Hijacking the DREAM Act

September 17, 2010

Immigrant rights activists have to speak out against the attempt to manipulate the movement's support for the DREAM Act to further U.S. wars and occupations.

SENATE MAJORITY Leader Harry Reid is promising action on the DREAM Act, a proposal to provide a path to legal status for a minority of undocumented youth.

But in a cynical maneuver, Reid plans to make the proposal part of the Senate's $670 billion defense appropriations bill to fund the U.S. war machine. This would force anyone who wants to support the DREAM Act to also support funding for the Pentagon and its wars and occupations around the world.

The DREAM Act itself, despite its flaws, would provide limited legalization for a minority of the undocumented, and would be a step forward in the struggle to win justice for all immigrants. Activists have been organizing protests and pressure to get the Democrats to move on the DREAM Act, and many groups greeted the news of Reid's plan with enthusiasm.

But Reid and the Democrats are using the DREAM Act as a pawn in their Washington games. By adding it to the defense appropriations bill, they want to maneuver Republican opponents of the measure into filibustering and voting "against our troops."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announces his plan to attach the DREAM Act to the a military spending bill
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announces his plan to attach the DREAM Act to the a military spending bill

SocialistWorker.org supports, with criticisms, the DREAM Act--but not as part of legislation funding the U.S. war machine. We believe immigrant rights activists and all supporters of justice should oppose the defense appropriations bill--and Reid's insulting attempt to manipulate the immigrant rights movement into supporting war. We should demand that the DREAM Act be considered and passed separately.

THE DREAM Act has become a lightning rod for activism this year--in the face of an anti-immigrant offensive centered in Arizona, where politicians pushed through the racial profiling law SB 1070, but felt around the country.

The legislation took center stage when several undocumented students risked deportation with a sit-in at the Arizona office of Sen. John McCain. Since then, protesters have held sit-ins in Washington, as well as numerous demonstrations and forums around the country--and forced the DREAM Act into the national political spotlight.

DREAM stands for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act. Under the current version of the proposal, undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. before age 16, who have been in the U.S. for at least five consecutive years, and who graduate from high school or obtain a GED will be allowed a path to legal permanent residency, followed by U.S. citizenship--if they enroll in college (in pursuit of a bachelor's degree or higher) or enlist in the military.

An estimated 65,000 undocumented young people--many of whom know no other home but the U.S.--graduate from high school each year and find themselves stuck in permanent second-class citizenship, including being shut out of higher education. The DREAM Act would be a vital opportunity for this minority.

But there are important criticisms of the DREAM Act that can't be ignored.

For one, the military service qualification for the path to citizenship was consciously designed to lure undocumented young people into the U.S. military. When he proposed the measure in its current form several years ago, Sen. Dick Durbin explained that he hoped the DREAM Act would help the Pentagon overcome its then-severe difficulties in recruiting fresh troops to fight its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This makes Reid's current plan to tie the proposal to military spending all the more grotesque.

Also, the other qualification in the DREAM Act--attending college--excludes most undocumented young people. Less than 10 percent of immigrant youth will attend college, and many who do won't complete a bachelor's degree.

Previous versions of the DREAM Act didn't include military service as a qualification, but did include vocational and other forms of continuing education, as well as community service. Activists organizing support for the DREAM Act need to acknowledge the criticisms of the legislation and raise demands for the original provisions to be revived.

Four years ago, in the wake of the first May Day mega-marches, support for the DREAM Act was a topic of debate. Among politicians and some immigrant rights groups, it was counterposed to broader proposals for legalization and amnesty--and pushed as the "realistic" and "moderate" option. The left wing of the immigrant rights movement, including SocialistWorker.org, opposed the DREAM Act at that time as a half-measure that would divert from the campaign to win broader reform.

But the political climate has changed. The current proposal for "comprehensive immigration reform," authored by Sen. Chuck Schumer, is weighted more than ever toward punitive enforcement measures. Plus, activism around the DREAM Act has provided a rallying cry for a generation of activists who want to take action, rather than wait for the Democrats to get around to the issue.

In 2008, Barack Obama promised that he would put immigration reform high on his agenda when he became president. Instead, any measures that would help the undocumented and broaden rights for all immigrants have been put on hold--while the White House has actually stepped up the federal government's enforcement apparatus.

Now, with the November elections approaching, the Democrats need something to energize Latino voters--after having done nothing to meet their expectations in the past two years. Activists understood that this offered the opportunity to press Democratic congressional leaders to bring the DREAM Act up to a vote--both Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised to do so.

But Reid's maneuver to attach the DREAM Act to military spending legislation shows that the Democrats couldn't care less about the plight of undocumented youth.

The proposal for limited legalization--and the enthusiasm of activists who want to see the measure passed--is being used to advance a strategy timed for the November elections. The Democrats want to force Republicans into blocking or voting against the defense appropriations bill--or accepting the DREAM Act so they aren't seen as neglecting "national security."

But this means tying the fate of a genuine, if limited, reform to money for war and occupation.

WHAT IS at stake in the defense appropriations legislation? The Obama administration has requested another increase in military spending for next year: A base budget for the Pentagon of $548.9 billion, plus an additional $159.3 billion for "overseas Contingency Operations"--that is, to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Democratic-controlled House actually added more than $50 billion in all to the defense bill it approved. Senators are threatening to make some cuts in weapons programs, but the total Pentagon budget will certainly increase over last year--at a time when programs and agencies in every part of the federal government are being slashed.

With this appropriations legislation, the U.S. government is again committing itself to spending almost as much on "defense" as the rest of the world's governments combined. The money will be devoted to a military machine that wreaks mayhem and destruction around the planet--not only in the Middle East and Central Asia, but in Latin America, the birthplace to many of the undocumented youth who the DREAM Act is supposed to help.

This is a further cruel twist to the Democrats' maneuver to attach the DREAM Act to the defense bill--they want to win support from activists who would otherwise bitterly oppose more funds for Pentagon programs that wreck lives from Mexico to Central America to Colombia and beyond.

Anyone who cares about peace and justice must oppose the war spending bill. And that means we must oppose the inclusion of the DREAM Act as one of its provisions.

One argument for promoting the DREAM Act regardless of what it is attached to is that the Pentagon funding bill will "pass anyway." But accepting this logic means remaining silent about the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on U.S. imperialist war. It weakens all of our movements if those who would speak out against war funding--even if they are too small at present--stay silent because they hope to win an unrelated measure as a consequence.

Many activists--including those who have worked the hardest to force action on the DREAM Act--will want to view their goal as separate from the issue of funding the Pentagon. But Harry Reid and the Democrats have made that impossible. Their underhanded maneuver has to be raised at meetings and demonstrations, and exposed for what it is.

Before Reid's announcement, activists were calling for the DREAM Act to be voted on as a "stand-alone" bill. This is what we must continue to demand.

Similarly, a repeal of the Clinton-era "don't ask, don't tell" policy of discriminating against LGBT people in the military will be included in the defense bill. We support the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," but not as part of legislation that will feed the Pentagon at record levels. We should also make this case to LGBT activists who are calling on lawmakers to support the appropriations bill because it includes the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."

The Democrats have hijacked the DREAM Act and are using activist support for it to further their agenda. We can't let our movement be exploited in this way.

We support the DREAM Act, but not if it's attached to legislation that will expand the U.S. war machine and further set back the cause of peace and justice, in the U.S. and around the globe.

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