Undocumented Youth Have Shown that Ordinary People Build Extraordinary People Power, Even in the United States
Originally published by Narco News
I the year that TIME Magazine named “The Protester” as the Person of the Year focusing on the three-month-old “Occupy” on its cover as the pinnacle of protest success, the three-year-old national Dream Movement was moving steadily toward the most significant victory the immigrant rights movement had seen in 40 years. They were about to prove to the world that there is a difference between protest and movement. As we witness the birth of Mexico’s inspiring “Yo Soy 132” movement, as students take to the streets in Montreal, and as Occupy continues to struggle to find a focus and direction, perhaps it is time to take a closer look at the Dream Movement and the lessons it shares with us.
In a June 24 talk at the Fletcher Summer Institute for Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict, the Reverend James Lawson stated that “power comes from ordinary people.” The civil rights leader and architect of the Nashville student sit-ins reiterated that the civil rights movement was not a spontaneous series of actions. In fact, he said, almost all the actions that took place were carefully strategized, thought through, planned, and examined beforehand. This, after all, is what is required to outfox and outrace the opposition powers. “There is a wonderful example of this, right now, going on in the United States, and it is making me rethink some things about strategy and action, and that is the Dream Act students,” said Rev. Lawson.
The Dream Act students he referred to, in fact are ordinary people, who carefully studied the lessons of the civil rights movement and other successful nonviolent struggles. The Executive Order issued in June of this year by President Barrack Obama, giving undocumented young people legal status, is the product of that work, in this century, by undocumented young people.
The organizers of the Dream Movement gained valuable experience and built momentum by organizing in support of expanding access to higher education for undocumented young people. With the election of President Obama, in which Latino voters played a significant role in helping elect him in key swing states like Colorado and Nevada, youth organizers saw their first strategic opportunity to pass federal legislation.
Movement organizers then shifted their attention to a nationally coordinated effort for federal DREAM Act legislation. The United We Dream Network, born in 2009, originally comprised of 10 locally based Dream Teams that would later grow to 31 affiliates, began to weave together local grassroots organizations under a national umbrella and national strategy. The local Dream Teams were then perfectly situated to implement an agreed upon strategy in cities across the country.
In a United We Dream statement issued as part of a 2011 training held by Maryland DREAM Act organizers, they explained the sentiment behind their evolving strategy: “In December 2008, President Barack Obama won the election, becoming our first African American President and the first President to promise to pass the DREAM Act, to us, it was only a matter of time, and we knew this opportunity required a national movement and an organization that could back it up.”
Armed with the possibility of victory given that a sympathetic President now held office, in the years to come, these young students risked everything based on a faith in each other and the faith in an evolving strategy to win a proactive legislative policy at the federal level. As part of the “Undocumented and Unafraid” campaign, undocumented young people not only risked arrest in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, but they risked deportation and separation from their families. It was through the Undocumented and Unafraid campaign that undocumented young people, who had previously lived their lives in the shadows, began to strategically out themselves as undocumented. In effect, they were putting a human face to the idea of the “illegal immigrant” as the “other”.
When the DREAM Act failed to overcome a filibuster in the U.S. Senate in 2010, the heartbroken young organizers did not give up. Instead they regrouped and shifted their strategy to focus on moving a sympathetic but reluctant President Obama to adopt an Executive Order granting legal status to undocumented young people.
Organizing that Began with the Telling of Stories
I remember very clearly the meeting I attended just over two years ago following my own arrest in a nonviolent civil disobedience action protesting Arizona’s anti-immigrant bill, SB1070. 30-40 young people were sitting on the floor, filling every inch of the small apartment. The students were planning a civil disobedience action at the Westwood Federal Building. They were planning an escalation to the action in which five students were arrested in a sit-in at Senator John McCain’s office in Tucson, Arizona a few days before. I remember the feeling of nervousness in the air, but most importantly there was a sense of determination among the young people in the room. Both actions were a part of the unfolding strategy.
What followed both that action and the arrest of the five undocumented students at Senator McCain’s office was a groundbreaking organizing campaign. To maintain message, action, and strategic discipline, locally based Dream Teams led trainings in nonviolence and organizing. Students engaged in campaign research, community based educational events, campus organizing, media outreach, coalition building, social networking, hunger strikes, sit-ins, lobbying visits to the Capitol, and much more. All of it a part of a strategy to generate momentum in support of the idea that young people living in this country without legal documentation had a right to stay and live in this country legally.
As part of this strategy, movement organizers recognized that coalition building was essential to growing momentum in support of the DREAM Act. In March 2010, a historic press conference organized jointly with the United We Dream Network, announced the endorsement of the DREAM Act by the AFL-CIO. At the press conference, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka announced the AFL-CIO’s commitment to passage of the DREAM Act. Standing side by side with President Trumka were DREAM Act eligible youth, as well as representatives of two of the most powerful education unions in the country. On that day, President Trumka, was joined in his endorsement by Antonia Cortese, Secretary-Treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, and Lily Eskelson, Vice President of the National Education Association.
The press conference was organized despite opposition from some immigrant rights organizations who were opposed to the DREAM Act as a standalone bill. Some immigrant Rights organizations were concerned that a piecemeal strategy would impact the well-funded national Comprehensive Immigration Reform strategy that they sought to advance. Against all odds and opposition even from well-meaning immigrant rights supporters, the Dream Movement pushed forward in its efforts.
Weaved into each action, press event, and organizing one-on-ones, movement organizers told both their personal stories, the story of the movement, and made their pitch to action. In this way, the Dream Movement consciously chose to change the frame in which it was organizing. Dream Team Los Angeles (LA) member, Carlos Amador, explains this part of the strategy, “Storytelling is always part of the trainings we do. We make sure people know how to tell their stories. We strongly feel that our stories, the stories of undocumented youth are our strongest tool. That is how we have been able to change the discourse on the Dream Act and on immigrant rights.”
In addition, organizers consciously tied their story to America’s. “We’ve been able to say we are Americans and that we embrace these ideals. Much more than statistics, or demographics, or economic impact we need to be able to connect with the other person in order to change hearts and minds,” explains Carlos Amador. The Dream Movement’s actions, in which young students dressed in graduation caps and gowns espousing American ideas and values, calling themselves “undocumented Americans” mobilized thousands in support of the DREAM Act.
Putting the Administration on the Horns of a Dilemma
In addition to the storytelling component of the movement and coalition building, organizers planned dilemma actions. Dilemma actions are strategically planned events that place the movement’s target or opponent in a dilemma in which no matter his response, the movement’s strategic goal is advanced. The Dream Movement’s “Undocumented and Unafraid” actions did just that and were reminiscent of the civil rights movement’s strategy to desegregate lunch counters. In that case, brave young black and white students defied segregation by sitting in together at lunch counters. If those young people had succeeded in being served at the lunch counters, they would have succeeded in desegregating them. If the students were arrested and beaten up, as they ultimately were, the violent racism and injustices taking place in the Deep South would be broadcast to the world. There was no way in which their opponents could come out victorious in these skillfully executed series of nonviolent sit-ins.
Dream Movement organizers carefully studied the lessons of the civil rights movement. Rev. Lawson conducted trainings on nonviolence for members of the movement. In 2009, as the movement began to coalesce around a national strategy, organizers from the Massachusetts Student Immigrant Movement (SIM) paid a visit to the legendary members of the civil rights movement, The Little Rock 9. Organizers learned from the experiences of these veterans of struggle.
Organizers took these lessons and applied and adapted them to their own struggle. Dilemma actions began to unfold in the Dream Movement as Undocumented students participated in relatively small but powerful nonviolent actions as part of the Dream Movement. As images of students peacefully submitting to arrest, handcuffed and arrested while wearing graduation caps and gowns, blasted out across the country on mainstream media and social networking sites, support for the movement grew.
Through these carefully crafted actions, the Dream Movement presented the Obama Administration and targeted legislators with a dilemma. They forced their targets to make a choice to either arrest and deport college educated students or to take a stand and support the Dream Act. “Politicians, even if they are sympathetic, are not going to move unless we move them. By putting them in that situation, in that dilemma, it allowed us to move our own agenda forward,” explained Carlos Amador.
The movement continued to escalate as they pushed the DREAM act towards a vote. Sit-ins were conducted in legislators’ offices across the country. In July of 2010, during “DREAM University”, in which hundreds of students participated in a teach-in outside of the White House, twenty Dreamers were arrested in a sit-in in several Republican Senators’ offices at the U.S. Capitol. As momentum built, organizers planned events designed to win support from key Senators whom they felt that they had the best chance of moving to support the DREAM Act.
In addition, organizers rallied online support and local events in support of detained young people who were in the process of deportation. They used the moment to not only bring public attention to the injustices of the current system and tell the story of the movement, but to tell the personal and compelling stories of the young people who were being deported.
Internal Goals Alongside External Goals
Alongside strategic actions designed to move their targets, the movement also planned their actions based on internal goals to grow the movement. For example, soon after the action at the Westwood Federal Building, Dream Team Los Angeles (LA) participated in a hunger strike that took place at Senator Diane Feinstein’s Office. The students’ public demand was that Senator Feinstein move the Dream Act out of the Judiciary Committee. “Even though we weren’t able to accomplish that goal, we also had our own internal goal to mobilize and energize and bring more people into the movement. We accomplished that,” explained Carlos Amador. As momentum grew in 2010 and actions unfolded across the country, thousands of calls and emails began to pour into the offices of targeted legislators in support of the DREAM Act.
In December 2010, after the Dream Movement won an extraordinary victory when the House of Representatives passed the Dream Act, in a heartbreaking defeat it failed to garner the necessary votes to overcome a filibuster in the U.S. Senate. But a small and extremely important victory, whose importance would only gain more and more significance in the months to come, had been won. None of the undocumented students who were arrested in almost a year of nonviolent civil disobedience were charged or deported.
The Latino vote had been critical to President Obama’s election in 2008. Coupled with his publicly stated support of the DREAM Act and promised support of Comprehensive Immigration Reform, he could not take the risk of deporting these students for fear of the public relations disaster and backlash from Latinos that would surely follow if he had. President Obama called the failure of the DREAM Act in the U.S. Senate an “incredibly disappointing vote.”
For less organized protests, this kind of defeat has often meant the end of a struggle in which participants went home empty handed.
Part Two of this story will tell how the young Dream Act organizers did not give up, but regrouped, shifted strategies and refocused their efforts to win an historic victory that improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of undocumented students and their families in the United States.
Posted: Tuesday, 10 July 12