Next steps in the DREAM Act fight

December 9, 2010

Roger Dyer looks at the latest attempts by immigrant activists to pass the DREAM Act, and why the fight needs to be broadened out.

WITH LESS than 30 days left in the current "lame duck" Congress, the chances for passing the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act are rapidly diminishing. For many in the DREAM Act movement, and in the broader movements for education rights, immigrant rights and against the wars, the content of the act, and the current strategy for winning it have been called into question.

The DREAM Act was first introduced in the Senate in 2001, and has gone through numerous permutations in Congress since. The bill as it currently exists would provide qualifying undocumented youth the opportunity to earn conditional permanent residency (a "green card") if they complete two years in the military, or two years at a four-year institution of higher learning.

In the hopes of pushing the House and Senate to act favorably, there has been a heightened pace of activity in the last week, with demonstrations and sit-ins occurring from Los Angeles to San Antonio, Texas, and beyond. A march and rally in San Francisco on December 3 drew over 100 spirited participants from around the Bay Area, and from as far away as North Dakota.

But there are rifts in the DREAM Act movement, and they have grown more pronounced as the window for getting the bill passed in this congressional session closes.

The DREAM Act began as a plan to win legalization for a small number of undocumented youth, while at the same time, giving them access to higher education--though it would continue to deny undocumented students access to state and federal financial aid.

Earlier versions of the bill did not include the military "option," and much of the current debate over the DREAM Act hinges on that aspect. The military component entered the DREAM Act in 2007, and the Pentagon loved it from the start. At that time, the government's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were getting bogged down, the wars were becoming increasingly unpopular among the U.S. population, and military recruiters weren't able to meet their quotas.

Among activists, the argument in favor of the military component was that it helped build congressional support for the passage of the bill.

Fast forward to September 2010. The DREAM Act, along with repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," was included in a defense-spending package which ultimately failed. While many in the DREAM Act movement were appalled that the act had been tacked onto war appropriations, the mainstream of the movement accepted this maneuver, and unfortunately, some even began advocating the military option as a way to get the bill passed.

THE OAKLAND-based National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR) has called the military service criterion a "de facto poverty draft," and they're right.

Though the passage of the act as it stands would open the door to legal permanent residency through education for some, the current reality of the U.S. economy means that the military will likely become the path that many undocumented youth will be compelled to travel. While there may be some who wish to join the military, there will likely be far more who are obliged to do so, risking life and limb in the U.S. war machine, for a chance at permanent residency.

A 2005 study indicates that only 5 percent of undocumented high school seniors will attend college. While this points to a scenario that DREAM activists and others seek to change, it also highlights current economic and social reality. Higher education is getting more expensive, and the economy is hitting the immigrant population very hard. The military, not college, will likely be where many DREAM Act beneficiaries end up.

Back in 2006, when sizeable sections of the immigrant rights movement were putting forward the demand of "legalization/amnesty for all," the narrowness of the DREAM Act was problematic. It set its sights on a much more limited set of reforms, when the possibility existed of organizing large numbers of people for bigger and more thoroughgoing demands.

But four long years without any significant pro-immigrant reforms and the onset of an economic crisis that has immiserated millions of U.S. workers has worsened the situation for the movement. Both Democrats and Republicans have pointed the finger for economic woes at immigrants, and their policies have opened the door to more extreme versions of scapegoating from the hard right. The effect has been increased pressure on the movement, and on immigrants.

In this context, the fight for the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill had the potential to take on a new significance as a way to push back against the anti-immigrant tide. But that potential can't be realized simply by the passage of the act--how it passes, and what kind of fight is waged for it, makes all the difference.

The passage of the act only becomes a victory and a step forward if it helps to build a broader and stronger movement, even if only in a modest way. As a part of a spending bill aimed at funding the U.S. war machine, it's a non-starter. Trading limited access to legalization and education for tacit approval of U.S. imperialism is a movement killer, since it plays into the divide-and-rule strategy of the powers that be.

EVEN AS a stand-alone bill, the dominant "get-it-passed-at-all-costs" strategy is a barrier to building the kind of movement we need. The implications of this strategy are deeply problematic--the muting of the voices that do criticize the military component in the name of "unity," and crafting our demands to fit what is "acceptable" to the two mainstream parties that are currently chipping away at immigrant rights from Capitol Hill.

Raul Al-qaraz Ochoa, a former DREAM Activist, sent an open letter to the movement in September, explaining why he could no longer support the DREAM Act. Though this was in context of the act being attached to the defense appropriations bill, his words still carry weight and significance:

[T]he politicians in Washington have hijacked this struggle from its original essence and turned dreams into ugly political nightmares. I refuse to be a part of anything that turns us into political pawns of dirty Washington politics. I want my people to be "legalized," but at what cost? We all want it bad. I hear it. I've lived it. But I think it's a matter of how much we're willing to compromise in order to win victories or crumbs.

This really gets at the heart of the issue. Everyone involved in the fight for the DREAM Act agrees that the passage of the bill won't solve all problems for immigrants; and many see passage of the bill as a step toward future and bigger reforms. But can we actually put ourselves on solid footing for future fights by tailoring the dream to the prevailing political winds of the day, and by making compromises that leave more and more of our sisters and brothers in struggle on their own?

Most any DREAM Activist will tell you that they're not asking for much--yet it's taken an enormous amount of effort and years of activism to get this far, and the bill still hasn't passed (and the latest version put forward by the Democrats offers even less than previous ones). Winning more thoroughgoing reforms in immigration laws will take an even bigger fight, and will require the efforts of masses of people, immigrant and native-born. Can we really afford to wait until after the passage of the DREAM Act to start building the kind of solidarity and unity that will be needed?

The fight for the DREAM Act shows us several things: we have no actual "friends" on Capitol Hill in either party; in the face of economic crisis, it will take huge fights to win the things we really want; and we need strategies aimed at building the broadest and strongest movements possible, even at times when such movements don't exist.

The DREAM Act could still conceivably pass before this Congress ends, though it's highly unlikely. Even if it does, it won't resemble the bill it once was back in 2001, nor will it be representative of the highest hopes and aspirations of the people who have fought for it.

THIS MAY be the end of a battle, but this isn't the end of the bigger fight.

On November 15, the California Supreme Court ruled, in a case titled Martinez v. Regents of the University of California, to uphold Assembly Bill (AB) 540, which allows qualifying non-residents to pay in-state tuition at California colleges and universities. California is one of a tiny handful of states that has such an option.

Financially, this is a huge difference for students--out-of-state tuition and fees at the University of California-Berkeley, for example, is three times more than in-state rates. And since AB 540 allows for in-state tuition regardless of documentation status, it's good news for undocumented immigrant students as well.

Exact numbers on how many students benefit from AB 540 aren't available, but the University of California (UC) system reports that for its 2006-07 school year, nearly 1,700 students were eligible for in-state tuition rates because of the bill, of which 1,200 were citizens or permanent residents of the U.S. It seems safe to say that if AB 540 had been undone, it would have effectively ended the hope of college education for thousands of students across the state.

While the plaintiffs in the suit against AB 540 focused heavily on "special privileges" for undocumented immigrants, it's worth pointing out that 1 percent or less of all students enrolled in the three major California systems (University of California, California State University, California Community College) are without documentation. In contrast, 70 percent of AB 540 students currently in the University of California system are U.S. citizens.

These facts point to the real motive for the Martinez case--racist scapegoating of immigrants. While the case was filed, ostensibly, by 43 individuals, one need only look behind the curtain to find that the real mover and shaker of the anti-AB 540 machine was one of the main authors of SB 1070 in Arizona, Kris Kobach.

Though there's a bottom-line economics component to the court's decision--denying in-state tuition rates to thousands of college hopefuls is tantamount to denying hundreds of thousands of dollars (if not millions) to the colleges and universities that would be collecting those fees--it's really activism that made the difference.

Direct activism against the attack on AB 540 was virtually nil, but the protests against SB 1070 earlier in the year, including the largest May Day demonstrations since 2006, helped to set the stage for the Martinez decision.

Another major factor contributing to the ruling was the day of action against budget cuts in California on March 4 of this year. Demonstrations across the state, and solidarity actions around the country, in defense of the right of students and educators made the question of access to education impossible to ignore. Supreme Court Justices do not live in a hermetically sealed bubble; they read the newspapers too.

Now, activists in the fight for education are gearing up for the next steps. A statewide budget cuts conference held at San Francisco State University in late October drew around 150 students, educators and activists for two days of meetings to plan next steps.

The conference agreed on slogans and demands that acknowledge the need to tax the rich as a way to fund schools and social services; and to fight against the racist scapegoating of immigrants.

Importantly, a statewide day of action, was set for March 2 of next year; to be followed up by another statewide conference on March 12. These are the dates that activists in all the movements, from immigrant rights to budget cuts and beyond should be orienting on as a key next step in building our movements, and in welding the many movements together into something bigger, broader and stronger.

The budget cuts and fee hikes on the campuses are a part of the overall attack on working class living standards – it's the business class' attempt to get workers to pay for the crisis. To that end, they're going after unionized teachers, the public sector, and scapegoating immigrants. March 2 and 12, and May Day 2011, give all activists in these fights concrete dates and actions around which to organize and build a united struggle against these attacks.

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