How DREAMers Pushed Harry Reid to Victory in 2010, and What this Means for Obama in 2012

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled two unexpected developments out of his pocket this fall: he became a champion of the DREAM Act in Congress, and he secured victory over his opponent by a margin that no one had foreseen. I propose that these two events were related, but not in an obvious way.

Nativism Causes the Nevada Tea Party to Self-destruct

Politicians and pundits speculated that Harry Reid owed his victory over Tea Party candidate Sharon Angle in November because Latino voters were energized. Angle had run a series of anti-immigrant, anti-Latino ads which won her notoriety for running one of the most racist campaigns of the election season. One ad prompted the View's Joy Behar to taunt Angle to come to the Bronx in one of the election season's more memorable TV moments.

In the ads, Angle alleged that Harry Reid was "the best friend an illegal alien ever had." In one ad, she went after DREAMers directly, claiming that "Harry Reid is fighting for a program that would give preferred college tuition rates to none other than illegal aliens." This specific ad was almost certainly created in response to Reid's highly public effort to pass the DREAM Act shortly before the ad was run.

The narrative that emerged during the late stages of the campaign from both the left and the right was that Harry Reid had pandered to--or responded to--Latino voters in Nevada by announcing his intent to attach the DREAM Act to the defense authorization bill in September. Reid knew that by promoting a bill that would legalize hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth brought to the U.S. as children, he would mobilize Latino voters who could provide the margin of victory he needed against Angle. So he made a public statement of intent to bring the DREAM Act forward, knowing it would polarize the Senate and inject immigration politics into the Senate race in Nevada.

In retrospect, it was a brilliant plan. Staging a public push for the DREAM Act, which many voters had never heard of before September, was like waving a red flag in front of a bull for Angle and her Tea Party supporters, driving them to embarrassing outbursts of nativism. It seemed they couldn't help themselves. Rachel Maddow called the anti-DREAM Act spot the "most overtly racist ad of this campaign season."

These explicitly anti-Latino attacks in turn mobilized a previously disaffected Latino electorate in Nevada which had been upset with Democratic leadership for ignoring immigration reform. Latino voters came out in force and voted for Reid by a high margin--between 68% and 90% depending on the source. Reid won by 5.6%, mobilizing Latino voters to turnout in record numbers against all predictions.

Perhaps it was Reid's plan all along to pull out the DREAM Act late in the campaign to construct the "Latino firewall" that by some accounts saved his job. But maybe there is more to the story.

I believe Reid didn't initially plan for the DREAM Act to become a signature campaign issue. Instead, he was prodded by a series of direct actions carried out by undocumented youth earlier in the year, when the landscape of the immigrant rights movement with respect to the DREAM Act was dramatically different.

The DREAM Movement Gathers Steam

The DREAM Act emerged as a focal point among immigration activists in 2009 when campaigns coordinated by a national network of DREAMers and allies successfully stopped the deportations of individual DREAMers through public pressure, an unprecedented development during this era of "enforcement only" immigration policy. (For a great overview of the DREAM Act movement, read Julianne Hing's recent piece.)

Then on January 1, 2010, four Florida students, three of them undocumented, set out in a public march from Miami to D.C. to raise awareness of the DREAM Act. This was the Trail of Dreams. Along the way, they confronted Klansmen and risked deportation. Rather than hiding their undocumented status, as they had learned as members of a community living in fear, they trumpeted it. Latino media started to regularly pick up DREAM Act stories.

By May, the Trail of Dreams had reached D.C. but the DREAM Act was still stuck in committee in the Senate. The momentary high produced by a March 21 mass immigrant rights rally in D.C. had faded. The media had mostly ignored the rally, which was overshadowed by passage of the Affordable Health Care Act the same day. Hopes that the Democrats were committed to introducing a comprehensive immigration reform bill (CIR) in the Senate were dwindling even as Democratic leadership tried to maintain the illusion that a CIR bill was imminent by introducing first a blueprint, then a plan, each with fanfare and misleading press releases.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) and the major D.C. immigrant advocacy organizations were then still uniformly committed to an "all or nothing" approach to immigration reform which would provide something for everyone, bringing both Republicans and Democrats to the negotiating table and solving all immigration problems at once and forever. This ambitious, unwieldy CIR strategy left little room for targeted "piecemeal" reforms like the DREAM Act or AgJobs, a hard-fought compromise bill that would streamline visas for agricultural workers.

Then on May 17, the date Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, a small group of Dreamers took another historic step forward by staging a civil disobedience action in Senator John McCain's Tucson office. Three of them were arrested and turned over to ICE to be detained and placed into removal proceedings. This was the first time I am aware of that undocumented activists had deliberately triggered the deportation process as an act of protest.

A New Legislative Target

By June, Senator Reid had exhibited no special connection to the DREAM Act, instead telling LatinaLista that he did not want to bring the DREAM Act forward outside the framework of CIR.

In July, the same "DreamIsComing" group behind the Tucson action organized a larger action targeting the seat of power of the deportation juggernaut, Washington, D.C. 21 Dreamers were arrested in the Senate office buildings. Frustrated with the Senate Democratic leadership's unwillingness to bring the DREAM Act out of committee to be voted on independent of CIR, they targeted Senator Reid, understanding that he faced a tough campaign in which Latino voters would be essential to any path to reelection. Having young Latin@s led out of his office in handcuffs was not part of Reid's vision of mobilizing the Latino electorate in Nevada, and it terrified his staff. Soon after, Reid stated for the first time that he was open to moving the DREAM Act forward on its own once advocacy organizations signaled that comprehensive reform was no longer viable in 2010.

Dreamers were not done with Reid yet, however. Four leaders in the movement followed him to Las Vegas and staged a silent protest of his inaction on the DREAM Act in front of 5,000 progressive bloggers at a Netroots Nation plenary session. While the cameras mostly followed Lt. Dan Choi's protest action directed at Reid that same session, the Dreamers were bringing their message to a broader progressive audience and breaking out of the Spanish-language silo.

Dreamers continued to pressure Reid publicly and behind the scenes. And the Nevada Senate race tightened as the summer came to an end. By September, the two candidates were running neck and neck in the polls.

Then in a bold gamble, Reid turned a potential liability into a strength with a surprise announcement that he would bring the DREAM Act forward as part of the defense reauthorization bill. Angle promptly shot herself in the foot by running a series of racist ads, tempted by the frenzy of nativist energy that Reid had unleashed among her base.

After GOP Senators prevented the DREAM Act from moving forward in September, Reid made a campaign promise to bring the DREAM Act up as a standalone bill before the legislative session ended, a promise he fulfilled this past Saturday. Tragically, the DREAM Act was blocked by most Republicans and a few conservative Democrats. Dreamers themselves, however, emerged from the vote as the most visible and empowered segment of the immigrant rights movement. They are still here, stronger than ever.

Looking Ahead to 2012

Senator Reid and the CHC fought for the DREAM Act this fall because it is the right thing to do, because it is one of the most urgent civil rights issues of our time, and because it is in line with their broader agenda. But they also now publicly support the DREAM Act because Dreamers refused to wait, they refused to let their futures be determined by someone else's timetable.

There is a cautionary tale here for President Obama, whose path to victory in 2012 parallels Senator Reid's 2010 campaign in certain key respects. Like Reid earlier this year, Obama faces deepening opposition from a key electorate: immigrant-friendly voters unhappy with his decision to drive deportation levels to all-time highs in 2009 and 2010. It's not widely known that Obama is still fighting to deport Dreamers around the country. Like Reid in 2010, if enough Latino voters stay home in 2012, Obama could be finished in key swing states like Nevada, Florida, Colorado, and New Mexico.

Will immigration policy be a liability for Obama, as it surely will be viewed by Latino voters if he continues on his current trajectory? Or will he flip that weakness into strength as Harry Reid did in 2010? His decision on this question could help decide whether or not he is a one-term president.

[Disclosure: I provided legal advice to the DreamIsComing group on the civil disobedience actions in May and July.]


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I've seen two general reactions from pro-migrant bloggers, Tweeters, Dreamers, and politicos online since the DREAM Act was blocked in the Senate last week by anti-immigrant politicians. One group believes the vote highlighted the fundamental divide be... Read More

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The failure of the Democrats to pass the DREAM Act in December prompted the Washington Post and Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) to declare President Obama's immigration reform strategy a failure. Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum expl... Read More

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by David Bennion published on December 20, 2010 11:34 PM.

Let DREAMers Lead, Allies Must Follow was the previous entry in this blog.

Betraying the DREAM: Nativists in the Senate to Remember in 2012 is the next entry in this blog.

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