You can say that Obama was pandering for election-year purposes with his announcement last week that the government will no longer deport undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. You can say that the new policy does not go far enough in securing thoroughgoing immigration reform. So be it. The change is nevertheless a tremendous advance that will affect some 800,000 young people who have been living in fear and uncertainty about their ability to stay in the country. And it is worth spending a moment to pay homage to the DREAM Act students whose extraordinary activism made it possible.
In case you haven't followed this issue, the DREAM Act is a piece of legislation that would give legal status and create a path to citizenship for young immigrants, some of whom have spent almost their entire lives in the United States, who are going to college or serving in the military. The bill was passed by the House in 2010, and even got fifty-one votes in the Senate, but it could not overcome a Republican filibuster.
Undaunted, student activists supporting the bill -- young people known as DREAMers -- continued to push for the legislation with a series of gutsy actions. It is their dedication that has compelled Obama's executive order, which represents an end-run around Congress. The order implements many of the practical mandates of the DREAM Act, giving legal status to young immigrants who have been in the country for more than five years and who have graduated high school, earned a GED, or enlisted in the military.
When I say the students took gutsy actions, I mean gutsy. I quote here a story from last December:
A pair of college students from Southern California recently walked into a Border Patrol office in Alabama, the state whose immigration law is considered the harshest in the nation.
Jonathan Perez, 24, and Isaac Barrera, 20, openly admitted to the federal officers on duty in Mobile, Ala., that they were undocumented. It was a brazen act of protest against what the students said were the contradictory immigration enforcement policies of the Obama administration.
Within the hour, the Pasadena City College students were arrested and swallowed up in what critics call the quagmire of immigration detention. They spent more than two weeks in custody, initially in Alabama and later at a federal detention facility in Louisiana.
Perez, who came to the U.S. from Colombia with his family when he was 3 years old, said landing in federal immigration detention last month "was about coming out of the shadows."
"We need to live without fear because the fear paralyzes us," Perez told The Huffington Post. "If we stay quiet, we stay in the shadows."
The amount of strength and resolve that Perez and Barrera displayed is jaw-dropping. Just picture yourself in that scene: you walk into a Border Patrol office ... in Alabama -- the state that scrambled to outdo Arizona in concocting reactionary anti-immigrant policies. You approach the uniformed officers at the desk. And then you declare that you are without legal status in the country where you have spent all of your adolescent and adult life. You know that such a declaration could mean dislocation from your home, friends, and family. Yet you do it anyway in order to break the silence and come forward as a spokesperson for change.
Remarkably, these students were only two of many who have taken similar actions in recent years, making the decision (in language borrowed from the gay liberation movement) to "come out" as undocumented and to use their lives and their stories as illustrations of why current immigration law is illogical and deeply unfair.
In 2010, four DREAMers made a 1,500 mile walk from Miami to Washington, D.C. to draw attention to the issue. One of them, Felipe Matos, stated upon their arrival:
Our dream is the opportunity to fully participate in and give back to the only country we know as home, and not live in constant fear that we will be sent away. We have been waiting for years to speak up about our situation as immigrant students. President Obama, we cannot wait any longer.
More recently, DREAMers began occupying Obama campaign offices, insisting that they would not be ignored and that they would make their cause an election issue in swing states where the Latino vote often proves decisive -- such as Colorado, where two students went on hunger strike.
Each public declaration, each coming out, has had a ripple effect.
After Obama's announcement, the program Democracy Now featured as guests two individuals who have organized support for the DREAM Act: Jose Antonio Vargas, who came out as undocumented last year in a prominent story in the New York Times Magazine, and Lorella Praeli, who serves on the United We Dream National Coordinating Committee. Each spoke about how they had been moved to take great personal risks in support of the immigrant rights movement:
JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Watching these...four activists [who] walked from Miami to Washington, D.C., to fight for the DREAM Act, the Trail of Dreams, right? I felt like a coward, and I felt accountable. And that's when I decided that, you know what? I got to go do this. My career could not keep going without kind of confronting this. So that's why I decided to do it.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Lorella, the impact of all of the DREAMers, as you're saying you found a community, you no longer felt isolated in that way--what kind of impact do you think the protests, the sit-ins have had, the people coming out, on this final decision of the Obama administration?
LORELLA PRAELI: A defining. You know, I almost feel like I don't have words to describe it, because this country has changed so much since I got involved. So, I was one of those people watching everything, right, through the computer, and really battling. There is this--kind of this internal tension that comes about: "Do I come out? Do I not? And what does it mean if I don't? Am I a coward if I don't? But I'm scared of getting deported if I do." But I saw that people were doing it, and I began to question why I wasn't ready to take that step. And, you know, I went back to the underground railroad people, right? And I said, "This is something I need to do."
Gaby Pacheco and the DREAMers who walked from Florida to D.C., I think that's all changed the narrative in this country. And they have shown us, through -- just by living their lives, by dedicating themselves to this issue and to raising awareness about it and to having the uncomfortable conversations, right? It's not easy to come out and say, "I'm undocumented," because you're still kind of really going through all the process inside about figuring out what this means for you, what the new identity will mean. That all paved the road to get to where we are.
Courage begets more courage. One sacrifice inspires another.
As for Obama's electoral pandering: the fact that a politician decides that it is expedient to cave to your demands is no indictment of social movement efforts. Quite the contrary. The point of activism is to create the conditions so that, when politicians decide to pander, they pander in the right way. That is to say: when politicians decide that they can no longer ignore pressure from their constituents and need to act, they act by making a concession to legitimate popular needs.
In this case, instead of deciding it was advantageous to cave to anti-immigrant forces, Obama looked for a way to please a mobilized and dissatisfied Latino base. We have the DREAMers to thank for that.
That the executive order does not go far enough is also a reality. The president himself has acknowledged it, stating, "This is not amnesty. This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It's not a permanent fix. This is a temporary, stopgap measure." An executive order can be reversed by a future administration, and even the DREAM Act, if passed, would only be a modest step toward comprehensive immigration reform for all people, young and old. But if you are looking for how ultimately to win a comprehensive solution, there are few better teachers than the students who have brought us this far. Militancy, courage, persistence, a clear and just purpose, and willingness to make personal sacrifices. These are powerful ingredients for change.
These DREAMers aren't finished yet. America's shifting demographics are on their side. And their recent victory gives them a well-deserved shot of encouragement.
As Praeli said in a moment of inspiration, "I think we're unstoppable."
Cross-posted from the "Arguing the World" blog at Dissent magazine.