Important Day for The Dream Act

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.

Left Criticism

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.


13 responses to “Important Day for The Dream Act”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Some one sneaks in your country and raises their kids on your dime-(public schools are funded by taxpayers) at the expense of your kid’s education (without illegal immigrant kids classrooms would be smaller, millage rate would be lower and American kids would get more personal attention from teachers), run up medical bills they will never pay (illegals get injured and hospitals have to treat them. Those bill never get paid and now you know why so many hospitals are facing budget prices and hospital costs are rising for people who do pay), take money out of your economy and send it to another country, and now you are arguing for their right to a lower cost college education than American citizens from neighboring states (illegals want to pay in-state tuition, American students from other states have to pay out-of-state tuition which is much higher.

    You are truly mad.

  2. Isaac Avatar

    You’re right that I sometimes get a little mad when I faced with some of the arguments listed above. They are very common talking points but are not based in fact.

    Immigrants, whether documented or not, are not the problem. All of your arguments are based on tax payment, which immigrants do: paying sales taxes and property taxes at exactly the rate of citizens and income taxes through ITIN forms, probably somewhat less than citizens but way way more than corporations.

    This worldview is based on fighting over scraps rather than demanding more jobs, more schools, more access to health care. The way to win those things is through citizens uniting with immigrants, not falling for the blame game that allows the real culprits to continue cutting social services and wages.

  3. John B. Cannon Avatar
    John B. Cannon

    Part of the question re: the Dream Act being attached to the defense bill, in my mind, relates to the fact that actual bills that pass Congress are more often than not composite or omnibus in nature. Funding for something decent passes as a “pork barrel” add-on to a bad bill, or bills we might halfway support pass with all kinds of nasty riders. If the Left had any significant presence in Congress we might seek to change the method by which bills become law. If we had even one representative in Congress, she or he would have to figure out how to vote. Instead we are only able to push for things from the outside which always get taken up in rough, compromised, often contradictory ways. Calling for the passage of a bill in a given form is a bit of an abstract question, then, unless we’re doing actual lobbying, i.e., do we continue lobbying for the bill even though it’s no longer a standalone thing but attached to something bad.

    Perhaps just restating this more clearly: given the realities of lobbying Congress when we don’t have any Left Congresspeople, things that we like are going to pass attached to things we don’t like. Figuring out whether to continue lobbying for them and at what point to withdraw support is always a messy exercise.

    For the record, I think a hypothetical socialist Congressperson ought to vote for the amendment and against the defense bill (even if the amendment passed).

  4. Dianne Avatar

    The only statistics I’ve seen about undocumented youth is the figure of 65,000 graduating from U.S. high schools each year and almost two million who would be eligible under the DREAM Act.

  5. giselda Avatar

    ” What’s the take-home lesson? That it’s acceptable to pass reforms attached to reactionary legislation “because it’s going to pass anyway”? ”

    I hope not (obviously there’s more to the conversation than will it pass, I don’t support most bills that “will” or do pass), more that it’s acceptable to fight for marginal reforms if the overall effect is more positive to movement than negative (I think even laying it out in strictly the terms of the bill lend credit to the idea that DC bills are not generally tied to reactionary measures – they are). I think, for organizers of the Dream Act, there were a set of very difficult decisions to make. After people have been arrested, thousands have rallied behind the Dream Act and are now activated behind protests and more traditional lobbying methods (calls, etc.), could they realistically drop, on principle, or delay the demand for the Dream Act right before the vote because of its attachment to the spending bill? I think that may be an easier decision for those of us not involved but for those on the ground organizing this the last years/months, I can see why it would have been a very hard decision. And it was even more dificult than that because the movement became broad enough so that wasn’t necessarily a set network of “leaders” that had much influence in that decision. I would have stayed on with the vote rather than risk losing the momentum and alienating the core. I think that was a good decision based on the reality of the current situation.

    “I think this could have been a real learning moment for the movement. The Democrats are not our allies and are willing to use the Dreamers as political pawns in the most cynical and opportunistic manner imaginable. ”

    I think many have learned that through this struggle. Undoubtedly there have been many movements co-opted by the democrats. I’m not going to claim that every Dreamer will or is a radical and won’t be further co-opted by the system. But in the face of little other options at the moment I’m choosing to let my optimism on the potential of people in this issue, having witnessed and worked with many, lead my political cynicism.

    The good thing about the Dream Act is that it has developed largely outside of the existing power structure of the immigrant rights movement, as demonstrated in this defense by lead organizers Tuesday: .

    So if there is hope that this larger immigrant movement will detach from the Democrats, it will actually come from an alliance with the dreamers, not the other groups in immigration (giants like RIFA and rifa associates throughout the country) who currently dominate the immigraiton landscape. In all due respect to the “left” of the immigraiton movement like MAPA and SIUHIN, their influence is microscopic compared to these larger groups. Which makes the Dream Act a more important development, especially for the left. But I think a lot of that bigger picture was lost in a discussion of the hypotheticals of the bill (which, to make that tendency even odder, many didn’t even believe would pass).

    On the reactionary elements of the war bill… I agree war is reactionary, but I don’t think the call could have simply been made on that, as I said (but understand disagreement, definitely). What frustrated me was that many on the left weren’t actually even raising the issue of the war spending bill alone or what to do about it this year – the overwhelming critique seemed to be more specifically aimed at opposing Dream Act and DADT in the face of the bill.

  6. James Avatar

    I guess my big concern is that Reid didn’t include DREAM (and repeal of DADT) in the defense spending bill solely (or even primarily) to appease Latin@ voters in Nevada. I think he also did it because he knew some Republicans would vote against and the Democrats could then go into the midterm elections saying “look how right wing they are! they’re even willing to put our troops in danger!”

    If I’m right about that, then this is a horribly cynical move on the part of Reid and company and provides support for the argument that supporting DREAM under these circumstances is bridge too far.

    Overall I agree with a lot of the arguments in Giselda’s article, and I understand that the defense spending bill is going to pass no matter what. Certainly the lack of an antiwar movement is a factor here.

    But the logic here is pretty pernicious overall. What’s the take-home lesson? That it’s acceptable to pass reforms attached to reactionary legislation “because it’s going to pass anyway”? That makes me very uncomfortable. It makes me think that, rather than “help[ing] heighten the level of politics and organization and overall strategic position of activists, of the left, of the movement – for the next fight” this compromise has actually done the opposite.

    I think this could have been a real learning moment for the movement. The Democrats are not our allies and are willing to use the Dreamers as political pawns in the most cynical and opportunistic manner imaginable.

    Anyway, thanks for contributing to the debate,

  7. Big dreamer Avatar
    Big dreamer

    Above should read “despite any potential revisions” not “despite the revisions” which makes it sound like such changes already took place.

  8. Big dreamer Avatar
    Big dreamer

    ‘dream on’: with regards to the last paragraph of your comment, it sounds like you are not very familiar with the U.S. immigration movement. I don’t know where you are writing from, but many in the movement here (and many more in the communities they are from/represent, that is, undocumented immigrants and their families and friends) are still very hopeful about the DREAM Act despite the revisions, including the undocumented youth who risked deportation by staging a sit-in in John McCain’s office in Arizona back in May.

    Instead of speculating about how people in the movement might feel, why not ask them yourself– or better yet, if you’re in the U.S., talk to undocumented youth about how they feel about the DREAM Act. I think all of the ‘leftists’ who oppose the act could benefit greatly from having to personally explain to undocumented immigrants why they oppose this path to residency.

  9. giselda Avatar

    Well I’ll point to R’s comment because it’s much more thought out than mine on the question raised. (hadn’t seen it)

  10. giselda Avatar

    Dream on, I’m imagining most organizers for the act are doing it with the idea that it will obstruct such initiatives like this one being considered in Georgia. If conditional residency is granted to students because of the Act, states would have an issue bypassing federal law and locking out immigrant students. But that’s hypothetical.

    Instead of focusing on the particulars of the law, which we know now didn’t pass the vote yesterday (although Dream Acters are vowing to keep pushing) I’m interested at this point in further engaging in the momentum built around the act. It could be the next tactic will be students on state levels entering the anti-budget cut fights with the demand to allow undocumented students in with in-state residency fees (which could reignate some dream actish things without the military component, although I believe as I said in the article any legalizing of youth not heading to college will have to contend with military recruitment, just as poor US citizens do), maybe not, we have yet to see how this dream act core will now position themselves but I’m glad I’m in the discussion and have worked with many of them to have more of a productive conversation about that.

  11. R Avatar

    Well, speaking more specifically about Georgia again…the state Board of Regents originally lifted the in-state tuition subsidy for undocumented student residents to come into compliance with SB 529 (though the bill specifically granted the University System of Georgia autonomy w/r/t compliance).

    Overturning the tuition rule is not impossible–but it would be a lot easier with the reality of a federally passed DREAM Act than it would be without any such thing. It’s hard for me to see the reality of the DREAM option as anything but a game-changer in an effort to influence the Board. The Board of Regents is mainly concerned with running a tight ship (and in the Georgia context, this means not treating undocumented people like “legal” residents, unless they have to). In other words, pushing the BoR into fuller compliance with federal law would be a lot easier than simply going toe-to-toe with the anti-immigrant status quo without a DREAM Act.

    This is why I think the DREAM Act would actually improve the conditions for struggle in Georgia against attacks on undocumented students. That said, we should also maintain an understanding that most states do offer reduced tuition for undocumented residents and thus have many more undocumented students than we do here. We can’t make decisions about federal based purely on the conditions of a handful of states.

    I think this conversation would also benefit from numbers. How many undocumented people are in universities nation-wide? How many undocumented people are already in the military and what is their current rate of enlistment (because, we should note that undocumented people ALREADY “serve” in Iraq, Afghanistan, the border, and the many military bases across the US and the world)? I’m honestly asking because I’ve tried to find the numbers and haven’t succeeded.

    Finally (for now), I’m not aware of any dramatic changes that have been made to the bill since the upsurge in activism to support it (re: “if the Dream Act being passed is so different from the original goal proposed by these activists…”).

  12. dream on Avatar
    dream on

    I can understand the excitement of some about the potential passage of the Dream Act, but this new initiative in Georgia seems to be a good pilot program for cash-strapped universities suffering from budget cuts to use to reduce the Dream Act to merely a draft, recruiting undocumented young people into the military. They could even simply continue what is being done now in Arizona, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Georgia and Colorado, which is to deny in-state tuition and financial aid to undocumented students (in Oklahoma’s case, this was a reversal of a law passed only a few years earlier that gave them in-state tuition). Even if a handful do manage to attend college despite this, it will be nothing compared to those who are recruited to the military, realistically the only option for the vast majority of families. With the current economic crisis I can only see more states going in the direction of Georgia in reversing any gains made (if any) in the earlier part of the decade.

    In essence, Giselda, it seems that you are arguing that we should support this act because it will embolden some young immigrant activists who have been working for it for years, despite a few misgivings about military recruitment. But if the Dream Act being passed is so different from the original goal proposed by these activists, and other institutional means are being taken even before this proposed legislation is passed to drop the educational aspect altogether or make it impossible for nearly any of the youth in question to go to college, what kind of “wind in the sails” is this going to give the immigration movement?

    If anything, I would strike this up as a defeat for the immigration movement and would think that its passage would be pretty demoralizing for people who had fought for the original vision of this act. This view seems to reflect the stance of Raul Al-qaraz Ochoa, whose letter you linked to in your article, and I would be surprised if this wasn’t the general sentiment among organizers (please let me know if you have more info about this). Without the “community service” option, and an essentially nonexistent higher education option for undocumented youth, the only dreams coming true with this act will be those of US military recruiters.

  13. R Avatar

    This just happened yesterday:

    “Illegal immigrants would be barred from attending the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and any other public college that doesn’t have the space to admit all academically qualified applicants, under a recommendation a state committee approved Tuesday.

    The committee assembled by the State Board of Regents also recommended that all Georgia colleges verify every admitted student seeking in-state tuition to determine if the student is in the country legally. Illegal immigrants are not eligible for in-state tuition.

    The regents are scheduled to vote on the suggested policy changes next month. If approved, the changes would be in effect with applications for the fall 2011 semester.” (from

    I can’t help but think this really underscores the importance of the DREAM Act in fighting the right-wing attack on immigrants. Would the regents even be discussing this if passage of the DREAM Act had been more likely?

    Some legislators in Georgia are seeking to take this further, calling the recommendation only a “nice step” toward their racist agenda to bar all undocumented students from all colleges. The most vocal of these state legislators is Don Balfour, who called our tuition “ridiculously low” in support of the last round of tuition hikes.

    This is yet another reason for students fighting budget cuts to get together with immigrant DREAM activists and fight for truly public education.