We can’t let DREAMers be driven underground

September 7, 2017

There is a strong potential to build a movement to defend immigrant youth from the Trump administration--and further the struggle to win justice for all immigrants.

THOUSANDS OF young immigrants won the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program five years ago by courageously taking to the streets or sitting in in the corridors of power, putting themselves at risk of arrest and deportation.

This week, DACA was repealed by a disgraceful president too cowardly to even make the controversial announcement himself. Instead, it was Attorney General--and noted white supremacist--Jeff Sessions who gleefully declared that the DACA program would end in six months.

Sessions claimed that DACA was a violation of the "rule of law"--this from the administration that just pardoned the notoriously lawless Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The attorney general even had the gall to claim that DACA was responsible for the plight of migrant children languishing in detention centers along the border.

The repeal of DACA is a tremendous betrayal by the U.S. government of the 800,000 young people who applied for program's two-year temporary legal status--and now find the rug pulled out from under the lives they've built and planned for themselves and their loved ones.

Protesters march to defend DACA following news of the Trump administration's repeal
Protesters march to defend DACA following news of the Trump administration's repeal (Joe Brusky | flickr)

No applications for two-year renewals will be accepted after October 5, and the entire program will begin phasing out on March 5 of next year. Perhaps most horrifying, the Daily Beast reported that the Trump administration plans to use information people gave to the government in their DACA applications to "instead find and deport them."

The announcement of DACA's repeal was met with widespread criticism, including from many politicians and business leaders. More importantly, it was greeted by a storm of protests across the country. Thousands took part in hastily organized protests in Chicago and the Bay Area, hundreds of students walked out of schools across Arizona and Colorado, and 400 people blocked traffic outside Trump Tower in New York City.

The protests reflect the overwhelming support for DACA recipients--often known as DREAMers, after the DREAM Act, a failed piece of legislation that was meant to give them an opportunity for citizenship besides the protections they now have under an executive order signed by Barack Obama.

A new Politico poll found that 84 percent of Democrats, 74 percent of independents and 69 percent of Republicans want the DREAMers to be allowed to stay in the country.

This widespread support, along with Trump's political isolation, shows there is potential to reverse DACA's repeal. But that will only happen if immigrants and their supporters don't rely on Democratic political leaders--who will look to use the DREAMers as a bargaining chip--but instead use the outrage around Trump's action to revive a proud fighting movement that demands justice for all immigrants.

AS HAS so often been the case over the past eight months, it's been impossible to figure out whether the latest atrocity committed by Trump was undermined by his bumbling execution or the administration meant for it to happen that way.

After months of speculation about what Trump would do about a popular program that he had promised during his campaign to abolish, Trump pathetically hid while Sessions made the formal announcement--as if people will somehow blame the attorney general and not the president for this decision.

More importantly, Trump tried to toss responsibility for DACA out of the White House like a hand grenade by delaying its termination for six months and urging Congress to pass a law to allow DREAMers to retain legal status--or at least that's how this incoherent tweet on the morning of Sessions' announcement was interpreted: "Congress, get ready to do your job - DACA!"

As Amber Phillips of the Washington Post put it:

President Trump has handed over the fate of 800,000 young adult undocumented immigrants to Congress. Put another way: He just asked a GOP-controlled institution that can't agree on the most basic of conservative policies--such as repealing Obamacare, or passing a budget, or raising the debt ceiling--to pass legislation that affirmatively protects undocumented immigrants.

Later that day, Trump doubled down on his waffling by tweeting that Congress "has 6 months to legalize DACA"--which, of course, was already a legal program--and if that didn't happen, "I will revisit this issue!"--whatever that means.

TRUMP HAS been struggling with DACA since taking office, torn between his administration's hard-right faction, represented by Sessions and now-deposed chief strategist Steve Bannon, that wants to center the administration around xenophobic nationalism, and Republican Party leaders who worry that going after DREAMers is political suicide.

The common media explanation for the popularity of DACA is that young immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for most of their lives and "had no choice" about emigrating are uniquely sympathetic.

Certainly that is a factor. But the idea that Republican leaders like Paul Ryan and John McCain give any more of a damn about a 21-year-old brown-skinned undocumented community college student than they do about his 45-year-old brown-skinned undocumented garment worker mother is a bit far-fetched.

What's been far more decisive is that over the past decade, young immigrants built a powerful movement by publicly declaring themselves "undocumented and unafraid"--and demanding the dignity and rights to which they are entitled.

In recent years, the so-called moderate wing of the Republican Party has come to reluctantly tolerate DACA--not only because of its popularity, but also because this position functions as a signal for supporting a revival of "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" (CIR), the bipartisan project to turn millions of undocumented workers into legal but second-class residents as they follow a decades-long, obstacle-strewn "path to citizenship."

Trump campaigned, of course, as a fierce opponent of any form of immigration reform, but by punting the DACA question to Congress, he has created the possibility for a revival of broader immigration talks on Capital Hill--with the threat of ICE raids against DREAMers ready to be used to drag negotiations further to the right.

Thus, Republican Sen. Bob Corker declared the threat facing young immigrants to be "an opportunity for us to deal with a myriad other issues," including shoveling even more money into immigration enforcement--while other Republicans said they might support continuing DACA in exchange for funding Trump's border wall.

Meanwhile, leading Republican xenophobe Tom Cotton says he'd be willing to trade legalizing DREAMers for passing the RAISE Act, which would cut legal immigration in half. (So much for the argument that right-wingers aren't anti-immigrant, but only care about the rule of law.)

IT'S UNCLEAR at this stage whether any of this talk will result in serious Congressional negotiations. What we do know is that the path of political horse trading on behalf of DREAMers at the cost of even harsher repression against their parents and communities is obviously a dead end.

Instead, we need to use this moment to revitalize the fighting movement that stopped mass criminalization of the undocumented in 2006 with its incredible "mega-marches" and that won DACA in 2012 by relentlessly pressuring politicians of both parties, including Barack Obama as he campaigned for re-election.

We've already seen protests this year that blocked Trump from getting his initial Muslim travel ban and Republicans from passing their disastrous health care bill. It will take at least as strong a movement to win the reversal of the DACA repeal, but it's possible--though only if we reject the Democrats' plan of contentedly watching the Republican circular firing squad, with the hope of gaining an advantage in the 2018 elections.

Trump's repeal of DACA may be widely unpopular, but as journalist Matt Taibbi pointed out in Rolling Stone, unpopularity alone hasn't stopped Trump yet. Instead, he's been able to leverage his support among a hard-right minority to dominate the Republican Party and therefore national politics--and if we don't build a movement that forces the action, he can get away with it again.

There are a number of initiatives we can consider: a national march; organizing DREAMer protection networks to shelter immigrants and defy the authorities; agitating for labor movement solidarity; upping the pressure on university administrations to declare their campuses sanctuaries; or all of the above.

But what's clear is that the movement has the potential to organize on a wide scale, bringing in thousands and then millions of people into active organization because they want to respond to this new gauntlet thrown down by Trump.

This can't be just an anti-Trump movement, either--one that subordinates our demands to getting Democrats to take over Congress and the White House.

Trump is certainly responsible and reprehensible. But there's also Obama, the president who deported more people than any other, and who could have protected the DREAMers before he left office, but chose not to. And there's the whole rotten political system that has used immigrants as hostages to extract support for a corporate solution that the vast majority of people don't want.

Moreover, DACA is an important fight, but it has to be connected to the larger cause of immigrant justice, rather than used as a bargaining chip.

The truth is that few immigrants "have a choice" about migrating to the U.S.--and there is no reason why immigrant youth should be seen as more sympathetic than their parents who risked everything to come to the U.S. in the hopes of making a better life for themselves and their families.

But a powerful movement for DREAMers can and must build a powerful movement for all immigrants.

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