labor center. Immigrant students and faculty at UCLA have been at the center of educating and mobilizing for the Dream Act for several years.
Like the earliest days of the civil rights movement, the new Dreamer movement began with personal decisions by hundreds of young people to risk arrest and deportation rather than accept second-class futures under the shadow of US law enforcement. From personal commitments there grew collective bonds, and from those bonds a unified strategy, one combining direct action, sit-ins, lobbying and coalition-building. They won support from a majority of Democrats, including Barack Obama, and opposition from Republicans led by the Tea Party. Arizona, the center of fierce white anti-immigrant anger, became the equivalent of Mississippi in the Sixties.
Until recently, it appeared that the gridlock of politics-as-usual would prevent the Dreamers any legislative success. In 2008, there were 58 Senate votes in favor of cloture on the Dream Act, but majority rule doesn’t govern the US Senate, where 60 votes were needed to end the Republican filibuster on the bill the students were backing. After that failure, Obama then instructed his immigration officials to employ selective discretion in deportation decisions, a strategy that his immigration bureaucracy proved reluctant to carry out.
That left the president a choice which many human rights advocates have predicted he eventually would follow: an executive order blocking any deportations and allowing work permits for over 800,000 young people who came here as children of paperless immigrants.
The Obama decision was criticized as political, which it was, and a unilateral act of presidential power, which was true as well. But all great presidential decisions, such as the Emancipation Proclamation, have occurred for political reasons over massive opposition, and the undemocratic parliamentary rules of the Congress left Obama no choice but the executive order.
Progressives should praise the politics of the decision, since it aligns the president and Democratic Party with the aspirations of Latino constituencies in critical electoral states in the short term and solidifies a powerful alliance in the years ahead. The selection of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to chair the national Democratic convention in September will send a powerful visual image of the alliance.
Obama acted before the Republicans could pivot from their entrenched anti-immigrant policies. Florida Senator Marco Rubio is preparing a Republican version of the Dream Act for possible introduction in the coming weeks, while Mitt Romney struggles to adjust from his campaign proposal that immigrants “self-deport” themselves or face the consequences. Republicans like the Bush brothers are among those warning that a Republican Party unable to connect with Latino voters is doomed politically.
As on gay marriage, Obama has linked his fate to a powerful emerging constituency whose goals draw uneven support among moderate older voters. Demography is on Obama’s side, but registration and voter turnout rates will dictate the results this November. Whatever the outcome, the deepening economic and racial polarization of American politics are the grounds on which any progressive politics will be built.