Youth Activists Shake Up Congress, but Reform Still a DREAM

The DREAMers are taking it to the streets--and pols' offices, too.

By Julianne Hing Jul 27, 2010

DREAM Act advocates are spending the summer turning up the heat on Congress to pass what many consider to be the easiest political sell of the immigration reform proposals circulating in the Beltway. Last week, hundreds of young activists staged a mock graduation ceremony in Washington, D.C., and another 21, many of them undocumented, were arrested after staging a sit-in in Democratic and Republican congressional offices. Meanwhile, four activists have been on a hunger strike since Friday in front of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s Los Angeles offices to demand the bill’s passage.

The DREAM Act would create avenues for young people who are undocumented to win legal status. Under the bill, those with a clean criminal record who came to the country before they were 16 years old, have graduated from high school and complete two years of military service or college would be eligible for citizenship. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the bill could benefit about 825,000 people.

These days, no matter what Democrats might say, comprehensive immigration reform is but a dying glimmer on the horizon. Young people pushing for the DREAM Act have long known that, and have been stepping up their actions in recent months as a result. 

But not everyone appreciates their aggressive and public tactics. The DREAM Act online organizing clearinghouse released a recording of a phone call that took place last week between protesters in Sen. Harry Reid’s office and Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez. Gutierrez remains one of the last congressional voices who still has hope for comprehensive immigration reform this congressional session.

Gutierrez scolded the activists for demanding the DREAM Act be pushed independently from the broader immigration reform package:

Every time someone says the whole thing cannot pass, only part of it, it weakens us, it divides us, it confuses us, it scatters us all over the place. We once had a united movement for comprehensive immigration reform. Now we don’t have a united movement, and that is causing, that is detrimental to the movement for all of us.

It’s a tense, emotional phone call, but not an unusual conversation among immigration activists long used to hearing promises, followed by foot-dragging and delays, that rarely lead to action. Mainstream immigrant rights groups in the Beltway have often joined Democrats in discouraging the DREAMers and others who are pushing for a piecemeal approach to reform. 

The DREAM Act has won strong bipartisan support in the past, but even those who still support it have softened. Even the bill’s author, Sen. Dick Durbin, claims he’s still holding out hope for comprehensive reform–leaving the bill with a steep climb as a stand-alone effort. Meanwhile, anything that resembles the forbidden "amnesty" is dangerous territory for both parties.

Two days after the 21 young activists were arrested in the lobby of Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office, he indicated that he might push the DREAM Act forward if a comprehensive reform bill weren’t possible. He reiterated that message to La Opinion, saying, "I would like to figure out when can we do the DREAM Act. I would like to do it before the elections," if comprehensive immigration reform failed. 

But by the time Reid made it to Las Vegas this weekend for the Netroots Nation conference for progressive bloggers, reported that he’d once again changed his mind on immigration reform: "I’m not going to do the DREAM Act if I don’t have 60 votes."

Photo: Creative Commons/DreamActivist