The Politics of the DREAM Act: Laying the Groundwork For Migration Reform

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It is official.  According to the St. Petersburg Times, the DREAM Act will be reintroduced this week by Sen. Richard Durbin and Sen. Richard Lugar:

The movement's moment could arrive as early as Tuesday when Durbin reintroduces the bill with co-sponsor Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.
Saundra Amrhein - St. Petersburg Times (21 March 2009) is also beginning to sound the war drums through their 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. 

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. 
Barack Obama's Election and His Migration Policy Stances

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 GutiƩrrez 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.
New York Times (23 March 2009)
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.

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?
Barack Obama: Yes.
The Sanctuary (18 September 2008)
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.

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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It's been a busy few days of tweeting and video taping, at the annual National Council of La Raza conference in Chicago, Illinois.  The last time I produced a youtube video was at the last National Council of La Raza... Read More

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Greg Guillen said:

Wow. Nicely put, you are an amazing writer and trust me I know writers and their style's pretty well.

Do I have a story to tell you about an immigrant that is doing something not many immigrants dare of doing or have the ability..

If you are still interested in hearing my story let me know.

kyledeb said:

I just cross-posted this on The Sanctuary, Daily Kos, and Blue Mass. Group.

quovadis2009 said:

Thank you Kyle for all the work you are doing. Yes, I totally agree with you. After having taken all calls to action, we should pray. My 3 children and how they manage to stay in college are living proof that prayers work. Now they are almost at the finish line but as one Dreamer puts it "the passage of the DREAM ACT will make the brief walk on stage worth it".

Erendira Guerra said:

The Dream Act is sadly a military bill with a cover of education. And it is anti-Mexican.
It is anti-Mexican because the overwhelming majority of undocumented youth who graduate from high school in the US are Mexican. And the majority of our Mexican documented youth dont go to college even when they have papers.
this is a class question. Mexicanos in the main are from working class background. When families come from across the sea, they are in the main, the lower middle classes who go to college anyways.
So, the Dream Act will benefit certain sectors of the undocumented youth. But, the majority who are Mexican will be the ones to go to war.
Right now it is not legal for the military to recruit undocumented youth. They do it, yes, but they hide it, they cheat, and nonetheless it is against the law. The Dream Act will make it legal to recruit the undocumented youth and it will open the flood gates for the undocumented Mexican youth to go and kill and die overseas.
We as a people, in a movement, cannot support this! We cannot support bringing our young people to slaughter. Those of you who support the Dream Act, especially you undocumented youth who want to go to college, your desire is just, you deserve the right to go to college. But not with a cost of sending our other sisters and brothers to war!
Forget this ME FIRST mentality that the US society promotes. We must think of each other.
Sending the majority off to war so that you can go to college is wrong.
Yes, fight for the Dream Act, but ONLY without the military provisions. Un danyo contra uno es un danyo contra todos!

kyledeb Author Profile Page said:

Dear Erendira Guerra,

To be honest, I debated publishing your comment. I hope you realize how discouraging it is. Not only do we have to fight hundreds of thousands of nativists online, but we have to fight out own allies to try and get this passed.

Make no mistake, I hate the military provision of the DREAM Act. The next time I see Sen. Durbin, or a Durbin staffer, I'm going to give them a speech unlike they've ever heard about the horrible position they've put all DREAM Act advocates. They're happy, because they have the votes, but they've squeezed us in between nativists and people like yourself.

You talk about the harm that will happen to Mexicans if the DREAM Act is passed, Erendira, but you have failed to address the harm that is already being done to Mexican undocumented youth. Unauthorized migrant youth are already fighting a war here in the U.S. The war is the product of a targeted campaign by nativist groups that they call "attrition through enforcement." I encourage you to look it up. Attrition through enforcement means they want to make life so miserable for unauthorized migrants that they leave on their own . They want to make life more miserable than the horrible conditions migrants are fleeing from. And let me tell you, Erendira, they are succeeding.

It's an impossible position we've been put in where we have to choose sending unauthorized migrant youth to die in a war across the sea or in a war in the U.S.A. There's one thing I know though. It's that I haven't met a single unauthorized migrant youth that opposes the DREAM Act. It's only people that have the privilege of legal status that pretend to know what it's best for unauthorized migrant youth that oppose the DREAM Act.

That alone is almost enough to tell me what side I should stand on. I should support the DREAM Act. And you should too. We should push hard to eliminate the military provision. We should push hard to include the community service provision. But we cannot oppose it. We need a victory. We are already fighting hundreds of thousands of nativists online. Don't make us fight our allies, too.

Prerna said:

For Erendira Guerra and the likes:

I am literally tired of people who claim to be 'immigrant rights advocates' but dare to take the bully pulpit from their positions of power and privilege.

How f***ing dare you tell immigrant youth that they should not advocate for their own rights?

Opposing an educational opportunity such as the DREAM Act is precisely what creates conditions for military recruitment. Undocumented students are joining the military right now, putting themselves at risk of death and deportation, just to get legalized since going to college does not give them that option. A backdoor draft for undocumented immigrant youth already exists because there aren't enough opportunities for legalization such as H-I-G-H-E-R E-D-U-C-A-T-I-O-N. In effect, opposing the DREAM Act means putting the lives of countless students at risk.

That's really progressive. Bravo.

Right now, the death and deportation of thousands of undocumented youth fall directly on the heads of those that oppose the DREAM Act. How do you sleep at night?

My family, my friggin family of legal residents and citizens are fighting mortgage companies right now to prevent a foreclosure and I--with my Graduate degree and a gazillion skills--cannot do anything because I can't get jobs that I am overqualified for. How DARE you good-for-nothing people try to disempower immigrant youth due to your own manifestation of 'white men's burden?' Get a life and start doing some real advocacy for migrant rights.

Prerna said:

P.S. Ernesto, I don't have a 'ME FIRST' mentality that you assume of undocumented students. I have no problem leaving the United States. But some of us care about our parents and grandparents that are here and want to take care of them, to prevent being separated from them and to help them out. Some of us also desperately want to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers and help bring our communities up because we have the untapped potential to do that and so much more.

Don't label me as "anti-Mexican American" or as an elitist. My girlfriend is Mexican-American and she is only making it through school right now with the hope of getting the DREAM Act passed so she can become a nurse. I am doing this advocacy for her and countless other students more than myself.

Trying to divide and conquer the movement is despicable.

Aly said:

I have to concur with Kyle here. Ideological purity on this issue will only lead to even more lives being put on hold. I hate hate the military provision of the DREAM Act as well, and will try my best to advocate for policies that mitigate such a provision, but I can not with good conscience oppose the Dream Act, even as imperfect as it is right now. It all boils down to the many lives that will undoubtedly be improved by its passage. This is not an abstract issue for me: it is about people. Let's work towards this small victory and push for even better reform in the future. In solidarity. Peace.

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This page contains a single entry by kyledeb published on March 25, 2009 5:00 PM.

Online Actions For the DREAM Act was the previous entry in this blog.

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