Obama Backs DREAM; Advocates Ramp Up for Senate Vote

This week marked an important shift in political strategy for immigrant rights activists.

By Julianne Hing Sep 16, 2010

The countdown is on for the DREAM Act. Ever since Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced this week that he plans to introduce the DREAM Act as an amendment to the defense authorization bill, activists have been working round the clock to make sure the bill passes the Senate this time once and for all. Now, the pieces appear to be falling into place.

On Wednesday night, President Obama addressed a Congressional Hispanic Caucus gala and threw his support behind the DREAM Act. "I will do whatever it takes to support the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ efforts to pass this bill so that I can sign it into law on behalf of students seeking a college education and those who wish to serve in our country’s uniform," Obama said to cheers and applause. "It’s the right thing to do. We should get it done."

Earlier in the day, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and various strains of the immigration reform movement unified behind the DREAM Act. Because Beltway immigration reform advocates and sympathetic congressional leaders have for years pushed for an all-or-nothing approach to winning comprehensive immigration reform, their support for a stand alone bill marked a shift in political strategy, and an acknowledgement of the political reality of winning reform altogether.

Today, the Reform Immigration for America coalition and DREAM Act activists kicked off a national week of action to win passage of the bill. The DREAM Act which would allow undocumented youth who entered the country before they were 15 and have lived in the U.S. for more than five years the possibility of changing their immigration status if they committed two years to the military or college. "Today we are more ready than ever for this fight," said Carlos Saavedra, the national coordinator of the United We Dream network. Immigration advocates are asking supporters to pick up the phone and call their senators; 5,000 phone calls were made yesterday alone, and activists have set a target of 10,000 phone calls today to every Senate office.

DREAMers, as the bill’s youth activists are often called, are hoping to exploit the military service provision in the DREAM Act that’s been contentious in progressive circles, and therefore not much discussed. "The reality is that on our end, our messaging has ignored the military option," DREAM Act activist Mohammad Abdollahi said, acknowledging that it’s an uncomfortable alliance especially for communities of color who are often targeted by military recruiters.

Today, reporters heard from Yahaira Carrillo, who spoke at a DREAM Act kickoff event today. Carrillo was one of four other activists who risked deportation when they were arrested after staging a sit-in in Sen. John McCain’s Arizona office on May 17. Carrillo, who’s lived in the country for 18 years, recalled the crushing conversation with a high school ROTC instructor who told her it was no use continuing in the program because she’d never be able to serve in the military. "If and when the DREAM Act is passed," she said, "I will still consider joining the military. Because I love this country that much, that I want to serve."

The DREAM Act campaign has been built on stories and testimonials of young people who were raised in the United States and are American in every way except for immigration status. Abdollahi said that in the coming days they will be pushing forth the stories of more young people like Carrillo. "We’re not doing ourselves any favors by not using it now," said Abdollahi. "Because we have students approaching us, DREAM students who want to join the military but cannot. It’s no longer just a talking point."

They hope that they can leverage the military option as a way to sway Republicans. The DREAM Act is considered to be low hanging fruit, the least controversial piece of immigration reform to pass. Since it was first introduced in 2001, it’s always enjoyed bipartisan support, including the backing of congressional leaders who are running away from it now. But Republicans, who’ve all of a sudden become rather saintly in the face of Reid’s bold move, promise to make it a hard fight. "The one area that has been kept off limits from partisan politics has been the defense of our nation," Sen. Lindsey Graham told Foreign Policy yesterday. "To say that you’re going to bring up a defense bill and put the Dream Act on it…to me is very offensive."

"Obviously it’s about politics," Graham said. "You’re trying to check a box with the Hispanic voters on the Dream Act…this is using the defense bill in a partisan fashion that hasn’t been done before." Arizona Sen. John McCain also criticized Reid’s last-ditch effort to move the DREAM Act as shameless politicking–as if McCain himself not been playing the same game all year long.

"It’s a pure political act for Harry Reid, who is worried about his own re-election and that of the Democrats in the Senate," Roll Call reports McCain said. So I intend to block it, unless they agree to remove these onerous provisions," he said. That, despite the fact that McCain recently visited the small town of Superior, Arizona, and encouraged DREAMers to keep up their tireless advocacy and thanked them for leaving his office so neat during their sit-ins.

Activists are targeting Sen. McCain; Sen. Orrin Hatch in Utah; Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky; Utah’s Robert Bennett–who’s already publicly said he will vote against the DREAM Act; Sen. Kay Bailey-Hutchinson of Texas; New Hampshire’s Sen. Judd Gregg; Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine; Sen. George LeMeiux of Florda; Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts. And that’s just the Republicans.

Immigration reform advocates are readying plans to reintroduce comprehensive immigration reform with a bill by Sen. Robert Menendez. Obama, solicitous as ever, promised to be there every step of the way.

"I know that many of you campaigned hard for me, and understandably you’re frustrated that we have not been able to move [comprehensive immigration reform] over the finish line yet," he said last night. "I am too. But let me be clear: I will not walk away from this fight."

Before then, the DREAM Act will have to be passed.