In recent years, immigrant youth have been the engine behind the immigrant rights movement, playing the roles of the sympathetic character, the rebellious radical – and even the shrewd strategist.
As we came on the scene as a unified group that had found each other on campuses, conferences and social networks, our energy and even our identity became tied to the DREAM Act, the bill for which we’ve fought so hard for more than a decade. As many of us entered the movement, we were labeled or took on the title of “Dreamers,” with all of the perks and downsides that come with it. But we were always so much more.
As we gained skills and experience, we realized we had the power to be more than the poster child for a bill in Congress, and we began to imagine what “winning” would look like if we defined it for ourselves. We called the shots on strategies and tactics on our own and were sometimes applauded and sometimes yelled at for it. But we reached an epic moment that changed everything in 2010, when thousands of us came out of the shadows, claiming ourselves to be Undocumented and Unafraid.
The immigrant youth movement was on the move, even as some organizations tried to block our momentum. By the end of the same year, we led and almost won our 10-year campaign for passage of the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill in Congress.
In the wake of the DREAM Act’s failure, immigrant youth launched a campaign for an executive order from President Obama that would give relief from deportation for the youth whose residency he said he wanted to see legalized in the bill. Groups raised up cases of immigrant youth in deportation proceedings and said, “You can’t court us and deport us.” In June of 2012, after a year of campaigning, we successfully pressured him to use his power to stop deportations for some youth.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA as we know it), brought us relief and not just to college students or youth who had joined the military. Unlike the DREAM Act, DACA benefitted a broader pool of youth that met the requirements in the directive from Homeland Security (DHS) to Immigration Services (USCIS). However, DACA is not perfect. It’s narrow and it’s temporary. It also helped the Obama administration further legitimize its deportation machine. By putting us at the bottom of the list, it raised everyone else to the top of the list. Now there are at least 600,000 less people in the pool of “deportables,” but the net is still catching the same quota of 400,000 per year. Even though the administration used it to try to divide us into the dichotomies of “innocents” vs. “criminals” or the “deserving” vs. the “undeserving,” and some of us fell into that language too, it should be understood as a step, a win for some, that puts us in a stronger place to fight for us all.
New Opportunity and the Definition of Insanity
For a president who campaigned as our champion, having immigrant youth sitting in his campaign offices had to have been pretty scary. DACA was a smart response to both the moral demand and the political dilemma, giving us relief and winning the election with record Latino support. Right after we won DACA, and he won re-election, everyone said that comprehensive immigration reform was inevitable, and we all geared up for a big year.
Having had a personal hand in both the fight for the DREAM Act and DACA, I and many of my comrades learned lessons that meant we weren’t going to fight in the same old way. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It wasn’t appeasing Republicans and coordinating with Democrats that got us to the moment where immigration was now at the top of the agenda. It was all of us in motion and the powerful actions we took. So, as we entered 2013, we knew we had to apply the lessons and organize in different ways.
Shared Vision, Different Paths
I believe that all 11 million-plus current and future undocumented people in this country should be recognized and granted citizenship in a respectful manner and dignified time frame. But I don’t believe that Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) as it’s been presented is the only way to get there. We should question the strategy and tactics that come from DC. Newer people to the movement might not remember when major organizations opposed the DREAM Act or told us we were selfish for advocating for it. These same groups were quick to deem DACA an important victory (and receive considerable amounts of money to help with its implementation), but now they are just as fast to shoot down a piecemeal approach to immigration reform as not strategic. How can these be the same people? How can they call DACA a victory, but say that fighting for incremental gains is not good enough?
It might be what happens when we confuse our vision with the means to get there. Our fight is for justice, and we’ll win that any way we can.
Advocates Can Walk, Chew Gum at the Same Time
The idea that as an immigrant rights movement we can only do one strategy at a time – far from being empowering and furthering our agenda – hurts it and stifles any potential win along the way. An all-or-nothing approach is what gets us accepting criminalization as compromise and re-elections as endpoints, but has yet to give us equality. It is shortsighted and unacceptable.
When we advocate for specific legislation or temporary relief from the president, we’re told that we shouldn’t settle for less than we deserve. And at the same time, we’re told to accept massive enforcement and criminalization as part of the nature of compromise when discussing a comprehensive bill. The truth is, we cannot settle for narrow strategy or limiting approaches from those who think they get to set the agenda, especially when that agenda is not organic or from the bottom up, but rather set and handed down by the same politicians who failed to act once again in 2013.
If 2013 was a year of action, 2014 is a year of the beltway catching up to the rest of the country.
In 2013, in addition to the thousands that mobilized across the country in the ways we had available, hundreds of people, among them immigrant youth, went even further and put their bodies on the line to demand President Obama stop all deportations. These were bold acts of civil disobedience, calling out President Obama on his record-breaking deportations, naming him Deporter-in-Chief, and exposing the local officials who are throwing our families into the jaws of his deportation machine.
The momentum that has been lifted across the nation through the “#not1more” campaign is heartfelt and powerful, and it will not stop in 2014. I venture to say with full confidence that immigrant youth across the country are more determined and committed than ever to stop all deportations and win administrative relief for all undocumented people in the nation as a stepping stone on our path to full equality.
Waking from the Dream: Where Do We Go From Here?
As we begin a new year, we have been asked by allies, colleagues and even reporters, “What’s next?” There is no single answer of course; but here I humbly offer some suggestions for the broader immigrant youth movement to consider:
1. We Fight for the Immigrant Youth Rights Act: The release of the GOP’s principles on immigration reform shows both parties agree on a pathway to citizenship for “Dreamers,” but many of us who fought so hard for the DREAM Act have outgrown it; literally and figuratively. The consensus between both parties means that we can get something winnable and, if they mean it, we should hold them accountable and get it done tomorrow. Lets call their bluff. Let’s do it in a way that’s broader, that will be one more step forward, and one that frees us from our DC label, “Dreamers.”
How about we set the tone for this fight and push for a stand-alone bill that we call the Immigrant Youth Rights Act? A bill that will not be based on student status or military requirements, but, like DACA, is based on age of entry. An act that will ensure that we will be able to petition for our parents in the short future, an act that does not exclude immigrant youth with “criminal” records or those who have tried to enter the country more than once. An act that will not exclude anyone based on any age cap and will expedite the adjustment of those who already have DACA or any other type of prosecutorial discretion. Certainly, an act that leads to citizenship in a respectful time frame. Let’s imagine a campaign for this act that does not require us to be apologetic about our parents bringing us to this country, looking out for our well-being; a campaign where undocumented youth take ownership of their right to be citizens that is not contingent on their education, professional development or military service.
2. We Continue to Fight Deportations By Any Means Necessary: Everyone knows President Obama has the power to grant administrative relief to our families and let them work and live their lives without fear. It’s up to us in solidarity with our families and community members to push him to do it. ‘Nuff said.
3. We Join Hands with Other Youth of Color and LGBTIQ Youth fighting the systems of criminalization and incarceration of our communities and together begin holding accountable the for-profit corporations running prisons and detentions centers like CCA and GEO. This aims to be a longer fight for dignity, equality and respect for all of our communities of color in this country.
4. We Push the Broader Immigrant Rights Movement to Diversify Its Strategies. We’ve learned the hard way that it is plausible and smart to run multiple strategies with diverse tactics; that incremental wins are steps forward in the fight and not end points; and that the path toward dignity, equality and respect for all of our families is made by taking many different steps forward. It’s time the rest of the immigrant rights movement starts to look that way too.
We’ve built the immigrant youth movement by pushing with our bodies, hearts and minds to do the unimaginable. Before 2010, our status was something we whispered in secret. Now it’s something we shout in the streets. Before last year, ICE rolled through our neighborhoods with impunity. Now, we can be found locking ourselves to their entranceways, when they try to tear our families apart, and turning out hundreds of our community members denouncing any new detention center or new partnership between police and ICE.
We’ve always pushed beyond what we’ve been told we should be doing. What do you think that could be this year?