Has the DREAM come true?

June 20, 2012

Activists need to stay focused on building a grassroots struggle for our rights.

BARACK OBAMA'S decision to end the deportation threat hanging over the heads of 800,000 undocumented youth is something immigrant rights activists have organized for years to achieve. But the measure comes with unjust restrictions--and no one should forget that it stands in contrast to the administration's policies of the past three and a half years, especially the dramatic increase in deportations since 2009.

Obama's June 15 announcement that the federal government would extend temporary legal status to some undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children was greeted with tears of joy among many families who have lived in the constant fear of being torn apart.

"This move has concrete and immediate impacts," said Felipe Matos, an immigrant rights activist. "Now I won't have to be scared whenever I encounter the police. I'll be able to freely open a bank account...I'll even be able to drive without fear of deportation."

Matos was one of four undocumented youth who walked 1,500 miles from Miami to Washington, D.C., in 2010 to build support for the DREAM Act, a legislative proposal to provide a path to legal status for undocumented youth, provided they meet a series of strict conditions. Obama is being credited with implementing the substance of the act through the exercise of presidential power--specifically, by extending the policy of "prosecutorial discretion."

Protesters in New York City join in the growing call for passage of the DREAM Act

Protests by undocumented youth--and their tremendous bravery in fighting for justice despite significant personal risk--pressured Obama toward this decision. The president and his campaign advisers, who are counting on the Latino vote in November, surely noticed that a group calling itself the DREAM Walkers was marching across the U.S.--and earlier this month carried out the first in a planned series of occupations of local Obama campaign headquarters.

Among immigrant rights activists, however, the enthusiasm for Obama's measure is dampened by the many restrictions and qualifications placed on undocumented youth who wish to apply to stay in the U.S. under the policy. Plus, the administration has made promises about curbing deportations before--and the expulsion of the undocumented has continued.

Plus, there is the broader context of this announcement. Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2008 promised new hope for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. But during his time in office, deportations have hit new records, outpacing the already high rate during George W. Bush's presidency. During Obama's first two years, Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate with the biggest majorities in a generation--but the Democrats failed to make the DREAM Act a law.

So while Obama's measure will have a welcome impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth, the announcement also has to be understood in the context of the 2012 elections and the Democratic Party's cynical bid for support against the Republicans. Supporters of immigrant rights can't count on Barack Obama--we have to build a movement independent of the two parties that fights for legalization for all.

PREDICTABLY, THE anti-immigrant bigots denounced Obama for his "treasonous" refusal to enforce immigration laws. "The 'Commander in Chief' has now fully crawled into bed with lawbreakers and Mexican organized crime," raved the anti-immigrant group So-Cal Patriots.

But anyone who looks past the right's hyperventilating will see immediately that Obama's policy is very restricted--a far cry from even the qualified path to legalization under the DREAM Act proposals. The Washington Post's description of the Obama measure makes it clear that this is really the DREAM deferred:

Eligible immigrants will now receive "deferred action," which essentially means a two-year reprieve from deportation along with the chance to apply for a work permit. The decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis, and officials said Friday that not everyone granted the reprieve will immediately gain the right to work.

The deferral will be available to immigrants who can prove that they came to the United States when they were younger than 16, have lived in the country continuously for at least five years, and are currently in the country. They must be in school, have graduated from high school, have obtained a general education development certificate, or be honorably discharged veterans of the military or the Coast Guard.

They also must not be older than 30 and must never have been convicted of a felony, a significant misdemeanor, multiple misdemeanor offenses or otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.

With all the restrictions, the generous estimate is that no more than 1 million undocumented youth--about 9 percent of undocumented people in the U.S.--will qualify.

And for those who can take advantage of the temporary relief, the policy still carries risks. Undocumented youth will have to come forward and apply for the deportation reprieve without a guarantee that it will be granted--raising the prospect that they could be signing up for expulsion if their application is denied.

As recently as last year, Obama insisted he didn't have the authority to stop the deportations of undocumented youth. A number of factors together spurred Obama to change his tune.

First, activist campaigns have kept a focus on the injustices facing undocumented youth. Led by the efforts of young activists focused on passage of the DREAM Act, the immigrant rights movement has kept up pressure on the Obama administration in a way that other struggles haven't. Obama's hope of posing as a friend of immigrants during his re-election campaign were endangered.

Second, the Obama administration knew from opinion polls that the new policy would enjoy broad support among likely voters. According to a Bloomberg survey released just after the June 15 announcement, 64 percent of likely voters--and 66 percent of independent voters--supported Obama's decision. Only 30 percent opposed the plan--and the large majority of them were Republicans.

Third, with public opinion on his side, Obama's move put the Republicans in a bind--especially their presidential nominee Mitt Romney. On the one hand, the Romney campaign can read opinion polls as well as the Obama campaign, and it isn't keen to be on the wrong side of an issue with political independents. But Romney has to contend with the bigotry of the Republican Party base. Thus, he was reduced to complaining that a "long-term solution" was needed, rather than a temporary fix.

Obama's move highlighted the differences between Romney and Florida's Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who claims to be working on a scaled-back DREAM Act. Rubio has been mentioned repeatedly as a possible vice presidential running mate for Romney.

OBAMA'S ELECTION-year motives for a limited implementation of the DREAM Act are obvious enough--even if "the White House has forcefully (and rather implausibly) denied that Obama sought political gain from his announcement," according to Reuters.

This raises the question of what attitude immigrant rights supporters should take toward Obama, the Democratic Party and the 2012 elections.

No doubt some activists will be won over to supporting and working for the president on the grounds that his latest announcement shows us the "real Obama"--someone who will stand for principles if only the Republicans let him.

But the real improvements for undocumented youth who qualify under this new policy don't make Obama's political calculations any less cynical. And they certainly don't make his administration's policies--of expanding enforcement through programs like "Secure Communities" and increasing the pace of deportations--any less dehumanizing and destructive.

Democratic Party operatives are old hands at shaming activists into dropping their "impractical" demands in favor of practical political "realities." A recent Washington Post feature provided a glimpse of how they do it--in particular, of how administration officials drew on Obama's long-ago history as a community organizer to exert pressure on immigrant rights activists:

Obama has often lectured activists on what he considered their misguided gripes. Senior aides have called activists to reprimand them for disrespecting the president. White House officials have dismissed the pressure tactics as old-fashioned protest politics--irrelevant at best, counterproductive at worst.

"He's been out there leading a demonstration and an advocate for those who were feeling left out, so he completely understands their strategy," said Valerie Jarrett, a White House senior adviser. But "a more constructive strategy with him is: How do we get from A to Z, because I'm already there. You don't have to convince me. And every hour [you're protesting or complaining] is an hour you're not working with the president and his team on what are the series of steps we should be taking collectively to move the ball forward."

But the inaction of the past three-and-a-half years--even on a politically popular issue like the DREAM Act, even when the Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress--is proof of what happens if you rely on "the president and his team."

The energies of activists need to be focused on building an independent grassroots movement--which, after all, is what forced the issue of immigrant rights into mainstream political discussion over the past several years--and contributed to the pressure on Obama to take the steps, real but limited, that he did last week.

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