This article appeared at The Nation on February 11, 2013.
Yesterday was momentous in my UCLA class on democracy and social movements. While President Barack Obama was announcing his immigration reform agenda, we were studying the case of the Dreamers, the student movement for immigrant rights, which won historic recognition from Obama in June 2012. Lecturing yesterday were Professor Kent Wong, director of UCLA’s labor studies center, and Betsy Estudillo, an undocumented graduate student now examining ways to sustain the morale of the movement while also organizing car wash workers.
Both recognized the achievement of the historic day, and both worried about the outcome of the political compromises being considered in Washington, D.C. But the Dreamers’ “darkest hour,” Wong recalled, was the failure of the federal DREAM Act to pass the US Senate in 2010, which caused the Dreamers to redouble their civil disobedience until Obama’s executive order last year. Estudillo reminded the students that so-called experts had predicted that recent campaigns to organize janitors and homecare workers “were never gonna happen, until they did.”
The Dreamers movement emerged from an underground subculture of students and young people who were born in the US to undocumented parents. America is the only place they know as home, but they existed in the shadows here, clandestinely, in fear of deportation, unable to seek scholarships, to drive, to work legally, or to vote. Starting a decade ago, they began to find and help each other in coming out from the shadows, and began pushing for legal alternatives to miserable lifetimes in limbo.
A Historical Perspective
The Dreamers remind me of the Freedom Riders 50 years ago who, deciding they wouldn’t settle for life under Jim Crow, risked jail and racist violence until the Kennedy administration was won to their side, and a political party realignment began. The Dreamers have petitioned, engaged in civil disobedience, lobbied for legislation at state and federal levels, and refused to accept defeats along the way. They even were sitting-in at Obama’s campaign offices last June 15 when the president issued his “deferred action” order effectively protecting their status.
The Kennedy brothers in earlier times sympathized with those like John Lewis, Diane Nash, Charles McDew and others who were defying segregation. But the Kennedys also were uncomfortable with the Freedom Riders and sit-in movement because their actions threatened to upset the unholy alliance of northern liberals and southern Dixiecrat segregationists on which the power of the Democratic Party rested.
Because of the unrelenting pressure of young people, however, the Kennedys moved forward with desegregation and voting rights, granting new protections and powers to twenty million southern blacks. Politically, the outcome was the rise of Barry Goldwater’s all-white Republican coalition and a realigned Democratic Party which saw the appearance of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson and many more.
Now it may be the Dreamers’ turn to realign American politics by empowering two million of their own number and perhaps 11 or 12 million more in the underground gulag. Places like Arizona today are like Mississippi and the Black Belt of yesteryear, where anti-immigrant forces are fighting ferocious rearguard battles against the tide of immigrant workers and voters. Echoes of nineteenth-century wars and persecution against Mexicans, native tribes and Asian immigrant laborers can be heard in the present as well.
From the Margins to Mainstream
Obama was an early supporter of the Dream Act, which was defeated by a US Senate filibuster after achieving 54 affirmative votes in 2010. The dream might have died there, but the emboldened students never gave up. The emotion of that day was palpable, as reported in the Washington Post:
“The galleries were crowded with more than 60 young people who had traveled to Washington, many for the first time, to push for the measure’s passage. Many of them clasped hands in the air with those next to them as the roll call proceeded; some were wearing full graduation caps and gowns; some bounced their legs nervously as the vote proceeded. When the final tally was announced, the chamber was mostly silent; a few wiped their eyes.” (December 18, 2010)
That same year, 21 Dreamers had been arrested in the US Senate chamber, the climax of a long direct action campaign, which included hunger strikes, a Los Angeles-to-DC caravan, a march on foot from Florida to the nation’s capitol, “Dream Summer” training workshops modeled after the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer project and much more.
They became an intimate community of shared experiences. There were terrible losses, such as the deaths of Tam Tran and Cinthya Felix, two UCLA undocumented students, killed by a drunk driver in May 2010. There were persistent deportation threats, too; rebuffed by massive phone-calling campaigns from a national network the students themselves had created. And there were victories along the way, including the California Dream Act, authored by Los Angeles’ Sen. Gilbert Cedillo, which made undocumented students eligible for public financial aid – an aid program just now being implemented.
The radical change in consciousness – from shadow to light – is vividly depicted in the cover photographs of two books published by the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education in 2008 and 2012. The cover of Underground Undergrads depicts a UCLA undocumented student leader, Matias Ramos, appears as a black silhouette in front of a campus building. On the cover of Undocumented and Unafraid, 19-year student, Diana Yael Martinez, openly shows herself in blue graduation garments while being arrested by capitol police in 2010.
Like Kennedy before him, Obama faced a political quandary as the 2012 election approached. While undocumented immigrants were unpopular with a section of the Democratic base, Tea Party Republicans and their presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, with his call for “self-deportation,” demonized them. In displaying his toughness on law-and-order issues, Obama had deported a record number of immigrants in his first term. He had failed to deliver, or fight vigorously in the eyes of his supporters, on the campaign promise of immigration reform. Appointing Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court was not enough. So the president decided last June to circumvent the Congressional roadblock and use his executive powers to implement the DREAM Act provisions on his own. The response was electrifying in emerging immigrant communities, and Obama won several states by securing over 70 percent of the Latino and Asian American votes.
Though yesterday was a triumphal one for the Dreamers, no one in my classroom was celebrating the content of the new bipartisan immigrant rights proposal floated in Washington, nor predicting the outcome of the political wrangling ahead. Any “solution” requiring congressional approval will be loaded with favors to Republicans and law enforcement. More drones on the border are expected in addition to the six already overhead. Funding for “border security” will be beefed up, even though Kent Wong points out that the vast majority of undocumented people came to America legally and overstayed their visas. The nebulous “path to citizenship” may be long indeed and strewn with bureaucratic obstacles. Estudillo argued the “path” should take no longer than five years, based on a hasty consultation with activist leaders in Orange County over the weekend.
Tangled in the mix will be proposals to codify Obama’s executive order giving citizenship to the two million eligible Dreamers, their fate entangled in the larger package.
“It’s been 27 full years since the last immigration reform,” Kent Wong said, “27 years for 11 or 12 million people living as a permanent marginalized underclass.” Wong predicts a complicated struggle in Washington, but is inspired by the success of the students so far. If the high-stakes political battle goes nowhere, he hopes that permanent protections for the Dreamers are salvaged. Estudillo expects a compromise, too, but relies on her knowledge that the Dreamers have an inherent power to sign off on the final version – or not.
Obama has the initial advantage after his November triumph, but the Republicans still have the House of Representatives. If the GOP plays to its anti-immigrant base, they face the danger of being doomed in national elections. Their alternative is to pivot to a more immigrant-friendly image promoted by politicians like Jeb Bush and Mario Rubio. A third option could be a Republican implosion into internal civil war, an outcome some Democrats may prefer.
On the Democratic side, organized labor has evolved a long way from an anti-immigrant past, as has the NAACP. Both were in Nevada for Obama’s speech yesterday, and will strongly support the final Obama legislative package. Some environmental groups will have to revise their racially charged view that more immigrants will spoil the environment. Instead, a new joining of the environmental and immigrant-rights movements – around environmental justice for all, for example – could help solidify a progressive political majority.