Since the DREAM Act failed to pass the Senate in December and Republicans took over the House of Representatives, many people have argued that any pro-immigrant legislation is impossible. The chances are indeed slim, but the movement that emerged to press for DREAM is far from accepting defeat. In fact, if you ask these young leaders, their struggle has only just begun.
The DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act would offer undocumented youth an earned path to citizenship, conditional on college attendance or military service. When the bill failed to overcome a Senate filibuster in December, DREAM students (Dreamers) were devastated. And, to make matters worse, the Republicans' landslide victory in the mid-term elections indeed made DREAM an unlikely prospect until at least 2013.
But student leaders have responded with aplomb. And at the United We Dream (UWD) network's national congress in Memphis in early March, they focused on how far they've come and the work that lies ahead.
Throughout 2010, Dreamers raised national awareness through marches, pray-ins at congressional offices, and rallying tens of thousands of calls and faxes to Congress. Meanwhile, they convinced recalcitrant Democratic legislators to introduce a stand-alone DREAM bill after comprehensive immigration reform fizzled. And their efforts in key states and the Capitol helped DREAM pass the House of Representatives and get tantalizingly close to passing the Senate.
Now, their movement is larger than ever -- over 200 DREAM activists from over 30 states gathered at UWD's national congress. Felipe Matos, a Dreamer from Florida, proclaimed to his peers: "The lame duck vote was just a setback... Now we're going to build power."
The Memphis event aimed to solidify a national network in which local and state leaders learn from one another and coordinate efforts. Such capacity building is part of working towards consolidating individual organizations and fighting together to achieve three movement goals.
First, like other immigrant rights groups, Dreamers will focus on state and local legislative battles. With dozens of states considering anti-immigrant bills -- copycats of Arizona's SB 1070, challenges to birthright citizenship, and cutting undocumented immigrants from public services, including primary education -- mobilizing immigrant communities and allies will be critical.
Second, with deportations under President Obama outpacing President Bush's tally, Dreamers have launched the Education Not Deportation (END) campaign to help undocumented students fight deportation and stay in school. UWD hopes that END will protect undocumented students while, in Felipe's words, "unveil[ing] the moral crisis caused by the current enforcement, detention, and deportation policies."
But Dreamers also see hope in immigrant-friendly states. Already, ten states, including Texas, Utah, and Kansas, offer in-state college tuition to undocumented students. Legislators in certain states, like New Mexico, are calling for repeal. But, with strong organizing, Dreamers hope to repel these opponents and expand the number of states that offer them an affordable college education. Winning even one or two such state-level fights would be a huge accomplishment.
At the heart of the Dreamers' strategy will be efforts to raise up their powerful stories.
Take Felipe, who came to Florida at 14 from a Brazilian slum. Felipe excelled in high school, but his undocumented status meant he couldn't go to an elite college. Instead, he attended Miami Dade College, where he became the top-ranked community college student in the state. Felipe dreams of teaching, but his undocumented status makes that impossible. To raise awareness of the DREAM Act, Felipe joined three other Dreamers to walk 1,500 miles over three months from Miami to Washington, DC. In his words, this "Trail of Dreams" was "a manifestation of the struggle of youth from all over the nation that were seeking to be seen as whole humans."
Already, Dreamers have begun telling powerful stories like these in their communities. Their challenge now is to get these stories out beyond individual town halls and congregations to a national audience.
In short, the Dreamers have adjusted their strategy in the face of steep odds, but their movement remains remarkably vibrant. For now, the national immigration conversation has turned ugly, with elected representatives vilifying immigrants far more frequently than they celebrate them. But the Dreamers may offer the best hope for shifting that conversation and opening the door again for pro-immigrant legislation like the DREAM Act. These students, who simply want the right to study and contribute to their communities, have stories and aspirations that should move us all.
(cross-posted at www.americasquarterly.org)