Immigration Reform Needs DREAMers


"No Papers, No Fear" is the rallying cry of DREAMers — hundreds of young activists who have risked deportation in a series of bold protests in support of immigration reform. On July 22, nine activists attempted to cross the border from Mexico to Arizona, presenting formal requests for humanitarian asylum. The group, known as the DREAM 9, was arrested and held for almost two weeks in the Eloy detention center in Arizona. While the group received a great deal of media attention and widespread support, its actions were deemed controversial by some immigration reform advocates who seek to achieve their goals through a more moderate campaign. Yet as the comprehensive reform bill is stalled indefinitely by the House Republicans, committed grassroots activism in the tradition of the Civil Rights movement may be the only way of achieving reform in the foreseeable future.

DREAM 9's protest is one the most daring acts of civil disobedience carried out by any group in recent years. Most of the the activists, ranging in ages from 19 to 37, had been brought to the U.S. as young children and grew up in the States. Though six members of the group had been living in Mexico, three of them traveled to Mexico specifically for the protest, knowing that they may not be able to return. The stakes were especially high for these three participants, who could likely qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an act that grants temporary legal status for certain undocumented immigrants who entered the country as young children. As the DREAM 9 made clear through their actions and in on-line statements, they are willing to sacrifice personal security and individual rewards in order to achieve substantial and meaningful reform. Their courage and commitment to real change stand in contrast to the often conciliatory rhetoric of the Obama administration and some liberal organizations' willingness to settle for incremental change.

The DREAMers take their name from the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors or DREAM Act, a legislation introduced in Congress a number of times since 2001. A recent version of the proposed bill would have offered temporary legal residence to undocumented immigrants who graduated from a U.S. high school and met certain criteria. After completing at least two years of college or serving in the military, temporary residents could apply for permanent legal status and eventually qualify for citizenship. After the bill was repeatedly blocked by Republicans, president Obama passed the DACA by executive order. The "deferred action" bill provides a temporary residence status to most immigrants who would have qualified for the DREAM Act, but no possibility of a permanent legal status or a path to citizenship. Several states have recently passed so-called "Dream" acts, which allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition and in some cases apply for financial aid.

One of the major problems with DACA as well as the DREAM act is that they offer legal status to young people without extending the benefits to their families. In a recent campaign, DREAMers dramatically demonstrated these shortcomings by reuniting children with parents on either side of the fence on the Arizona-Mexico border. The comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the Senate in June will solve a part of this problem. If passed, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act would allow undocumented immigrants who entered the country before December 31, 2011, to apply for Registered Provisional Immigrant Status (RPI). Though they do not qualify for Medicare and social security, RPI holders could legally reside and work in the U.S. and, after 10 years, apply for a green card. The bill also contains provisions for reuniting some families with members who had been deported.

Although this bill is a result of a bipartisan effort, and was passed in a 68-32 vote by the Senate, its future in the Republican-controlled house is uncertain. This week, Rachel Maddow cautioned that Bob Goodlatte, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee is determined to block the vote and may be able to do so. The bill also contains a number of "triggers" that tie immigration reform to border security, so that parts of it may take a long time to go into effect.

Without strong activism of DREAMer groups which keeps public attention focused on immigration, the current effort to reform our broken immigration system could become yet another in a series of failed reform attempts. Though some of the DREAMers' strategies are flawed, they understand the contemporary media and political landscape in ways that moderates do not. As conservatives saturate cable news with emotional appeals and blatant propaganda, the younger generation realizes that a quiet demonstration and a news story that presents the facts just aren't enough. DREAM 9's action at the Arizona border vividly demonstrated the arbitrary and dehumanizing nature of the immigration system. By continuing their acts of civil disobedience in the Eloy detention center, the activists used their incarceration as an opportunity to bring attention to the injustices of the deportation process.

Activist groups can learn a great deal not only from DREAM 9's strategy, but also from their courage and willingness to make a personal sacrifices. Though the members of the group have been released from detention, their participation in this action will come at a cost. In addition to the trials of arrest and incarceration, some may become ineligible for legal residence in the U.S. and may be deported. Yet the ability to look past self-interest and the willingness to face violence have always been integral to strong, effective activism. In a regime that uses fear to maintain the status quo, a group that strategically defies intimidation is doing important political work and deserves our respect.