The immigrant rights movement is in a frenzy over a recent piece on Truthout written by some of the young undocumented students pushing for passage of the DREAM Act. In the essay, Jonathan Perez, Jorge Guitierrez, Nancy Meza and Neidi Dominguez Zamorano turn their anger at the DREAM Act’s failure not on the Senators who failed to vote for cloture, or on the Republican Party in general which has backed down on support for immigration reform. No, in the tried and true tradition of circling the wagons and shooting ourselves, the DREAM activists are attacking the mainstream immigrant rights movement.
Let me stop here and clarify that I do not believe unanimity in movements is a good thing. Healthy and vibrant debate, and even dissent, is essential — not only in creating a spectrum of ideological perspectives and thus appealing entry points for all different sorts of people to join the movement, but also because debate and dissent keeps a movement accountable. It’s important that we remember there would have been no Civil Rights legislation but for Malcolm X and the Black Panthers whose relative extremism made Martin Luther King and his adherents seem more reasonable to the powers-that-be. At the same time, Malcolm and the Panthers also pushed King to be more radical — an essential force in keeping the mainstream Civil Rights movement from being dangerously co-opted by the liberal establishment.
That said, there’s a difference between dissent and disrespect. The DREAM activists have crossed the line.
The DREAMers (as they’re called within the immigrant rights field) have a litany of critiques of their mainstream colleagues. Mainstream immigrant rights groups are part of the “non-profit industrial complex” and thus beholden to capitalist structures and foundation interests, instead of challenging them. Mainstream groups are not staffed by undocumented immigrants, yet claim to speak for undocumented communities. And mainstream leaders, the DREAMers claim, are not “putting their bodies and lives on the line” for reform while the young undocumented activists are.
For the record, I think that the direct action on all parts of the immigrant rights movement (DREAMers included) has been largely tame and uninspired, with a few exceptions like the Trail of Dreams, in which four undocumented students walked from Florida to DC to demand reform. The power of direct action in past movements, including the often-correlated Civil Rights movement, wasn’t that it was large or dangerous. It was that the direct action was beautiful, powerful — like a physical metaphor of injustice played out before people’s eyes. If you’re not allowed to eat with white people at a lunch counter, sitting at that lunch counter is a visual illustration of the rights you want and how wrong it is to deny them. For undocumented immigrants who don’t have the right to work or vote or live in America, marching in the streets doesn’t have the same visceral power. In fact, unfortunately, seeing millions of immigrants take to the streets in 2006 was arguably a wake up call to Americans either hostile toward or unsure about immigration reform who all of the sudden realized just how many immigrants we have in our country. Arguably, instead of inspiring compassion, the marches inspired a backlash.
Still, make no mistake about it, everyone on every side of this movement marched and many took arrests. Meanwhile, leaders within the mainstream immigrant rights and grassroots organizations organized strategy sessions over the past four years to explore more aggressive and effective tactics for direct action, studying models from Eastern Europe and Latin America. I am sure that each of these activists — volunteer leaders in these organizations as well as paid staff — would gladly put their lives on the line for this cause in which they believe so deeply, if they only knew what to do and how it would make a difference. The DREAMers weren’t any more sure on this tactical level.
Second, yes, the mainstream groups (including grassroots organizations in the Fair Immigration Reform Movement grouping as well as Washington-based organizations) are for the most part staffed by documented immigrants. In several cases, these staffers are children or grandchildren of immigrants. And in some cases they’re white guys. It’s appropriate to scrutinize this (especially the white guys leading immigrant rights organizations phenomenon). However, the grassroots volunteer leaders of these organizations are undocumented, and the best of these organizations are truly led by these members. What’s more, if we’re going to get into an identity politics breakdown, while the young DREAM Act leaders are mainly those who want to go to college and thereby gain citizenship, the undocumented members of most “mainstream” grassroots immigrant rights groups are low-wage workers who are struggling to make a living and support their families and were not going to be helped, immediately or ever, by a DREAM Act that helps kids on a more elite path.
And yes, the immigrant rights groups being critiqued are 501(c)3s. So are lots of the groups critiquing them. But more importantly, it was these very same 501(c)3s that incubated and trained the DREAM Act students, hosted their meetings and supported their travel, provided media support and in countless other ways encouraged and facilitated the DREAMers’ work. At the same time, many of these 501(c)3s are deeply critical of the limitations on non-profits, the challenges of funding, etc. Still, they are working within the system we have right now to push the boundaries of what’s possible and win change.
In 2007, the first time comprehensive immigration reform failed, I was working for the Center for Community Change (which organizes the Fair Immigration Reform Movement and is now a leader in the national Reform Immigration FOR America campaign). As leaders and staff from grassroots groups were literally in tears about the demise of a path to citizenship, a staff person from another immigrant rights group publicly condemned us “Washington insiders” for “working behind the scenes” and “selling out” the immigrant community. Huh? Do you think that’s how it works? That the “mainstream” immigrant rights groups have all the power and are happily accepting atrocious terms like guestworker programs and harsh border enforcement and deportation rules, working behind the scenes to actually screw over their constituents — the very folks we’ve all worked tirelessly for decades to help? It’s one thing to criticize. It’s another to be naïve. Mainstream immigration groups held meetings with the White House, organized hundreds of thousands of calls into Congress, held demonstrations and a huge rally in Washington, got unprecedented mainstream press endorsements, but still couldn’t pass comprehensive immigration reform. Come to think of it, the DREAMers suggesting the “mainstream” immigrant rights groups are remotely mainstream betrays a deep misunderstanding of these dynamics.
Personally, I’ll go on record believing that the entire immigrant rights movement (CIR supporters and DREAMers alike) should not have tried for legislative victory at all this year. The backlash from 2006 and 2007 was too strong and, though perhaps less severe than under the reign of the Minutemen, more widespread thanks to the visibility of the Tea Party and increased audience of Fox News. Somehow, even though over 67% of Americans support comprehensive immigration reform, the anti-immigrant climate was too strong to be overcome. Immigrant groups should have spent the past two years on a longer-term majoritarian strategy to change the mainstream climate, rather than a Hail Mary minority interest strategy to persuade Congress that Latino votes were dependent on reform. Just as the vocal Tea Part has been exerting disproportionate power over the political discussion, the vocal anti-immigrant forces — albeit fringe — drowned out the numerically significant but culturally powerless supporters of justice.
Still, everyone gave it their best shot. Everyone. And, all parsing of tactical and strategic choices aside, perhaps the best thing that can be said for the “mainstream” immigrant rights groups was that they kept fighting, hard though it was, for a path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants — maintaining their principles and justice and equality and not giving up on winning for the entire community. The DREAM Act kids, unfortunately, felt held back, and wanted to win the DREAM Act even if it meant pushing aside comprehensive immigration reform. Interestingly, the DREAM Act would have only helped the DREAM kids — while comprehensive immigration reform would have helped the DREAM kids and everyone else. I really admire the courage and boldness of the young DREAM Act leaders — but I wish that, in the aftermath of a collective and hard defeat, they weren’t acting like petulant children.