Still dreaming after 15 years

September 15, 2015

Mario Cardenas reviews a new book about the triumphs and setbacks of a movement of young immigrant activists fighting for passage of the DREAM Act.

THE DEVELOPMENT, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act was first introduced in Congress by Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in August 2001.

Over the past 15 years, the DREAM Act has failed to pass three times, but the fight for its passage has coalesced a generation of immigrant activists known as the Dreamers. In Dreamers: An Immigrant Generation's Fight for Their American Dream, journalist Eileen Truax gives us an intimate portrait of one of the most persistent, organized and media-savvy civil rights struggles of the last 30 years.

Dreamers focuses on the Southern section of the movement, from Los Angeles down through the Southwest and Texas and into the Deep South. Through this geography, we get to understand the broad outlines of the lives of many undocumented youth, and the specific difficulties of those living in border states or states with harsh anti-immigrant laws like Arizona and Georgia.

Truax guides us through the different strategies and tactics of the movement. The book is a helpful corrective to the cynicism toward the movement that some on the left feel in light of its political capitulation to the Democratic Party despite the continuing congressional defeats of the DREAM Act and the mass deportations under the Obama administration.

Students sitting in at John McCain's Tucson office to demand passage of the DREAM Act
Students sitting in at John McCain's Tucson office to demand passage of the DREAM Act

The Dreamers portrayed in the book range from successful professionals like Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who in 2011 "came out" in a letter in the New York Sunday Times titled "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant"; to "undocuqueer" performers like Los Angeles-based Maria Sin Papeles, whose shows weave through the cross-sections between undocumented and gender identity; to deportees like Nancy Landa trying to find their dream in a new land.

Through personal interviews and eyewitness reports, Truax puts together a good inventory of the Dreamers who have struggled against unjust immigration laws and racism and for the passage of the DREAM Act.

THE FIRST thing to understand about the Dreamers is that they are not new. Unlike the DREAM Act itself, the Dream movement was not formally introduced one day, but rather arises from the traditions and institutions of immigrant youth who grew up with the contradiction of American expectations and undocumented status that give expression to a new identity commonly known as Dreamers.

Much of the energy of this movement is devoted to asserting this undocumented identity with slogans such as "Undocumented Unafraid" as a rallying point for struggle, and tactics like "coming out of the shadows" as a way to challenge the stigma and fear of being undocumented.

"That is why the young Dreamers have come to Montgomery," Traux writes about a coming out action organized by DreamActivist in Alabama in response to the anti-immigrant bill HB 56. "Their theory is simple: If we hide in the shadows and stay divided it's easier to intimidate us. If we unite, go out into the light and demand to be treated with dignity, we can fight for our rights."

Civil disobedience is an increasingly necessary strategy to challenge anti-immigrant policies and deportations. Organized by groups like DreamActivist, United We Dream and the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, high-profile civil disobedience actions have challenged anti-immigrant laws in states like Georgia, Alabama and Arizona--and even at border crossings.

These are carefully crafted actions in which undocumented activists willingly get arrested in a highly public act of defiance in order to shine a light to the inhumanity of laws like HB 56, detention centers and demagogues like Arizona's Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio--who has made a career off of the humiliation and terrorizing of immigrants.

Usually, these are sit-down actions in which a trained team of Dreamers will not move until removed by police. Truax explains how this tactic played out in Arizona in 2012:

Arpaio knows that arresting the six protesters in West Phoenix will no doubt stir up controversy...He navigates comfortably in that familiar territory, overseeing roundups resulting in...undocumented immigrants being deported for the slightest cause. Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., thousands of pages are filled with reports on the progress of all the federal lawsuits filed against him. That's why Dreamers carry out protests in states like Alabama, Arizona and Georgia...

After arresting the protesters and taking them to jail, Arpaio's officers notified ICE...But [they]...did not respond since none of the six had criminal records...Two days later, the six stood outside the county jail holding up a large banner emblazoned with the words "Arpaio, you don't scare us."

There is a media strategy for maximum exposure, rehearsals for on-point messaging and logistical workshops on how to be release as quickly as possible. Each action aims to advance the threshold for what undocumented activists can get away with and thus create more room for discretion by authorities.

In the #Dream30 action, for example, the National Immigrant Youth Alliance organized a public border crossing through Laredo, Texas in 2013. Planning to be detained, the 30 Dreamers knew what shoes and shirts to wear so they would not be cold, knew exactly how much money and which documents to bring, and had all finished their letters seeking asylum to be presented by the legal team after their detention.

The #Dream30 were counting on seeking asylum as a way to enter the U.S. legally until their case was decided, a process that could take years. Twenty-four of the #Dream30 were successful.

THERE HAVE been many criticisms of Dreamers from the left--most prominently, that the movement embraces an exclusionary idea of "good" vs. "bad" immigrants, and that it is collaborating with U.S. imperialism by supporting an addendum to the DREAM Act that requires youth to either go to college or join the military.

These criticisms are valid, and they are not ignored in Dreamer circles and organizations. However, it is also important to look at the specific political reasons why the movement has navigated through a distinct framework.

Many Dreamers carry a type of exceptionalism that their parents have taught them: "You will study and get a good job so you don't have to toil like me in the fields or factories." This mantra, reflecting what led many immigrants to come to the U.S., fuels the Dreamers' pursuit of a higher education.

In some cases, this can to deep alienation. Truax documents the case of Joaquin Luna Lerma, a 19-year-old from Mission, Texas, who committed suicide because he succumbed to depression and the grim future he imagined as a poor undocumented youth trying to realize his dream of becoming a civil engineer. Cases like Joaquin have led to the Dreamer movement to set up undocumented scholarship funds, fight for state versions of the Dream Act and set up support programs for adolescent Dreamers.

This exceptionalism can be exploited by organizations like Dream Activist or United We Dream to portray young Dreamers as the embodiment of everything American, a dubious practice that exploits the "good immigrant" narrative used to justify millions of deportations of "bad immigrants."

At the same time, the portrayal of Dreamers as "sellouts" or "pro-imperialists" is an over-simplified projection of the immaturity of some leftists who claim to be perfectly radicalized.

ONE KEY component to understanding the current state of the immigrant rights movement is the role of the Democratic Party, which has been largely successful in retaining the support of Dreamers and other immigrant activists despite Obama's horrific record of deportations.

Mostly by virtue of not being the openly racist Republicans, Democrats have won the support of large nonprofit organizations that promote the advancement of the rights of immigrants and rely on grants and public funding. For the past 15 years, support for the DREAM Act has been one of the key ways the Democrats have signaled their support for immigrants.

Truax gives us a glimpse of this process and the repercussions it has on the movement nationally and throughout its localities. One example is the California Dream Act, a state law that would grant undocumented children access to state grants and scholarships to state universities.

The father of the California Dream Act is state Rep. Gil Cedillo. Cedillo's politics were formed during the Chicano upheavals of the 1960s, but "in later years," as Truax explains, "Gil has learned how to navigate the political waters while waving the flag for immigrant rights."

The strategy for passing the California Dream Act included mobilizing voter registration for Jerry Brown, the current Democratic governor. But that plan has yielded different results on the national stage.

When Barack Obama was a presidential candidate in 2008, he promised that he would pass immigration reform within his first 100 days in office. Not only did he renege on his promise, his administration deported over a million immigrants during its first term.

In 2011, during the run-up to his re-election, President Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which granted undocumented youth (Dreamers) a social security number to use to gain employment and social services. Truax writes about discussion about voter registration during a Los Angeles meeting of a local Dreamer organization, Dreams to Be Heard, shortly after the announcement:

Apparently it was a common misperception, as hundreds of messages were posted on social media during that time to congratulate the president...for passing the DREAM Act... This naturally brought the discussion around to Obama and the upcoming election, since it was clear to everyone that the Dreamers had become a political tool for the White House.

"Maybe we haven't seen all the change that we could have wanted," said Edith (a member of Dreams to Be Heard), taking the lead again..."but we are making progress. Remember what happened with the California DREAM Act? It was vetoed twice before a new administration came into power, and then it had a real chance. Things could be better with Obama in his second term and DACA is a good sign."

MANY OF us have heard similar arguments in similar meetings countless times, and we will surely hear them again. The next election season--which has already begun--will lead to some Dreamers asserting that we have to stop the party of Trump, Walker, Bush or Rubio by supporting the party of Hillary Clinton.

This is mistaken. Backing Democrats who have supported anti-immigrant policies like Clinton is not the way to stand against anti-immigrant bigots like Trump.

But if we are to build a political current in this country left of the neoliberalism of the Democratic Party, we are going to need the Dreamer rank and file. We must find ways to relate to Dreamers and link the movement against police shootings and mass incarceration with the one protesting deaths at the border and mass deportations.

Dreamers shows its subjects to be rational, politically organized activists who not only fight against deportations and racism, but also constantly assess their mistakes and triumphs. Writing about an Obama re-election rally in Los Angeles in 2012, Truax also reminds us that this fight is not over:

Obama had repeatedly expressed his support for the DREAM Act...and comprehensive immigration reform...Not only did he accomplish neither of these things in his first four years in office, his administration set a new record for deportations of undocumented immigrants: almost 1.5 million. Among the Latino community, Obama has earned the nickname "Deporter in Chief."

So at a time of crisis, the Democratic Party turned to its strongest sales team. But they still haven't been able to close the deal.

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