The Politics of the DREAM Act: Laying the Groundwork For Migration Reform
The movement's moment could arrive as early as Tuesday when Durbin reintroduces the bill with co-sponsor Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.Dreamactivist.org is also beginning to sound the war drums through their change.org blog. Thousands have already been invited to call-in in support of the DREAM Act through facebook. The DREAM Act will be the first major migration policy battle of the 111th Congress and the Obama administration.Saundra Amrhein - St. Petersburg Times (21 March 2009)
As such, I thought it would be good to step back and reflect a little bit on the politics of the DREAM Act. I've already written a post advancing a comprehensive argument for passing the DREAM Act during these trying economic times. It was published on Alternet this morning. Today, I thought I'd reflect a little bit on the political climate the DREAM Act faces.
Let's rewind to the moment Barack Obama was elected. I wasn't as enthusiastic a supporter of Barack Obama during the campaign as most were. Although Obama's domestic policy was about as pro-migrant as you could ask for, I saw Obama's foreign policy as a perpetuation of the policies that force people to migrate in the first place. Obama's policies towards Latin America, through his support for Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative, represent a continuation of a U.S. tradition of spending more on death than on life in Latin America and in the world. Not only is Obama's support for corn-based ethanol subsidies environmentally inefficient, these subsidies have the side effect of starving people in tortilla-eating countries, and forcing more Latin American farmers off their land and into the U.S. That is without even addressing the complex topic of free trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA.
The day Obama was elected though, I told myself I would toss-aside all these differences and just enjoy the historic moment. Like so many others, I cried when Obama delivered his acceptance speech, and celebrated along with millions of other U.S. citizens. But my elation was cut short. It didn't take more than a minute after Barack Obama was elected for Obama to sell migrants out. The very same day Barack Obama was elected, he announced that former congressman Rahm Emanuel would be his Chief of Staff. Rahm Emanuel famously pronounced that migration policy had "emerged as the third rail of American politics." Emanuel is a symbol for something I have long proclaimed, that "progressive" does not always mean pro-migrant.
The Present Political Climate For U.S. Migration Policy Reform
Now let's fast forward to the present. Though I continue to have my doubts about Rahm Emanuel, I can't deny that he is pragmatic. The 2008 elections showed pretty definitively that running on a nativist platform does not help politicians win elections. Still, I can't help but feel this same supposed pragmatism will continue to keep Congress and the Obama administration from taking a stand on anything migration related. Until they do, on everything from SCHIP to the stimulus bill, nativist politicians are going to continue to try and make the debate about authorized and unauthorized migration.
There is perhaps no better example of this unwilligness to take a stand on migration than the Obama administration's decision to pull back from nominating Thomas Saenz to head up the Justice Department's civil rights division. Thomas Saenz was a courageous defender of civil and migrant rights for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, and was precisely why he was blocked from serving in the Obama administration. The New York Times had this to say in an editorial:
Immigrant advocates are stuck with the sinking feeling that Mr. Obama's supposed enthusiasm for immigration reform will wilt under pressure and heat. Representative Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, found it sadly unsurprising that a lawyer could be rejected for the nation's top civil-rights job because he had stood up for civil rights. "In what other position do you find that your life experience, your educational knowledge and commitment to an issue actually hurts you?" he asked.Obama's failure to take a stand on migration policy has presented itself not only in the case of Thomas Saenz, but it has permeated throughout much of his first months in office. When Immigration and Customs Enforcement carried out the first raid of the Obama administration in Bellingham, WA, the Obama administration didn't even know it had happened. Department of Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano finally asked for a review, but a review just avoids taking a stand on the controversial issue of raids in general. Migrant advocates are pushing hard for a moratorium on raids, which Obama could carry out with a simple executive order. Obama has yet to commit to doing so.New York Times (23 March 2009)
There are some bright spots in all of this. Nancy Pelosi recently took a courageous stand against ICE raids, and Barack Obama has reaffirmed his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform several times. We don't need words, though. We need action. The actions taken up to this point have not been in the least bit reassuring. This brings us to the introduction of the DREAM Act.
The DREAM Act As Part of Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR)
The media will likely portray the debate over the DREAM Act, as a debate between the two irreconcilable views of "no amnesty" and "no human being is illegal." However, the real debate is not going to be between nativists and migrant advocates, but among migrant advocates themselves. Nativists are loud and boisterous, but they have shown themselves to be increasingly irrelevant electorally and in the polls. Nativists will always be a factor, of course. Still, there is more of a chance that migrant advocates, not nativists, will block the DREAM Act. I wrote about this in my earlier post. I will develop these thoughts further here.
One argument that migrant advocates will make against the DREAM Act is not that it shouldn't be passed, but that it shouldn't be passed now. Influential migrant advocacy organizations and politicians will argue that the DREAM Act should be passed as part of "comprehensive immigration reform" (CIR), whatever that means. The president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Charles Kuck, just made this argument on his weekly radio show, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has been famous for blocking anything migration-related unless it is part of CIR.
I understand where these advocates are coming from. A very good argument could be made for the following: the reason the U.S. has such a messed up migration system in the first place is that U.S. migration policy has always been addressed in a piecemeal fashion. This has left us us with an alphabet soup of visas and complex laws that no one but well-trained immigration lawyers can decipher.
To use this argument, however, to block the DREAM Act, is unfair to the hundreds of thousands of unauthorized migrant youth that have all of their hopes tied up in the DREAM Act. Every moment we wait to pass the DREAM Act, another DREAMer gives up on trying to succeed because they know they have no hope of doing so.
The DREAM Act, too, is one of only acts that actually puts nativists on the defense. It's easy for nativists to beat up on the brown hoards of "illegals" that they conjure up everytime CIR comes up for debate. Beating up on DREAMers, however, makes even nativists look bad. Having grown up in the U.S., DREAMers are culturally "American". Among them are star athletes and academics that can speak English better than most nativists can.
The DREAM Act also has the possibility of forging an electoral coalition in Congress that could make up the backbone of any attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Passing the DREAM Act on it's own shouldn't be seen as an obstacle for CIR, but as a building block for CIR. If migrant advocates don't buy that argument, then I'll just say that it's unfair to make unauthorized youth wait for someone else's political strategy. Unauthorized migrants have suffered enough from the strategic failures of migrant advocates. They need a victory, and the time is now.
The Military Provision of the DREAM Act
The second argument migrant advocates will advance against the DREAM Act is that it should be opposed because of the military provision of the DREAM Act. I actually am much more sympathetic to this argument than the previous one. I hate the military provision of the DREAM Act and I know many unauthorized migrant youth that hate it, too. As I've written many times before, the best argument against the DREAM Act that I've come across is XP's post "The Green Card Draft: One Immigrant's Nightmare Is Uncle Sam's DREAM."
The DREAM Act, in it's present form, only has two routes for unauthorized migrant youth to secure legal status, and eventually citizenship, either through college, or through the military. As unauthorized migrant youth are generally underprivileged, it's easy to see how most would have to serve in the military to get legal status. Migrants shouldn't be forced to risk their lives in order to gain legal status. Migrants shouldn't have to die for the right to exist in the only country they know as their home. A posthumous citizenship ceremony is political cynicism at its worst. I know I'll never forget that one of the first soldiers to die in Iraq was a Guatemalan migrant, Jose Gutierrez.
This is also part of broader trend in U.S. migration policy reform where migrant advocates are offered the carrot of legalization in exchange for the stick of the further militarization of the U.S. Roberto Lovato has been the most courageous at speaking out against this, as hundreds of thousands are deported, tens of thousands are kept in detention gulags, and thousands of families are brutally separated by immigration raids.
Just because you oppose the military provision of the DREAM Act, though, doesn't mean you should oppose the entire DREAM Act. Despite having deep ethical problems with the military provision of the DREAM Act, I have not met a single unauthorized migrant youth that opposes the DREAM Act. When a privileged U.S. citizen like myself to opposes the DREAM Act because of the military provision, it denies unauthorized migrant youth their agency.
The solution for those of us that have problems with the military provision of the DREAM Act, is to speak out and advocate against it, while supporting the DREAM Act. If the DREAM Act does get passed with the military provision, we will just have to work doubly hard to repeal it. For those that are familiar with the history of the DREAM Act, there is an additional reason to have hope. The DREAM Act originally included a third path to citizenship for unauthorized migrant youth. There used to be a community service provision in the DREAM Act. During the campaign, those of us at The Sanctuary were able to get Barack Obama to reaffirm his support for the community service provision of the DREAM Act.
The Sanctuary: Do you support the community service requirement of previous DREAM Act legislation that would grant provisional (conditional) legal status to immigrant graduates who perform 910 hours of community service?Those who are skeptical of the military provision of the DREAM Act should push for the community service provision of the DREAM Act. To oppose it outright though is unfair to unauthorized migrant youth that have so much activism and hope invested in the DREAM Act.
Barack Obama: Yes.The Sanctuary (18 September 2008)
The Time To Stand For Justice Is Now - Pass the DREAM Act
Shortly, the DREAM Act will be introduced, and cries of "amnesty" will screech out of the nativist media noise machine. Though I would not dare suggest that all migrant advocates should agree on everything, I do believe that all migrant advocates should support the passage of the DREAM Act when it comes up for a vote, shortly. I also hope that good and decent people across the U.S. will speak out in favor of the DREAM Act. We know that we outnumber nativists, we're just not as loud as they are. The time has come to be loud. The time to stand up for justice is now.
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