Posted September 20, 2010
There likely has been no issue more debated by the left and anti-war progressives in the last months than the Dream Act. The act would allow conditional residency and a path to legalization for thousands of young people – including thousands of current students – who arrived in the US before the age of 16 and complete two years of higher education or military service. Although there has been organizing around the issue for years, it wasn’t until relatively recently (the past two years) that the activism around the Dream Act became known to many mainstream politicians and organizations but most importantly, to thousands of young immigrants.
Make no mistake – this was because of the brave and militant actions of many of the dream activists themselves. My first direct contact with youth working for the Dream Act was in Georgia, through which four young people walked on their way from Miami to DC to raise awareness of the act (intentionally routing to confront Klan members and Georgia’s version of Joe Arpaio, Sheriff Conway, along the way).
Other groups around the country, such as Chicago’s Immigrant Youth Justice League and The Dream Is Coming, Dream Activist, and United We Dream, have staged sit-ins in senators’ offices, actions against detention centers, and a national “Coming out of the Shadows Day”. They hoped to rally existing organizations and new activists alike around the Act, and encourage more radical action – and it worked.
The actions around the Dream Act inspired thousands of young people previously left out of the more beurocratic and mainstream organizations that push for a vague, “comprehensive” reform. Instead of waiting for the cue from certain politicians or immigrant leaders, the Dreamers pushed forward this demand with the militancy of their own actions, for the immediacy of their own needs. Whatever critiques of the Dream Act by the left, this cannot be disputed – this movement for the act was led by undocumented youth, and it has given political voice and a pole of organization to thousands of previously unorganized youth and their allies.
Much like any bill that is taken to a vote in DC, the Dream Act is far from perfect or radical. The most controversial aspect of the Dream Act, since it was added in 2007, has been the military option for citizenship. Since undocumented youth can be primarily found in some of the nation’s poorest communities, it is (correctly) stated by many that only some youth will benefit from the Dream Act by going to college. Because the only other option is military enlistment, people have called the Dream Act a de facto draft.
I have several problems with this claim. The Pentagon did help insert the military aspect into the bill, and probably helped delete the community service measure. But rejecting the Dream Act because it will offer militarization as a path to legalization for some ignores the ongoing reality that a de facto draft already exists – and will continue to, regardless of any Dream Act. Because of the economic status of most young immigrants in this country, any legalization, including “amnesty for all”, may work as a “de facto” draft, helping fuel the ranks of the military.
But why throw the baby out with the bath water (in this case, thousands of current students)? This puts the burden of military counter-recruitment on the backs of dream activists (many of whom are antiwar activists themselves). We should all be figuring out how to fight militarization, yet codifying the deprivation of “legitimized” (since many already serve) military service for some marginalized groups, such as gays and undocumented immigrants, is not an effective way to go about it.
Additionally, many on the left view the Dream Act as an end all be all to the activists rallying around it. They presume that those eligible will receive their degree and assimilate into the mass of middle class America, never to be heard from again. I cannot predict what the overall effect of the Dream Act may be to hundreds of thousands of young people – I imagine it will vary person to person. I refuse to give up, however, on the idea that people can and do radicalize through struggle, especially when they’re heavily self organized and engaging in tactics like bravely “coming out of the shadows” and risking certain arrest and deportation for a larger goal. It may not currently be a goal that includes the thousands of youth not heading for college or the military. But it is an encouraging starting point in an immigration movement that has suffered heavy defeats and has been bogged down by bureaucratic organizations that are far more tied to the political powers that be.
The Big Vote
The argument above was present even when the introduction of the Dream Act was just a theoretical possibility. To make matters even more complicated for left and progressive supporters of the Dream Act, Harry Reid, trying to “save face” with Latino voters in Nevada, introduced the Dream Act as an amendment to the defense bill. This prompted understandable and passionate reactions such as My Painful Withdrawal of Support for the DREAM Act by Raúl Al-qaraz Ochoa, which made the rounds on the internet today.
I believe it’s good to see young people realize the limitations of the democrats and strictly electoral/lobbying means – that’s how many of us become radicals. It was a given that DC would not pass something like the Dream Act without inserting their own interests. From viewing my mother’s lobbying efforts around funding for Head Start and other tiny fractions of “universal child care” since I was small, I know that any positive slivers of reforms usually pass in mass bills that are bogged down with horrible crap – that’s the nature of capitalism and the state. The Defense Bill is one bill that is a sure thing year after year after year, and it does present a difficult stance for radicals that now have to hope for the Dream Act in context of the Defense Bill passing.
But, considering the reality of the current situation, it’s mostly an issue of conscience. I say this because there is no mass anti-war movement right now that is going to challenge the defense bill. If there was, then I would better understand opposing the Dream Act as an amendment to the Defense Bill and the difficulty of the decision of whether to support it (and don’t get me wrong, I understand it anyway, even if I don’t agree).
But there isn’t a mass antiwar movement. Opposing the spending bill right now is mostly a moralistic standpoint, not one rooted in an analysis of any material conditions for opposition. It IS very important to take stands on principled or ethical lines, but that alone does not map out a larger strategy. That is especially evident in cases such as this, where one principled view (opposing the wars) is pitted against the other (supporting legalization for immigrants). In this case, it is important to take into account present capacity, movements, and the overall reality of the current situation.
This means we’re choosing between a) helping push along The Dream Act, which can make a real, material impact in the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people and put some wind in the sails of the immigration movement, even if it’s attached to the empire’s war spending bill or b) opposing the Dream Act because in theory we oppose the war spending bill, even though we know there’s no realistic chance of stopping the war spending bill from passing anyway, and maybe no realistic way of passing the Dream Act another way.
I tend to look at this matter as a question of immediate tactics, while being clear that I am an antiwar socialist that hopes to see a larger antiwar movement built. It’s hard to see how dropping support for the Dream Act because of the war spending bill, while it is the politically pure thing to do, will amount to anything a few months down the road. The war bill would have already passed, with little confrontation, while major victory for thousands of young activists would be denied.
At the end of the day, we’re not radical or revolutionary simply because we’ve demanded the most radical thing, even when nobody else has. We’re revolutionary if we’ve helped heighten the level of politics and organization and overall strategic position of activists, of the left, of the movement – for the next fight. I think a victory to the Dream Activists would help do that.
That said – I do feel the pain of people like in the article posted who feel stung by the political process. I believe those in the movement (and the Left) can find a way to positively engage both sides – the side that has been organizing around the Dream Act and the side that is now frustrated with the Democrats and the electorally-driven limitations of the Dream Act.
In the end, I do support the activism around the Dream Act. Whichever way the vote goes in the next coming days, we should applaud the hard fought struggles of the Dream Activists and position ourselves for the battles ahead – amnesty for all and onward.