DREAMer Fire: How Undocumented Youth Hacked The Political System
NOTE: What follows is the limited perspective of one person, a pro-migrant chapringo ally, on the immediate story of what led to President Obama's promise to stop the deportations of 1 million people, last week. Most of the people who could tell this story better than me are already working furiously on next steps. I've written this out because it's a story that needs to be told to better determine next steps, but if I'm missing anything or telling it wrong, please help me tell it right in the comments or through your own posts, which I will happily link to. What follows is a draft that I will continue to modify in an effort to make it better.
"We can exist now in the eyes of the country."
Julio Salgado - Los Angeles Times(16 June 2012)
Wow. I don't think it's possible to overstate the significance of the "Remarks by the President on Immigration," delivered last week. President Obama just promised to "lift the shadow of deportation" for what some estimates suggest is anywhere between 800,000 and 1.4 million young people and also allow them to "apply for work authorization." The internet exploded with the news.
The mainstream media conversation quickly devolved into vapid statements about political process and discussion of the even more inane actions of an incompetent reporter. Beneath that empty noise, a much more interesting conversation is taking place. A movement, led by undocumented immigrants, found a way to bend the will of the most powerful person on Earth and is now furiously debating where to go from here: celebration? implementation? escalation? My co-blogger David Bennion has already doused some of the euphoria with some hard legal analysis of how this is going to play out.
Nowhere, though, have I seen even a basic recounting of what brought us here. From everything I've read, it's as if the President just woke up by himself one day, last week, and all of the sudden decided to "do the right thing, period." Everyone who has followed this closely knows that's not how it happened, but not everyone in the country, much less the world has been following this closely. So, before I even get into the next steps I think it's extremely important that we all try to tell the story of how we got here. What follows is my feeble attempt.
The Fox And The Wolf: The Story So Far
The story of how a subset of unauthorized migrants who used to be fearful and invisible grew to be undocumented, unfraid, and most importantly well-organized enough to move the most powerful person on the planet, last week, is an epic story that continues on. I'm not sure if even the greatest artists, musicians, writers, and filmmakers, could do the story justice working at the peak of their powers. I'm not going to even attempt to recount that entire story, myself, but I will try and tell the most recent iteration of it.
This most recent iteration of the story starring undocumented youth, or DREAMers as they've come to be known, begins with the specter of the 2012 presidential elections looming. Up until just recently, it looked as if pro-migrant voters were going to be faced with a horrific choice: between a Republican who favored an immigration strategy of forcing us out of the country by making us suffer more than we already were, and a Democrat who said he was on our side but was essentially carrying out the same strategy to the tune of over a million deportations. It looked like pro-migrant voters, at the Presidential level, at least, were facing another choice between a growling wolf and a smiling fox: different strategies of oppression, effectually the same outcome.
That choice between bad and worse began to change only recently. If there is just one factor that led to that change it was the reality of an electoral map where Latin@ voters, among the most affected voters by harshness towards migrants, are going to play an outsized role in key states needed to win the Presidency. But demographics, alone, aren't enough to spur action. The issues important to pro-migrant voters, Latin@s chief among them, had to be defined and dramatized.
Cuban Latin@s or Mexican?: Keeping Republicans Competing For Pro-Migrant Voters
A key turning point in this drama was a speech up-and-coming Republican Senator Marco Rubio delivered before the Hispanic Leadership Network in Florida back in late January. Masterfully delivered, even if empty of substance, it marked a return towards Republicans competing for pro-migrant voters at the federal level. That speech was followed up in March with a promise from Sen. Rubio to introduce actual legislation to help undocumented youth, legislation we're all still waiting to see.
Still, even without an actual bill from Sen. Rubio the threat for Democrats was real. After Democrats deported over one million people, Sen. Rubio's move threatened to draw a stark contrast between Democrats' pro-migrant words and their anti-migrant actions. That contrast could have been what was needed to peel off just enough pro-migrant voters to help a Republican take the presidency in November. For evidence that this threat was real one need look no further than the White House's attempts to undermine to Sen. Rubio's proposal.
Now, it's easy to get caught up in palace intrigue and view the actions of Sen. Rubio and the White House in a vacuum, but any student of change knows that none of the above could have happened without pro-migrant power moving these politicans. There is no truth in politics only power. Thousands of words more should be devoted to how pro-migrant power was built and continues to be built in Florida, words I'm not qualified to write since I haven't spent any significant amount of time, there. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if when the ink dries on the history of the pro-migrant movement the state of Florida ends up being the pan on which the tortilla of a more just world for migrants was browned.
One way to understand the significance of Florida is through Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the only remaining Republican co-sponsor of the DREAM Act in Congress. As a proud Latin American leftist I find Rep. Ros-Lehtinen's stance on almost every other issue, particularly foreign policy related, abhorrent. Still, anyone who wants to get anything done in a two-party system knows it's almost impossible to get anything done through just one party. There are a lot of conservatives doing admirable pro-migrant work, but Florida is the only state in the country where that still translates into public support at the federal level for the most basic and popular pro-migrant piece of federal legislation: the DREAM Act. Why is that?
The work I'm most familiar with from afar that has kept this last cornerstone of bipartisanship alive is led by the Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC) led by María Rodriguez. I know FLIC because it incubated Students Working for Equal Rights (SWER) one of the founding organizations of the national immigrant youth movement. The leaders of SWER would go on to be a key part of making a national immigrant youth organization, the United We Dream Network, a reality, and they would also end up embarking on a 1,500 mile walk from Miami to Washington, D.C., that would come to be known as the Trail of Dreams.
The Trail was among the first in an escalating series of national coming out actions by undocumented youth that would for the first time in the history of the planet, as far as I can tell, result in unauthorized migrants firmly taking the reigns of their own destinies in their adopted countries. I'm proud to say that the organization I now work for, Presente.org, played a key role in supporting the Trail of Dreams, but the credit, of course, goes to the DREAMers who talked it and walked it: Gaby Pacheco, Carlos Roa, Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, and Juan Sousa-Rodriguez (Felipe and Juan just got married to each other!). If there's one thing FLIC and SWER did (and probably many others who I do not know--please help me in the comments if you do) to lay the foundation for what happened last week it's that they turned and kept the Cuban exile community in Florida pro-migrant.
This isn't as easy as some who see Latin@s as a monolithic bloc might think. As long as Cubans continue to be the beneficiaries of a Cold War-era immigration policy of amnesty as soon as they touch U.S. soil, Cuban Americans have no significant personal interest in changing U.S. immigration policy. Pro-migrant forces in Florida, though, have succeeded in telling a story that brings Cuban Latin@s in. The racism and fear of a declining White America has also justly pushed Cuban Latin@s towards us.
One illustration of this is a message/joke I heard about during the attempt to enact an Arizona-like anti-migrant law in Florida was a radio ad of Latin@ origin saying something like "You might be Cuban in Miami, but everywhere else in Florida we're all Mexican." It's a jab at the racism all Latin@s would suffer from under a "Let Me See Your Papers" law in Florida, at the same time that the humor helps bring all Latin@s, regardless of immigration status, together. If anyone can help me substantiate this please do so in the comments.
It is from this pro-migrant foundation, built by the trabajo de hormiga (ant work) of pro-migrant organizers, that Tea Party darling Sen. Rubio emerged. While he leaned pro-migrant early in his State House career, he campaigned for U.S. Senate on an anti-migrant platform, speaking against "amnesty" and praising Arizona's anti-migrant law. There's not a day since he first began to run for U.S. Senate that he hasn't been pressured by DREAMers and their allies to come back to the pro-migrant light. The pro-migrant stances of the older Cuban Latin@ political elite, and his move onto the national political stage made him ripe for that move.
Once again, I'm proud to say that Presente.org, led by pro-migrant strategist extraordinaire, Roberto Lovato, and Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez of the Trail of Dreams played a small part in pushing him back in the pro-migrant direction through the "No Somos Rubios" (We are not blonde) campaign. In partnership, and building of the groundwork of FLIC and SWER as well as others, we went big when he spoke at the Hispanic Leadership Network conference, getting DREAMers in to dramatize his speech, staging a protest outside, and flying a banner around saying "Hey Marco: No Somos Rubios!"
Say what you want about Sen. Rubio, but he's a saavy politician. Watching his well delivered speech at the conference I felt like we got parried in a sword fight. At the moment, it felt like we got outmaneuvered by a political enemy, but in retrospect we just set the national stage for him to move back towards becoming a tepid pro-migrant ally. What little Sen. Rubio has moved in the pro-migrant direction was the first pebble in a landslide that might result in over a million undocumented people getting work permits.
Hustlers and Hackers: Staring Down The President
Only undocumented migrants could take a small shift from a Republican Senator in Florida, and turn it into the promise of relief for hundreds of thousands of people from the President of the United States. I'm aware of the complex racial history of the term "hustler," but I tend to see "hustling" as a generally positive example of resistance of the oppressed. Coupled with the sacred place I hold for migrants, or "the strangers among us," in my own Catholic cosmovision, I hope people feel the love I intend to convey when I say undocumented youth hustled to turn that small turn of events into the promise of a huge victory.
It isn't just that undocumented youth hustled, though, it's that they found a way hack a dicrepit political system and infuse urgency into a dying democracy. The term "hacker," coopted by Silicon Valley millionaries, brings to mind a young bespectled white dude pounding away at his keyboard, but I also think it aptly applies to a generation of undocumented youth who have found a way to use new mediums of communication to supercharge their movement (Here's some of my best writing on how migrant youth achieved that). If moving the President of the United States without the right to vote isn't hacking the political system, I don't know what is.
I think the story of how migrant youth stared down the President begins after the DREAM Act was filibusted in the Senate in 2010. First, there was a strategic decision by the entire pro-migrant movement then, I think, to focus on administrative relief rather than legislative action, but it wasn't until Sen. Rubio moved that pro-migrant forces had the leverage to make that real.
Perhaps more significant, though, is that in the wake of that crushing defeat the national migrant youth movement made what I thought was a mistake, and in some ways still do: it split. The National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA) split off of the United We Dream Network (UWD). Leaders of both organizations will say the split was political, and it's fair to say NIYA is definitely more militant than UWD.
In my view, though, the split wasn't political, it was personal. I think the psychological stress of being young and in an intense political fight (that is without even mentioning the racism, homophobia, and nativism many migrant youth have to confront, daily) just broke relationships almost beyond the point of any kind of repair. I know I'm still recovering emotionally, spiritually, and financially from giving whole self multiple times over towards trying to move Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins in Maine to vote for the DREAM Act. I can't imagine what it was like to go through that as someone affected.
It was actually a talented pro-migrant organizer in Maine, Ben Chin of the Maine People's Alliance, who pointed out the example of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) when they were going through something similar to this. If I remember the story correctly (again help me verify and specify this in the comments), there was a time within SNCC when the fighting got intense and the way they overcame it was the respected elder and organizer extraordinaire, Ella Baker, came in and just sat through days of these young people shouting at each other. She would just listen for most of the day and at the end of the day she would say something summing up a lot of what had happened. It took I don't know how many days like this to keep SNCC together.
I think that's what migrant youth leaders needed in the wake of the DREAM Act loss in 2010, and in many ways still need. But in the hypercharged era of facebook and twitter it wasn't meant to be. Instead, most of that shouting took place under the glare of the public social media spotlight. Many times that shouting has devolved into bitter humor and ugly name calling, the inhumanity magnified through an unfeeling computer screen. It was depressing and still is depressing to witness.
I'll be the first to admit my surprise that out of the ashes of that ugliness a stronger migrant youth movement has emerged, at least for the moment. There was about a year where everyone, myself included, was kind of all over the place, but over the last six months NIYA and UWD have effectively been complimentary to each other, even if they're still not communicating very well.
When Sen. Rubio came out with rumblings of a plan to help undocumented youth, it was NIYA's quick public support of it that made the threat of pro-migrant defection from Democrats real. UWD, meanwhile, was able to play a more inside game, deftly playing Sen. Rubio off the White House. I'm sure there were lots of people involved in all of this (again add or take away from this in the comments) but for me if there's a single figure who deserves praise for maneuvering through all of this, it's Gaby Pacheco at the United We Dream Network.
It's difficult for me to think of another human being on this planet that embodies the Spirit of Love more than Gaby. I have only anger for those that toss ugly invectives at Gaby, particularly people within the movement. Perhaps one day the universe will give me the same gift of Love that Gaby has for people like that. Forget the hate of nativists and people within the movement directed at Gaby, though, for a moment, Gaby was the very public face negotiating between some of the greatest powers on the planet to ensure DREAMers were brought towards justice.
People can argue about whether people creating pressure outside, or moving things on the inside deserve most of the credit for the promise of a million people getting relief, but Gaby played all of those roles and everything in between. I know from hearing many different sides of the conversation that she was the target of negativity from all sides. I think, though, from my limited viewpoint that she more than anyone else effectively found the sweet spot where Sen. Rubio's movement made the White House ripe for movement.
Pulling The Lever: From Negotiation To A Promise
Once the Sen. Rubio lever was in place to move the White House, people had to find a way to pull it, which is no easy task in an election year. The entire Non-Profit Industrial Complex (NPIC) essentially functions to keep people quiet during an election year. One of the best way to keep the left quiet is with "shut up and elect a Democrat" money.
The migrant youth movement has built the infrastructure and has the moral authority to operate outside of that system, but you can bet that it was only a matter of months, maybe even weeks, before allies left migrant youth out to dry until after the elections.
Though the work started way before this, UWD started the latest round of momentum going with the Right to DREAM campaign, doing actions outside of Obama campaign offices where possible, and leveraging the full power of the pro-migrant NPIC to start the push in the media. If UWD deserves most of the credit for succesfully playing Sen. Rubio off the President, then this is where NIYA played its crucial role in the wake of the Right to Dream campaign.
With many bridges burnt, very few ties to the pro-migrant NPIC, and extensive experience carrying out the tactic of undocumented youth civil disobedience, NIYA worked with the Campaign for American DREAM (CAD) to stage a civil disobedience and subsequent hunger in a Colorado Obama campaign office and amplify it. Colorado, of course is a key swing state for Obama in the 2012 elections. Images of undocumented youth getting arrested there could have been devastating for Obama's re-election prospects.
Compared with the Right to DREAM, the media surrounding CAD and NIYA's actions was predictably sparse, partly because of the need to keep civil disobedience quiet until right before it happens, but also partly because NIYA has sworn off some of the pro-migrant NPICs media power and the compromises that come with it. The reaction in the Colorado office, though, was amazing. The Obama campaign just shut down the office, paralyzing at least one element of his re-election efforts in a lynchpin state.
NIYA then escalated and in a weeks time they had almost five other Obama campaign offices "undoccupied" as they called it in California, Georgia, Ohio, and Michigan. NIYA, unencumbered by any of the power structures the Obama campaign could have used to stop this from spreading, and using its smaller but highly radicalized base was going to give, and probably still will give, the Obama campaign huge headaches during its re-election efforts. There was one straw, though, that I think finally compelled President Obama to act
How Do You Define American?: Mainstream Media Power
I think most everyone and anyone who even somewhat follows immigration in this country knows Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitizer Prize winning reporter who came out as undocumented last year. Jose's story is pretty well-known, at this point. I'm sure for him his coming out just seemed like a natural progression of events, but at least for me, deep in the pro-migrant movement, his coming out after the DREAM Act loss felt like a gift from the universe.
The pro-migrant movement is pretty good at getting into a select few mainstream newspapers, but I don't think we've ever consistently influenced media outlets with the millions strong reach of network television. I was almost part of getting Harvard DREAMer Eric Balderas on CBS's morning show, but even if we had succeeded at that it would have been a flash in the pan.
Jose Antonio Vargas, on the contrary, is a mainstream media sensation because of his great story, of course, but also because he was a part of it for so long and understands how to speak in the mainstream media conversation. I have no doubt that for the vast majority of Americans, Jose Antonio Vargas is the first undocumented person they're getting to know that isn't a made up projection of all of their fears.
As UWD stepped up its Right To Dream campaign, as NIYA led the "undoccupations," Jose Antonio Vargas came in with the knockout punch that was getting DREAMers on the front-page of TIME Magazine a publication that reaches 20 million people. I could be wrong, but I believe that is the single largest audience that undocumented people have ever reached with stories they define themselves.
If Obama follows through on the implementation of his promise, and that's an enormous if, Jose Antonio Vargas will have been instrumental in the reification of a new kind of American, an Undocumented American. It's a term I've heard used before, but Obama's latest promise has a chance to make that identity real for a million people.
Getting DREAMers on the front-page of TIME Magazine which was the final straw that forced the President to act.
That, finally, is one Chapringo ally's story of the immediate actions that led to the President's announcement, Friday
What's Next?: We Decide
My co-blogger David Bennion and Maegan Ortiz at Vivir Latino have already injected some healthy realism into the euphoria of Friday's announcement. It is not my aim to contradict them in anyway. I just haven't written about all this in a long time and now seemed like a perfect opportunity to try and capture a lot of this. Even writing this out now I've noticed that a lot of these stories and pictures live in walled and proprietary spaces like facebook, making them very hard to find for people in the future.
The beautiful thing about social media and a blog like this, is that people can add or take away from this story, and that's what I ask that people do. Where we go from hear will become clearer in the weeks and month's ahead, but key to deciding that is telling the story of how we got here.
Many have rightly lost faith in the President to carry out any pro-migrant policy, at this point, and his hand will have to continue to be forced. I will make one prediction though, that is cause for great celebration for this movement, no matter what people say. If I'm wrong, I'll self-deport back to Guatemala.
Migrant youth at the margins will continue to suffer just as they currently are, but I think Obama's announcement on Friday means all of the politically connected undocumented youth who are already leading this fight will now get access to work permits and drivers licenses, the tangible impact of which cannot be overstated. You want to take about how to use power to make change? That's raw power, right there.
The fight isn't over, of course. I continue to look towards a day where, at the very least, I'm attending DREAMer citizenship ceremonies. It's important to remember, though, that the fight never really is over, which is why it's so important to celebrate victories like last weeks announcement, even if just for a few days. My way of celebrating is through finally telling some of this story, and I hope you'll do the same and help me tell it better. It is through holding onto and remember the elation I felt upon hearing Obama's announcement, that I will be able to continue the fight.
The only mainstream media story I've read that comes even close to describing what happened was written by Julia Preston and Helene Cooper at the New York Times.
I'll continue to update this with other stories as I find them. Undocumented youth, of course, are telling their own stories at lighting speed using their own social media accounts and web spaces.