How Undocumented Students in the United States Shifted Strategy, Regrouped, Refocused and Won an Historic Victory
Part 2 of a two-part series.
Originaally published in Narco News.
The failed Senate vote (see Part I of this series) of December 2010 could have been the end of the effort to stop the deportation of undocumented students in the United States. It certainly felt like a devastating blow to the movement. Tears flowed; anger, frustration, and heartbreak were unleashed on social media sites and in protests across the country. “After the Senate vote, there was a convening at the UCLA Labor Center. We took to the streets in a sign of protest, unity, empowerment, and solidarity. We embraced each other’s grief of losing the campaign and the opportunity,” said Carlos Amador, one of the organizers.
Neidi Dominguez, an undocumented graduate ofUC Santa Cruz and an aspiring lawyer began to research the possibilities for a way forward. Together with other Dream Movement organizers, they evaluated the 2010 Dream Act defeat. They took note of the fact that although the Republican Party was the most vocally opposed to the DREAM Act, and the President publicly supported the DREAM Act, Senate Democrats had failed them. In the end, the movement fell short of advancing the DREAM Act when five Senate Democrats failed to vote to end the filibuster. Together they evaluated the strategy they had undertaken, and carefully considered the lessons learned from strategic missteps in order to develop a new strategy. “When we didn’t get the Democrat votes we needed in the Senate, it was a transformational moment for us and we decided to target the President and Democrats in our strategy,” said Dream Team LA member, Neidi Dominguez. “President Obama had publicly supported the DREAM Act, and now we were going to hold him to his promise,” she said.
Bypassing Congress and Directly to the President’s Desk<
They soon began to explore a strategy that would bypass the bitterly divided and partisan Congress and shift attention to a demand which the President could deliver all on his own.
Dream Team Los Angeles soon rallied behind the idea of an Executive Order that would grant Administrative Relief to young people living in the country illegally. Thus, the Right to Dream Campaign was born. Through Administrative Relief, their demand included not only a halt to the deportation of undocumented youth, but went a step further and demanded that they be granted work authorization.
The most frequently asked question and hurdle they had to overcome in building support for the idea, was whether an Executive Order granting Administrative Relief was legally possible. An early supporter of the Right to Dream Campaign was Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund Executive Director, Tom Saenz. Together with Dream organizers, they assembled a legal team made up of volunteer attorneys. The legal team went to work assembling a legal argument that would support the organizing strategy.
With their legal research in order, the movement spent months on an internal education and organizing campaign to garner support for the new strategy. Soon they had the buy in from the national United We Dream Network.
The movement then publicly launched the campaign armed with legal research, a legal team of experts, and a plan for the ground campaign. The first action in support of the campaign took place at the Los AngelesICE Prosecutor offices in October of 2011. Five students, members of Dream Team LA, Orange County Dream Team, and San Fernando Valley Dream Team, returned to the previously successful tactic of the dilemma action. They announced that they were “Undocumented and Unafraid” and conducted a peaceful sit-in demanding that the President grant Administrative Relief.
The day after the action, a memo was delivered to the Director of ICE, John T. Morton, outlining the Administrative Relief demand and presenting their legal argument. “They believe, as do many immigration attorneys—that the same power that you exercised in reinvigorating ‘prosecutorial discretion’ can be exercised by the administration in the form of an ‘application’ for administrative relief. This includes the executive branch’s authority—and responsibility—to make decisions on how it will interpret and implement existing law,” wrote Scott Daniel McVarish from The Immigration Law Offices of Los Angeles. The memo went on to argue that the Obama administration had the legal authority to grant DREAMers work permits and to ban students from being put into removal proceedings.
As part of the October 2011 action the DREAMers demanded that they be granted a conversation with United States Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano. They weren’t granted that conversation and when they refused to leave they were promptly arrested in their graduation caps and gowns. The action was soon followed by solidarity actions in two Electoral College swing states important to President Obama’s reelection campaign, Florida and Colorado. At this point they won the President’s attention and soon thereafter, the White House responded to their actions. The White House communicated that it believed that the President did not have the legal authority to grant theDREAMers demands. In addition, they argued, it was politically impossible to grant the demand during an election year.
Targeting the Most Important Hurdle
In addition to needing to win political support for their demand, the Dream Movement identified the White House’s legal argument as the first and most important hurdle they needed to overcome in order to win.
Organizers then settled on the idea that they needed the legal argument to be made by somebody other than the “usual suspects”. Professor Hiroshi Motomura, from the UCLA School of Law, then took the lead in gathering signatures from law school professors, including professors from the Yale and Harvard Schools of Law, on a declaration stating the legal and historical precedent for Administrative Relief. The letter was ultimately signed by over 90 immigration law experts from universities around the country.
As the letter was privately circulating and gathering signatures, Dream Movement organizers escalated the Right to Dream Campaign by holding small actions at Obama campaign headquarters. Organizers of the Dream Movement had met with the White House previously, but faced with growing momentum in support of the Administrative Relief demand, the White House agreed to meet with representatives of the Dream Movement one more time.
Dream Movement representatives Neidi Dominguez, Gaby Pacheco, and Lorella Praeli, entered the White House meeting with the letter in their back pocket. In what turned out to be a genius strategic move to use their legal arguments to generate increased political support, they released the letter to select media outlets. As they sat down for the meeting, the Spanish language newspaper, La Opinion reported on the law professors’ letter.
“The first punch was, here is the letter signed by 94 professors. We then informed them, it is now public through La Opinion,” said Neidi Dominguez. The last and final punch delivered by organizers was that they expected a response from the President by June 12. They notified the White House that starting on that day they were going to begin a national week of action in key swing states, including Nevada, Florida, and Colorado in support of Administrative Relief. “I think they thought we were crazy,” said Neidi Dominguez.
In the days that followed, other mainstream media outlets reported on the letter from the immigrant law professors. Two weeks before the student’s June 12 deadline, The New York times reported on the letter and the Obama administration’s response as, “The main focus needs to be on Congress, because only legislation they pass can provide Dream students with a permanent solution, which is what they deserve.”
Despite pressure from some immigrant rights goups against targeting the President in an election year, Dream Movement organizers continued their efforts in preparation for June 12. The media attention soon began to re-energize the Dream Movement. Wildcat actions in support of administrative relief began to pop up across the country in Obama Campaign headquarters located in swing states. The momentum in support of the Administrative Relief demand was building very quickly. “It was then that President Obama, the White House, and his campaign people realized, ‘Oh my god, these kids are serious,’” said Neidi Dominguez.
On June 12 the White House still hadn’t responded and the Dream Movement then went into high gear. A second round of sit-ins at Obama Campaign headquarters ensued in Colorado, Nevada, Florida and other swing states. In addition, on June 13, at the request of organizers, in a letter to President Obama, AFL-CIO President Trumka re-iterated his support for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, but also threw his support behind the Administrative Relief strategy as an interim solution. “With ultimate responsibility for fixing our nation’s broken immigration (sic) rests with the Congress, the Administration can take an important intermediate step to protect a class of individuals whose cases are particularly compelling.” After outlining the Administrative relief options available to the President, AFL-CIO President Trumka goes on to say, “Adopting a program to grant any of these forms of administrative relief toDREAM Act beneficiaries would give great hope to our nation’s youth, and the AFL-CIO strongly urges your Administration to do so immediately.”
The movement had not only succeeded in presenting a broadly supported legal argument to counter the President’s concerns, but it had now ratcheted up the political support for their demand.
On June 15, just two days after the sit-ins escalated in swing states and after receiving the Trumka letter, in a move that surprised even Movement organizers, the Obama administration issued an Executive Order granting undocumented young people, administrative relief. “We got everything we had been fighting for, it is as if they just copied and pasted our memo and issued it as the Executive Order,” said Neidi Dominguez.
The hard-won victory, years in the making, was the result of diligent organizing, a willingness to adapt, training and preparation for different kinds of actions, smart and creative strategic planning, and exercising the discipline required to implement an agreed upon strategy with an emphasis on the importance of small victories on the long road to their ultimate goal.
The Dream Movement organizers have pledged to continue in their struggle, they know that this victory represents a step towards a larger goal of a path to citizenship not only for young undocumented students, but for the millions of undocumented people living in the United States. “With this victory there is great hope that a larger victory, like Comprehensive Immigration Reform or the DREAMAct, is possible,” organizer Carlos Amador reflects upon the victory. “This is just the beginning, this is the proof that we are going to be able to win something bigger soon.”
Posted: Thursday, 11 July 2012