Oakland, California – This coming week, if Sen. Harry Reid keeps his word, Congress may get a chance to vote on the DREAM Act. First introduced in 2003, the bill would allow undocumented students graduating from a US high school to apply for permanent residence if they complete two years of college or serve two years in the US military. Estimates state that the act would enable 800,000 young people to gain legal residence status and eventual citizenship.
A vote in Congress would be a tribute to thousands of these “sin papeles,” or people without papers. For seven years, they have marched, sat in, written letters and mastered every civil rights tactic in the book to get their bill onto the Washington, DC agenda.
Many of them have given new meaning to “coming out” – declaring openly their lack of legal status in media interviews, defying threats of detainment. Three were arrested last May for sitting in the office of Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), demanding that he support the bill. They were held in detention overnight, then released after a judge recognized the obvious: These were not “aliens” who might flee if released from detention, but political activists who were doing their best not only to stay in the country, but to do so as visibly as possible.
Reid owes his tiny margin of victory in Nevada’s election to an outpouring of Latino votes. Since he announced he’d bring the bill to the floor of Congress, students have begun a hunger strike at the University of Texas in Austin. They insist they won’t eat until Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson renounces her opposition to the DREAM Act. First, their fast spread to campuses across Texas. Then students in other parts of the country announced they too would act if Reid calls the bill up for a vote.
But the DREAM Act campaigners have done more than advocate for a vote in Washington. They’ve also learned to use their activism to stop deportations, in an era in which more people – 400,000 last year alone – have been deported than ever before in this country’s history. To highlight the connection between the bill and their challenge to the rising wave of deportations, four undocumented students walked for weeks from Miami to Washington, DC in protest.
In the process, they learned the lesson the civil rights movement of the ’60s taught activists of an earlier generation: Congress and the political class in Washington could be made to respond to social movements in communities outside the capitol. Now immigration rights activists are enacting that kind of change: People in the streets are creating real change in their communities, even in the absence of Congressional action, making possible what political insiders held to be impossible.
Fredd Reyes is living proof. Fredd’s parents fled the massacres of Guatemala’s counterinsurgency war in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan gave guns to that country’s military, which they then turned on indigenous communities seeking social justice. Fredd was a toddler then. He was picked up last September as he was studying for exams at Guilford Technical Community College. Fredd was taken first to the North Georgia Detention Center, then to the Stewart Center in Lumpkin, Georgia.
DREAM Act students mobilized and got Fredd released last week. He returned to North Carolina for Thanksgiving.
Jennifer Abreu had her Thanksgiving in Kentucky. She came to the US with her parents when she was 13. She graduated from Lafayette High School in Lexington, where she became an activist, performed Brazilian and Colombian dances at fiestas and dreamed of life as a journalist. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials picked her up recently, but a campaign by DREAM Act students and their supporters set her free, too.
And in San Francisco, activists won freedom for Shing Ma “Steve” Li, a nursing student at San Francisco Community College. Immigration authorities detained him on September 15, igniting a fierce effort to stop his impending deportation. As the DREAM Act moved closer to a vote in Congress, Li became a living symbol for the national campaign to pass the bill.
Li’s predicament was dramatic and unusual. His parents emigrated from China to Peru, where Li was born. They later came to the US, where their petition for political asylum was denied. That made Li an undocumented immigrant, although as he went through San Francisco public schools, he had no knowledge of his status.
Last year, however, as the net of immigration enforcement was cast more widely than ever, Li and his mother were arrested. She was bailed out of detention, and now awaits deportation to China. But Steve Li was shipped to a detention center in Florence, Arizona, from which he would have been flown to Peru, where he was born. He has no relatives or family connections there.
ICE Director John Morton told the media that picking up students for deportation was at the bottom of the government’s priority list.
“So why are they nabbing highly motivated students? Why has Steve been in jail for the past 60 days?” asked Sang Chi, Li’s Asian-American Studies instructor last year, at a rally on Li’s behalf.
The union for teachers at the community college, AFT Local 2121, became part of a broad effort to win Li’s release. The case became a cause celebre for the Asian Law Caucus, the Chinese Progressive Association and other organizations in the city’s Asian community. The city’s Board of Supervisors and the college’s Board of Trustees both passed resolutions opposing the deportation. “We’ve made over 1,000 calls,” Daniel Tay, a fellow nursing student who emigrated from Peru two years ago, told New America Media.
Finally, Sen. Diane Feinstein introduced a private bill that would grant Li permanent residence status. Li was then freed by ICE and returned to San Francisco. His freedom is not permanent, however; it lasts just 75 days following the end of the current congressional session. Private bills granting an individual legal status are rarely passed. Of the 29 introduced by Feinstein since 1997, only four have passed, and in the anti-immigrant climate of the incoming Congress, passage of Li’s bill is unlikely.
Li and his supporters are grateful that he’s not in Lima, but do not see the private bill as the answer. “As long as I’m here and able to use my voice and help myself and all those people in the same situation, I don’t feel like it’s a countdown,” Li told The San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s just one step closer toward the DREAM Act.” Recalling the other young people he met in the Arizona detention center, he said, “Their stories and faces will be with me for the rest of my life as I’m fighting for people who are law abiding, tax paying but are currently undocumented.”
Without passage of the DREAM Act, “thousands of students are threatened with deportation, which is a tremendous waste of resources,” said Kent Wong, vice president of the California Federation of Teachers, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, and one of the national organizers for the DREAM Act campaign.
Many undocumented students, however, can’t gain admission to college, even if they’ve graduated from US high schools with excellent grades, because they’re barred directly by lack of legal status. Others aren’t able to attend even if they’ve gained admission, since they don’t qualify for the financial aid that other students can receive. Undocumented students overwhelmingly come from working-class families.
In its original form, the DREAM Act would have allowed young people to qualify with 900 hours of community service, as an alternative to attending college, which many can’t afford. However, when the bill was introduced, the Pentagon pressured Congress to substitute military for community service. Many young activists are torn by this provision.
Camilo Mejia, the first GI who served in Iraq to have publicly resisted the war, was imprisoned for almost a year for refusing to go back. Mejia says the country already uses a “poverty draft” to fill the military with young people who have no jobs and no money for higher education. In a debate on Democracy Now, he said, “[The military is] in a position to offer to the vast majority of these 65,000 [immigrant] students who graduate every year, to say, ‘Come over here. We will teach you English. We will give you housing. We’ll give you a steady paycheck. We’ll give you all these things, if you serve in the military.'” Rishi Singh, of Desis Rising Up and Moving, added, “Many of our families can’t afford to send us to college. And, you know, for many of our young people, there would be no other choice but to join the military.”
Debating him, undocumented former student Gabriela Pacheco said, “With the conditional residency, you are going to be able to work. Students might be able to find ways to … pay for their college and university.”
Mexicanos Sin Fronteras in Chicago argues that “undocumented youth are in an increasingly desperate situation…. With legal status as a goal, many who otherwise might have dropped out of school could be motivated to graduate and enroll in college…. Instead, let’s educate the youth about the injustice of these imperial wars and the historical government practice of putting the poorest and most disenfranchised youth on the frontlines. Let’s encourage and support them in choosing the college option.”
Like many DREAM Act supporters, the California Federation of Teachers has called for reinstatement of the community service provision. But it supports the act regardless. “The Federal Dream Act will establish the important principle that undocumented students can no longer be assigned to a second-class, inferior status and must be treated with respect and dignity,” states a resolution adopted by the union in 2009.
“We have to remember that for every case like Steve Li’s, there are hundreds of other young people who are deported,” emphasized Local 2121 President Alisa Messer. “These are our students. They’re doing everything we want young people to do. So we have to fight for their ability to get an education, to support their families and to participate in society. They’re American kids.”
Many immigrant rights activists also view the DREAM Act as an important step towards a more comprehensive reform of the country’s immigration laws. It would not only help students to stay in school, but by giving them legal status, it would give them the ability to work and use their education after graduation. Luis Perez, the son of working-class parents in Los Angeles, will graduate from UCLA’s law school this year and take the bar exam in January. But after that, without legalization, he likely won’t be able to work. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act says employers may only hire workers who are citizens or who have visas that give them “work authorization.”
The DREAM Act could resolve this problem for undocumented young people graduating from college. But it also highlights the same problem for millions of other undocumented workers who would not be affected by the bill. Twelve million undocumented people live in the US, and almost all of them work for a living. The same wave of enforcement that led to the deportation of 400,000 people last year is also targeting undocumented people in the workplace. Thousands of workers have been fired for lack of legal status, and many have even gone to prison because they invented Social Security numbers in order to get a job. Unscrupulous employers have used immigrants’ lack of status to threaten and terminate workers who’ve protested illegal conditions or tried to organize unions.
Arizona’s law requiring police to stop and detain any person without legal immigration status is another example of the impact of the immigration enforcement wave, and the growing cooperation between law enforcement and immigration authorities. That cooperation facilitated many of the hundreds of thousands of detainments and deportations that occurred last year alone. Ending that enforcement program would also require more extensive immigration reform legislation. So would a real effort to get at the roots of forced migration – the military interventions, trade agreements and pro-corporate policies that uproot communities in other countries, and make migration a matter of survival.
Yet the DREAM Act students have shown that fighting detention and deportation is possible. As they’ve marched and demonstrated, they’ve pointed out over and over that stopping the enforcement wave and changing immigration law are so connected that one battle can’t be fought without the other. In the end, the basic requirement for both is the same – a social movement of millions of people, willing to take to the streets and the halls of Congress.