DREAM Activists Stage Hunger Strike To Gain GOP Support

In San Francisco, San Antonio, and on Capitol Hill, the stakes have gotten considerably higher.

By Seth Freed Wessler Nov 15, 2010

Pressure is mounting on Congress and the Obama Administration to act on immigration reform.

A dozen University of Texas San Antonio students are entering their sixth day of a hunger strike today, demanding Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison support the DREAM Act. In San Francisco over the weekend, advocates successfully delayed the deportation of a young man who would’ve been sent to Peru despite having no connections there. After a campaign mounted to support the man, Sen. Diane Feinstein said she asked ICE to stop the deportation because the "case is a prime example of why Congress must pass the DREAM Act." Meanwhile, across the country, The New York Immigration Coalition and several other groups have launched a new campaign to push President Obama to stop his policy of mass deportation "with the stroke of a pen."

The actions signal what appears to be a shifting strategic orientation on immigration reform. With chances of passing a comprehensive immigration bill in the next two years albeit dead, immigration advocates and organizers are coalescing around smaller legislative wins and presidential action.

The DREAM Act is widely seen as the last potential avenue for congressional action on immigration before the 112th Congress starts in January. Senator Harry Reid promised to introduce DREAM in the lame duck season. The bill would open a pathway to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of young undocumented students and army vets. If DREAM fails during the lame duck session, few believe it has a chance in what will be a markedly more conservative Washington, D.C. after the new Congress gets started. That’s why the Texas DREAMers have stepped up their tactics. Speaking about Sen. Hutchinson, a 22-year-old DREAM Act organizer at UTSA, told the San Antonio News:

"She’s our last hope. We know she has a good head on her shoulders, and we need her to stand up for us."

Hutchinson has supported earlier iterations of DREAM but voted against it in the last round. A statement from Hutchinson’s office made clear that she will not support the bill. The statement condescendingly added that she hoped the students will "find safer ways to voice their opinions."

DREAM or no DREAM, come January, Obama’s pen may indeed be among the only founts of hope to stem the rising tide of restrictionist immigration policy. The NYIC’s creative campaign, which calls on individuals to send letters and pens to Obama, accurately offers:

With the Stroke of a Pen… … the President, and his Department of Homeland Security, could choose not to cast a wide net and thereby avoid deporting the very people he says should be allowed a chance to come out of the shadows and earn a path to citizenship.

… the President, and his Department of Homeland Security, could choose not to enlist local enforcement agencies (police, state troopers, corrections departments) as immigration agents–a trend that has caused immigrant communities to fear the police, torn communities apart, given rise to profiling, and harmed the economy.

… President Obama could help keep millions of families together, bolster the economy, and uphold our values as a nation.

Of course, it’s the same implement that’s been used over the past two years to ramp up policies resulting in all time high levels of deportation. Obama’s Department of Homeland Security is rapidly expanding the programs most responsible for mass deportation, including the Secure Communities, which checks the immigration status of anyone checked into a local jail and sends non-citizens to ICE. Obama has pledged to make the program operational in all jurisdictions by 2013. The government purports that the program targets immigrants with criminal convictions. The reality is that the majority of those deported have no convictions or have been found guilty of minor infractions like traffic violations.

A coalition of immigrant rights and civil liberties groups, including the National Day Laborers Organizing Network and the Center for Constitutional Rights are waging a concerted campaign against Secure Communities. At least three counties have voted to opt out of the program altogether, although the Department of Homeland Security is now telling localities that Secure Communities is mandatory.

As I reported in October, the administration has moved to expand these and other enforcement programs under the apparent illusion that draconian policy making is necessary in order to garner enough support to pass an immigration reform bill. That strategy has failed, and justification for Obama’s immigration trading game is rapidly drying up. To broaden programs that deport close to 400,000 people a year, knowing full well that there will be nothing in return, is an exercise in some mix of cruelty and futility.

It’s also an act of electoral suicide, as Adam Serwer argued in last month’s American Prospect. In the midterms, Latino voters carried California and Nevada for Democrats. In Nevada, Harry Reid defeated Sharron Angle’s immigration bashing campaign with promises to introduce DREAM. If he fails to do that, and, for that matter, if Democrats refuse to act aggressively to pass the bill, Latino commitments to the Democratic party may dissipate. Support for Obama may also wane because whether or not DREAM passes, the status quo will still result in the detention and deportation of hundreds of thousands of non-citizens, both documented and undocumented.

And electoral politics aside, the current structure of immigration policy is a moral obscenity of epic proportions. Obama is the only actor who can stop it.