Cleaning up the DREAM Act: Why the Establishment Can No Longer Silence the Undocumented Left

On the morning of September 18, 2017, Speaker of the House, Representative Nancy Pelosi, was getting ready to hold a press conference to defend “DREAMERS” who will be affected by Trump’s decision to roll back the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). The room was crowded; behind the podium there were immigrants who were single-handedly chosen by Pelosi. “DREAMERS,” she called them. Then there was the main audience most of whom were immigrants and allies.

Seconds after Pelosi began to speak, loud chants coming from the back of the room began to overpower the press conference. “MIC CHECK! MIC CHECK!” “We are immigrant youth! Undocumented and unafraid! We are the immigrant liberation movement!,” shouted Sandy Valenciano, an organizer with the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance (CIYJA), as she led a crowd of organizers and activists into the front of the room. The crowd, made up of organizers and activists, took over the press conference for over 30 minutes as Pelosi awkwardly stood there, forced to listen to their demands.

It was at that very moment that establishment Democrats like herself realized that continuing to do the bare minimum was not going to be enough under a Trump presidency.

CA. Immigrant Youth Taking Over Rep Nanci Pelosi’s DREAM Act Press Conference
CA. Immigrant Youth Taking Over Rep Nanci Pelosi’s DREAM Act Press Conference

“California is a mecca for progressives,” they say. Well, it depends who you ask.

What many don’t know is that for years some of California’s progressive communities have been growing jaded about the Democratic party and their theatrics. I grew up in Los Angeles, a city where the majority of elected officials are Democrats, some whom are latinx, queer, and black. We have the representation and democratic majority that red states like Arizona dream of having and the type that we’d wished we had 17 years ago when then Governor Pete Wilson pushed California Proposition 187, a law then considered to be the nation's toughest anti-immigrant policy. Those who say “representation matters,” view this as progress and, to be fair, anyone who does not understand the fundamental issues our city and county face will think the same. We have always been told the solution was to elect people who look like us and come from similar upbringings. Instead of change, these people with similar identities began to impose laws and policies that continue to oppress people. They use their identities as a shield from being held accountable. They conveniently refuse to grapple with the reality that they are responsible for the fact that Los Angeles has the country’s deadliest police department, second largest homeless population, soaring rent prices caused by gentrification, the largest jail population in the country, and an anti-immigrant sherrif’s department that refuses to put an end to facilitating deportations.

This is why many undocumented immigrants like myself have chosen to be outspoken about the harmful actions being attempted by establishment Democrats like Pelosi. When she was the House majority leader, we witnessed her refusal to bring the issue of immigration to the House floor, when President Obama had the majority, because of the lack of political popularity on the issue. Pelosi also stood by as Obama continued to develop the deportation machine that Trump is now operating.

Organizing at the Local Level & Influencing National Politics.

During the Obama years, there was a dire need to focus on the issues happening at the local and state level. Therefore, many of us who identify as radical undocumented youth and immigrant justice advocates took the time to focus on organizing communities against immigration enforcement policies, deportation, and collectively learning about intersectionality and solidarity work. While all this was happening, we observed, criticized, and tried to address some of these concerns. Rather than jump on board with our efforts, these identity flaunting politicians continued to strategically side with opportunistic, non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Many of them lacked basic empathy toward those who have been victims of the prison industrial complex, on-going wars, and systemic racism.They kept the funding coming in by continuing to expand the narrative of the deserving vs the undeserving immigrant.

So when those of us who were paying attention heard that Pelosi was planning to negotiate with Trump on a DREAM Act that would protect DACA beneficiaries, organizers jumped on the opportunity to use the stage to raise the stakes. The harsh truth was that passing a DREAM Act under an administration that campaigned on anti-immigrant rhetoric seemed far fetched, but knowing how optimistic our friends in DC are, we knew that there would at least be a half-hearted attempt to try to make it happen. Immediately understanding this, we made the collective decision to take the stage during Pelosi’s press conference. Regardless of the backlash and harsh critiques that followed, these brave immigrants pushed her a little to the left. They forced her out of her political comfort zone by getting her to think about the possibility of having a legislative solution for DACA that does not include amendments that would compound our struggles. Soon after, the topic of a “Clean DREAM Act” started to circulate among online immigrant activist groups and organizers.

Predictably, the big NGOs, celebrity activists, and establishment politicians started to parade around our talking points. Tactics became appropriated. They began to use messaging that they previously tried to subvert, like “we are not bargaining chips” and advocating for a “Clean DREAM Act” that would not increase border enforcement.

Understanding Our Work & Nurturing Critical Thinking.

We have to acknowledge the importance in the role we play in the midst of it all and not be naive about the challenges that are to come. Yes, the possibility to have a Clean Dream Act is there, but so are sneaky bipartisan attempts to increase border funding through spending bills.

The country’s youth, undocumented or not, are demanding to create a radical political climate and are taking action to get there. We are seeing bold immigrants expressing their will to have solutions that create long term change. They are not alone. In the process they are creating platforms through solidarity that uphold, support, and validate them, and that is where our wins are.

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