Taking a Stand

3 Taking a Stand

By 2010 the DREAMer had emerged as a political group. DREAMers had established a public identity, possessed distinctive interests and solidarities, and articulated their interests with a power- ful and compelling voice. As the group grew more concrete and power- ful, some DREAMers became displeased with their continued subor- dination to larger immigrant rights associations. They were no longer the “kids” of the immigrant rights movement. They should be able to take a seat at the table and assume an equal role in making decisions about the strategic direction of the immigrant rights movement. Dis- missed as petulant and impatient by some leading associations, dis- sident DREAMers broke from their traditional supporters and devel- oped their own strategies and methods to advance their cause. By fall 2010, the dissidents had shifted the strategic focus of the whole immi- grant rights movement from the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act to the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill and asserted themselves as an autonomous force in the movement. Through these struggles, DREAMers began to win recognition as first among equals within the immigrant rights movement.

The views of this self-conscious group of DREAMers were expressed in an explosive op-ed piece (a veritable DREAMers manifesto) in Dissent magazine, published in fall 2010:1

C o p y r i g h t 2 0 1 3 . S t a n f o r d U n i v e r s i t y P r e s s .

A l l r i g h t s r e s e r v e d . M a y n o t b e r e p r o d u c e d i n a n y f o r m w i t h o u t p e r m i s s i o n f r o m t h e p u b l i s h e r , e x c e p t f a i r u s e s p e r m i t t e d u n d e r U . S . o r a p p l i c a b l e c o p y r i g h t l a w .

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Taking a Stand 75

We are undocumented youth activists and we refuse to be silent any lon- ger. The DREAM Act movement has inspired and re-energized undocu- mented and immigrant youth around the country. In a time when the en- tire immigrant community is under attack, and increasingly demoralized, stripped of our rights, the DREAM movement has injected life, resistance and creativity into the broader immigrant rights struggle.

Until we organized this movement, we had been caught in a para- lyzing stranglehold of inactivity across the country. We were told that the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, or CIRA, was still possible. Yet we continued to endure ICE raids and we witnessed the toxic Arizona S.B. 1070. Meanwhile, CIRA had lost bipartisan support and there was no lon- ger meaningful Congressional or executive support for real reform.

Youth DREAM Act activists stopped waiting. We organized ourselves and created our own strategy, used new tactics and we rejected the passivity of the nonprofit industrial complex. At a moment when hope seemed scarce, we forged new networks of solidarity. We declared ourselves UNDOCU- MENTED AND UNAFRAID!

Differences over strategy precipitated the break, but the break was also a reflection of deeper cleavages concerning position, power, and recogni- tion in the immigrant rights movement.

Negotiating these cleavages and conflicts marked an important step in the evolution of the DREAMer as a political group. Throughout the 2000s, many DREAMers stayed in the shadows and were represented by the immigrant rights associations and political supporters. Their early struggle was about gaining legal-juridical rights to stay in the country, but as this struggle advanced, it also became about gaining recognition for themselves as legitimate subjects capable of making claims on their own behalf.2 For these DREAMers the struggle for equality was as much about winning residency status as it was about winning recognition as political equals. It was during this time when the slogans “I Exist!” and “Undocumented and Unafraid” became prominent in their messaging. They were now engaged in a two part struggle: a struggle directed at the government to win legal-juridical rights, and a struggle directed at the leadership of the immigrant rights movement to win the right to speak for themselves in the public sphere.

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76 Taking a Stand

Disagreements over Strategy DREAM Act advocates were presented an important strategic

choice in 2006 and 2007: Should they push the DREAM Act as a stand- alone bill, or as part of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act? NILC was the most prominent association supporting the DREAM campaign. It had pushed for the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill in the early 2000s before there was ever talk of comprehensive reform. By 2006–7 the general consensus among the leading associations had changed. Most believed the time was right to push for the most they could possibly get from Congress (Comprehensive Immigration Reform) and only fall back to smaller measures like the DREAM Act if their initial demands were not met. They also believed that pushing for the DREAM Act as a separate bill would weaken their efforts because politi- cal leaders could use it as an easy way to placate immigrant rights and Latino activists while leaving the status of millions of other undocu- mented immigrants unchanged. Passing the DREAM Act as a stand- alone bill would also remove the most dynamic and well-liked part of the immigrant rights movement from the struggle, making it all the more difficult to extend residency rights to other undocumented immigrants. When the leading associations formed the RIFA coalition in 2008, their strategic line was that the different organizations, factions, and advocates making up the immigrant rights movement needed to stick together to pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform and legalize the status of most undocumented immigrants in the country. As the fiscal sponsor of United We Dream, NILC was asked to tone down its past support for a stand-alone bill and follow the general strategic line of the coalition. “People knew that it was the go to organization for DREAM. When the word came down from RIFA that these organizations should stop talking about DREAM, NILC was the first organization they went to.”3

There were also debates over these strategic issues within the Cali- fornia Dream Network. CHIRLA encouraged the California Dream Network members to vote in support of the RIFA strategy during one of its early retreats. CHIRLA’s leaders believed that this was the best way forward for the undocumented immigrants and for the organiza- tion’s standing within the national immigrant rights movement.4 “It was

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Taking a Stand 77

framed in this way: ‘We cannot be selfish and think only about our- selves. We have to think about our parents and everybody else. So, do we continue to push for the DREAM Act as our legislative goal or do we go for legislative reform for everybody?’ That was the framing. That was the moment in which Comprehensive Immigration Reform became the principal legislative goal of the Network.”5

In 2008, rights associations temporarily shifted their attention from the national legislation to the presidential elections of 2008. Once Barack Obama was elected, many believed that he would support Com- prehensive Immigration Reform after his signature health care bill had passed. In late 2009, RIFA initiated a new campaign to pass Comprehen- sive Immigration Reform before the congressional elections of fall 2010. It was believed that vulnerable congressional Democrats would want to rally the Latino base in the face of a difficult election. Moreover, a Republican victory in November would make it impossible to pass Com- prehensive Immigration Reform. Many in the immigrant rights commu- nity looked to President Obama’s State of the Union speech in 2010 for a sign of his support for comprehensive reform. However, instead of using the speech to make a bold announcement, President Obama dedicated only thirty-eight words to immigration reform at the very end of his speech. Disappointed members of RIFA approached the White House to discuss its lukewarm support of reform. The White House responded by encouraging RIFA to pressure House and Senate Democrats to take the lead.

RIFA organized a massive immigrant rights demonstration in Washington, DC, in March 2010. Coalition members invested millions of dollars and mobilized more than one hundred thousand people to the event. In spite of this impressive show of force, the event was overshad- owed by the passage of the Affordable Care Act and a Tea Party protest of one thousand people. Media coverage of the immigrant rights dem- onstration was minimal. The weak support from the White House and the failure of the costly demonstration led many to question the viability of RIFA and its strategy to achieve comprehensive reform. “They [RIFA] didn’t get the headlines and they spent a lot of money on the demon- stration. That is when they lost the support of a lot of community orga- nizations around the country. These community organizations struggle

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78 Taking a Stand

mightily. They are understaffed and overworked. Here the big national organizations are spending tons of money for this march that doesn’t even make the news. That was the beginning of the end for RIFA.”6

Soon after the Washington demonstration, several critical immigrant rights associations shifted their attention from Compre- hensive Immigration Reform and began mobilizing against federal and state-level enforcement measures. In particular they targeted the federal government’s 287(g) program and the passage of Arizona’s punitive anti-immigration bill, S.B. 1070. The National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), and local Arizona associations assumed a leading role against this state-level measure. RIFA resisted their efforts because their focus on state-level antienforcement battles deviated from RIFA’s central message and siphoned resources away from the campaign for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. The Director of NDLON recounts a mediation session between NDLON and RIFA:

The director of Center for Community Change says that the enforcement messaging is essentially taking away from their messaging, that it’s not the messaging that we need to communicate to America, that it’s going to hurt us in the long-term. So, obviously, we said, “We’re very sorry for that, but the thing is we’re not going to use the fight in Arizona and the suffering of people to help this failed effort. We’re not going to do that. S.B. 1070 [the Arizona measure] is wrong on its own merits. It’s not wrong because it’s going to stop you from promoting CIR [Comprehensive Immigration Reform]. If you can use it, go ahead and use it. . . . We’re going to fight it because we need to bring justice to the people of Arizona—no question about it. There is nothing to discuss here.” I strongly believe that. So that’s it. We couldn’t come to terms with them.7

NDLON and its allies went on to organize a large march in Arizona that was said to divide the focus of the immigrant rights movement. “So while they spent millions of dollars to bring 100,000 people to Wash- ington, DC, we put 150,000 people in the streets with about thirty-five thousand dollars. And then we invited the funders to come to Arizona: ‘You got to come here and see.’ So they saw. . . . It was one of the most

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Taking a Stand 79

beautiful marches ever of the immigrant rights movement.”8 Following the Arizona march, NDLON helped launch a large-scale boycott of Ari- zona and initiated an effort to build up the organizational capacities of local activists in the state.

Associations like MALDEF and NDLON became more vocal with their criticisms of RIFA’s strategy and began to outline an alterna- tive strategy. They needed to fight against repressive enforcement mea- sures and push for smaller measures that stood much better chances of passing (like the DREAM Act). The target should not only be Congress; they also needed to target local and state-level institutions. Local and state officials in conservative jurisdictions had become bolder in pass- ing repressive immigration-related measures.9 By focusing on smaller wins at local, state, and federal levels, the immigrant rights movement would take slow and incremental steps toward advancing the rights of immigrants. Lastly, they feared that winning bipartisan support for the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act would require RIFA to accept major restrictions and enforcement measures as part of the compromise. A close associate of NDLON and MALDEF noted:

You know, they [NDLON] and others predicted that the CIR strategy [Comprehensive Immigration Reform] was not going to work and it was going to lead to what we have today. And that we should have from the beginning taken on these issues piecemeal. . . . Right-wing conservatives have always done everything piecemeal, by attrition. They take on issues one-by-one, place by place. They have taken on issues at local levels, from taking away housing to audits to working with local-level law enforcement. They have been more effective at their strategy, and NDLON began to argue that we should have pushed that strategy from the beginning.10

As RIFA mobilized all the movement’s resources to push for Compre- hensive Immigration Reform at the federal level, anti-immigrant groups had developed a sophisticated strategy to pass local and state-level mea- sures that rolled back the rights of immigrants across the country.

We’re in a worse situation now than when we embarked on CIR. What happened is that all the resources and focus on CIR took us away from all the stuff that was happening on the side with local law enforcement, local

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80 Taking a Stand

initiatives, audits, etc. We didn’t get CIR, but we fell so far behind in our response to these other initiatives that now we are way behind in even form- ing a strategy.11

A stand-alone DREAM Act coincided well with the strategic preferences of these critics and their vision of incremental immigration reform. In January 2010, MALDEF was the first of the large national associations to come out in support of a stand-alone DREAM Act. It believed that all the proposals in circulation for comprehensive reform were overly punitive and ceded too much ground on enforcement.12 The only reasonable way forward was through piecemeal and incremental struggles. The DREAM Act should be given priority because of the strong momentum in its favor.

Building Support for Dissident DREAMers DREAMers were also frustrated with RIFA’s position. Many be-

lieved that RIFA was sticking to a strategy that was very costly and not bearing any fruits. DREAMers began to strike out on their own. The first such action was initiated by four undocumented students in Florida. The students embarked on a four-month walk from Miami, Florida, to Wash- ington, DC (the “Trail of Dreams”). On May 1, they participated in a civil disobedience action in Washington, DC, which ended with the arrest of one hundred supporters, including several members of Congress. The stu- dents attracted massive media attention, which helped place the DREAM Act once again into the public debate. Having witnessed the success of the “Trail of Dreams” campaign, dissident DREAMers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Michigan, and New York felt the time was right to escalate the struggle. This group adopted the name, “The Dream Is Coming.” They embraced aggressive, public, and confrontational tactics to push for the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill. In their view, there were clear signs that the DREAM Act stood a much greater chance of passing in this Congress than Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Many of these DREAMers were also tired of waiting for the passage of comprehensive reform. They feared that if they waited too long the window of opportunity for the DREAM Act would close. One dissident DREAMer remembered the process of assessing political opportunities:

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Taking a Stand 81

Everybody was like: “Alright, cool, that [Comprehensive Immigration Reform] is like the ultimate end goal—that’s what we all want. But, you know what? It’s not going to happen. We need something a little smaller but big enough to bring about change.” And for us that was the DREAM Act. That is the first step to immigration reform. And for us it was a much easier campaign. We’re all grassroots, we’re all students and we’re part-time activists, part-time brothers and sisters—a lot of part-time jobs. So our time is very limited. For us, it was like: this is what we know how to do and we believe in ourselves and we know what we have the resources to do it. So we were being realistic.13

These DREAMers believed that pushing the DREAM Act now would legalize the status of hundreds of thousands while providing grounds to push for more extensive reforms later.

The DREAMers also felt confident with their own abilities to direct and manage a campaign without the guidance of the traditional immigrant rights associations. They were careful to set up the legal and political groundwork leading up to the civil disobedience actions. Extensive planning went into place in order to reduce the risk of long detentions and deportations for DREAMers arrested during the actions. Among the activists willing to participate in these actions, they identi- fied t

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