Dream Act 21 Arrested on Capitol Hill

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UrielTwenty-one undocumented youth were arrested in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday after staging sit-ins in the Hart Senate Office Building atrium and the offices of Senators McCain and Reid. This followed on the heels of a similar action in Senator McCain's Tucson office in May in which three undocumented leaders were arrested and turned over to ICE in what was the first civil disobedience action carried out by undocumented activists that I am aware of.

The students had come from all across the country to Washington, D.C., to participate in a three-day series of rallies and legislative visits to promote the DREAM Act. The DREAM Act would provide a path to legal status for undocumented youth brought here as children who complete two years of college or military service. Currently, these youth face deportation and long-term separation from their families and friends.

The students began their sit-in shortly after an annual symbolic graduation ceremony, held at a nearby church, attended by hundreds of DREAM Act-eligible students in caps and gowns. Groups of DREAMers and supporters had driven from Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, and many other states to attend the days of action.

Shortly before 3:00 p.m., the 21 activists fanned out to the offices of Senators Feinstein (D-CA), Reid (D-NV), McCain (R-AZ), Menendez (D-NJ), and Schumer (D-NY), where they began peaceful sit-ins. After a short while, they left the offices and congregated in the atrium of the Hart Senate Building, except that the students in Senators Reid and McCain's offices stayed put.

Twelve DREAMers in the Hart Building atrium began a peaceful sit-in and were arrested by Capitol Police shortly afterwards. They were then taken to a local processing facility. Four DREAMers in Senator McCain's office and five in Senator Reid's were arrested between 7:30 and 8:00 p.m. after the Senate office buildings closed. Seventeen of the DREAMers were released Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning, while four were held overnight and released after appearing at their arraignments.

The activists in yesterday's action risk deportation if ICE gets involved as they go through the criminal process. Their arrests triggered an immediate and intense emotional response from the groups they had traveled with to D.C., which included siblings, parents, teachers, and friends, many of whom did not know the 21 would be arrested.

From my work with the undocumented community, watching the federal government's methodical expansion of immigration law enforcement to every state and local jurisdiction, I cannot overstate the devastating impact an arrest of a loved one has on families and friends. These communities live in a state of fear, not just in Arizona but in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and small towns everywhere.

Senator Durbin, long the Senate's foremost champion of the DREAM Act, quickly issued a harsh reprimand to the students, calling their actions "inappropriate." Yesterday, however, Senator Reid announced that he would consider moving the DREAM Act forward separate from wider comprehensive reform legislation, where it has been entangled since the DREAM Act was introduced in both houses of Congress in March of last year. According to Roll Call, Senator Reid told La Opinion that when advocacy organizations signal "that they feel we cannot get [comprehensive immigration reform] done this year - and the reason why we cannot do it, it's because we don't have a single Republican - then I would like to figure out when can we do the DREAM Act. I would like to do it before the elections."

The DREAM Act was first introduced in 2001 and has returned every legislative session since, but has never been passed. Meanwhile, the Democrats, facing unified Republican opposition, have not even introduced a comprehensive reform bill despite years of promises. Just last month, Senator Reid had explicitly ruled out the possibility of passing the DREAM Act separate from comprehensive reform legislation.

On a personal level, I didn't expect to be as strongly affected by the arrests of the Dream Act 21 as I have been. Working with low-income undocumented clients at a Philadelphia nonprofit, I hear of exploitation, deprivation, and suffering that most Americans believe only exists outside these borders. The border has encroached inward to encompass everything inside, immigrants carry the border with them, it marks their bodies and minds. Undocumented Mexicans and Chinese in my area are routinely targeted for theft and horrific assault because their attackers suspect their victims will not report anything to the police. For the same reason, an epidemic of domestic violence plagues the community, abusers range from citizen to undocumented and all points between. Some people come to the U.S., broken from torture or rape, some fleeing ethnic violence, to seek asylum. The smallest misstep in an immigration legal case can lead to detention and deportation by a government and an administration that has made the deportation process clinically efficient while the immigration courts sink slowly under the weight of the impenetrable network of increasingly punitive statutes, regulations, policies, and guidelines that generate profit for attorneys and private prison companies and misery for families.

I suffer nothing, I only observe, but the ceaseless repetition of injustice and trauma dulls empathy. I am tempted to retreat to a sullen acceptance.

Perhaps that is why watching these DREAMers take back control of their lives from a brutal and impersonal system, seeing them refuse to cower, listening to them reassert their basic humanity when confronted with a litany of excuses and deceptions from those who claim to represent them, has overwhelmed my carefully-cultivated defenses. I experience a vicarious form of empowerment. I experience the hope that politicians promise but rarely deliver.

Senators from both sides of the aisle, and the voters they represent, now face a choice. They can punish DREAMers for the desperate actions their parents took when they were children and discard an entire generation of talented and motivated youth. Or they can reward ambition and enterprise. They can choose basic fairness over prejudice veiled in legality. DREAMers are among the most patriotic people I know, they grow up believing the story of inclusion and opportunity they are taught here from infancy. That the DREAM Act hasn't passed, that it's necessary in the first place, speaks more to the flaws built into the current social contract than to any imagined wrongdoing of its potential beneficiaries.

(Disclosure: I am working with the Dream Is Coming group in an advisory capacity.)

[Image: Erin Fleming, KSMODA]

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This page contains a single entry by David Bennion published on July 22, 2010 1:25 PM.

Migrant Youth Panel at Netroots Nation was the previous entry in this blog.

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