In what can only be called a major win for youth activists, Democrats may finally be moving to pull the Dream Act away from comprehensive immigration reform. Yesterday, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to discuss the possibility of moving the Dream Act as a standalone bill.
In so doing, Reid proved he’s not been deaf to the cries coming from outside—and occasionally inside—his office to pass the Dream Act this year. Yesterday Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who’s been hosting three fasting Dream Act activists outside her Los Angeles office since last week, said that she supports “incremental change,” code for a piecemeal approach that pursues smaller bills than one central overhaul to immigration reform.
The news comes on the heels of a week of public actions to get the Dream Act passed as a standalone bill. Last week, 21 Dream Act activists were arrested for a sit-in they staged in Democratic and Republican congressional offices in D.C. If passed, the Dream Act would allow hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth with a clean criminal record and a two-year commitment to either the military or college to adjust their status. Young people have been trying to pass some version of the Dream Act for almost ten years.
The new momentum around the Dream Act is also a tacit acknowledgment of what is by now plain fact: comprehensive reform won’t happen this year. Beltway immigrant rights groups which have continuously urged the immigrant community to wait for comprehensive reform, seem to be coming around to this reality as well. The news about Reid’s meeting with Pelosi came from America’s Voice, a DC non-profit run by Frank Sharry, who’s the former executive director of the National Immigration Forum. Sharry praised Reid’s action on the Dream Act, calling it “the right thing” in the face of an intractable Congress. And yesterday, the Washington Post reported that other immigrant rights groups have decided to change course and put pressure on Congress to pass the Dream Act and Ag Jobs, the bill between farm worker unions and businesses that would provide employment authorization and legal residence for farmworkers.
But Democrats’ habitual refusal to acknowledge the end of comprehensive immigration reform wasn’t based on hopeful ignorance or even naivete so much as it was a strategy to hold off talk on immigration as mid-term elections near. In the meantime, Democrats have been able to keep some distance (but not that much) from Republicans, who make offensive and plainly untrue anti-immigrant claims regularly and with no provocation at all.
As activists well know, there’s never a convenient time to discuss immigration. Congress has been trying to pass comprehensive immigration reform since before Sept. 11, and came close in 2006 and 2007, when millions of people across the country turned out for massive May Day rallies. Congress failed both times.
Still, political shifts in the movement don’t come without their own growing pains.
As of yesterday, an unnamed non-profit had been pressing activists to take down a recording of a phone call between Dream Act activists and Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez in which Gutierrez scolds the Dreamers for their aggressive tactics. Dream Act activists would not publicly share the group’s identity.
Other immigrant rights groups outside the Beltway have acknowledged the intra-movement controversies, but remain focused on their ultimate goals, which don’t necessarily include comprehensive reform anymore. That comprehensive reform is desperately needed is common knowledge—- that there may be alternatives to it is much more controversial.
“Every movement goes through this. I think it’s divisive, but only to a point,” said Laura Rivas, a researcher with the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “It’s only divisive on the top layer, the most public groups. But the people on the ground, organizing, doing the work…people all agree at least on what they’re not going to accept.”
“I can very openly say we disagree with the narrow legislative-only strategy that the mainstream groups have been espousing for the last few years, and channeling millions of dollars into,” Rivas said.
In its current shape, immigration reform is little more than a package of enforcement-only legislation: increased funding for border security, more promises to extend and strengthen immigration enforcement for people who enter and live in the country without papers, and no end to detentions and deportations that have devastated immigrant communities.
“We agree that what we really need is rights and due process and a life free from fear and policing and without targeting,” Rivas said, adding that her organization has been relying on old-fashioned organizing to fight the local immigration enforcement that’s popping up in communities these days.
Sonia Guinansaca, a core member with the New York State Youth Leadership Council, which is pushing for the Dream Act, resisted pitting the Dream Act against comprehensive immigration reform. She says it’s not an either-or proposition. “We want CIR, but the Dream Act is a stepping stone to that. Gutierrez said, “If we fail, let’s fail together, but do we really want that? Do we want everyone to fail?”
“We want little steps. That’s how you make change, and we need to recognize that,” Guinansaca said.