How Undocumented Immigrants Can Change the 2016 Elections

IMMIGRATION POLITICS-People who were brought into the US as children and grew up American can’t make their voices heard at the ballot boxes. But they won’t stay silent. 

The question of the so-called DREAMers – the millions of people who were brought into the United States as children and grew up undocumented even as they became as thoroughly Americanized as the nachos at a baseball game – will present politicians in the 2016 presidential elections with a starkly simple proposal: you’re either with them, or against them. 

Stand unequivocally with them – that is, agree that the only way to deal with their limbo is to grant them a legal status that will lead to citizenship and offer a similar path for family members and friends who don’t qualify – and politicians stand with history and with a group of people who represent the best this country has to offer (educated, motivated, successful young people who help to better los Estados Unidos every day). 

Stand against history, logic and the American dream, as many Republicans and even Democrats do, and politicians had better prepare for protests – the more inconvenient and prominent, the better.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s President Obama on the campaign trail last year or pendejo Republicans at an Iowa soiree last month, nothing will stop DREAMers from targeting politicians big and small as long as amnesty remains out of reach for them and many others. That prospect should have both Democrats and Republicans running scared (and has), as activists have already scored major victories and are poised for more. 

(Though the term “DREAMers” is prominent in the national conversation, many undocumented youth have moved on from the term, arguing it’s too restrictive and doesn’t take into account the various ethnic, sexual, and gender identities within the movement. Or, as one activist put it, the term is “soo 2010”.) 

The evolution of the DREAMer movement has been one of the most inspiring, maddening political stories of the past decade – one to which I’ve had a front-row seat, since a former intern of mine was undocumented and my former radio producer, Julio Salgado, is a celebrated undocuqueer cartoonist. 

(Oh, and my daddy came to this country in the trunk of a Chevy in 1968.) The first legislative push to legalize the status of undocumented minors happened in 2001, when Illinois congressman Luis Gutiérrez and Senator Dick Durbin pushed the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors – which gave the campaign and the young people embodied by it the acronym. The effort was scrapped for years in the chaos following 9/11, during which time DREAMers took it upon themselves to emerge from the shadows, starting clubs at universities across the country and forging alliances with mainstream groups. 

During the great immigration rallies of 2006, the sight of thousands of young people marching in graduation gowns and mortarboards provided unforgettable imagery to the movement of our best and brightest, unwelcome under the law. 

At the time, such activists portrayed themselves as what they were and are – secular saints, well-behaved youth who just wanted the full embrace of the only country they knew as home. Politicians on the left and right used to point to them as the “good” immigrants, proof of what the nation’s undocumented could contribute if they had a chance at amnesty. 

But as the years dragged on, the original activists didn’t stay young and remained undocumented while hundreds of thousands more joined their ranks. In 2007, a rekindled DREAM Act failed to overcome a threatened Senate filibuster, torpedoed by the Know Nothings in both the Democratic and Republican parties even after many DREAMers offered their heartbreaking stories before congressional panels. Righteously angered at the inaction of Capitol Hill, DREAMers began staging prominent protests, each one upping the politician-shaming ante. 

In May 2010, five DREAMers dressed in caps and gowns staged a sit-in at Senator John McCain’s office. Here in Orange County, the awesomely named Orange County DREAM Team began hounding Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez in 2009 over her refusal to co-sponsor the DREAM Act. (she finally did in May 2010 after two prominent DREAMers at Brown University died in a car accident ). Hunger strikes were launched; online campaigns mobilized DREAMers across America. 

These newest students, along with the original activists, took control of their own narrative – and many liberal Latino activists who had once stood with them now openly criticized their supposedly brazen tactics and disrespect of Democrats. 

And still, they continued to protest, and they won’t be stopping now. Even the implementation of Obama’s 2013 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) – which allows some undocumented folks the opportunity to apply for a two-year work permits if they arrived both before their 16th birthdays and before June 2007 – hasn’t stopped DREAMers. In 2013 and 2014, dozens had themselves purposefully arrested to protest Obama’s record-breaking deportations, undocumented and unafraid. 

With Republicans firmly in control of Washington now, and Obama not willing to destroy his party’s chances in the 2016 elections, it’s possible that any immigration reform will be stalled for years to come. By then, the original DREAMers will be well into their 30s, and those who benefit from DACA could be aging out even if the program survives into the next administration. People who have spent their entire childhoods and much of their adult lives living as Americans will not – and should not have to – quietly board planes and trains to countries only the US immigration system refers to as their “homes”. 

So, politicians: do you stand with the DREAMers, or do you stand against them? Because if it’s the latter, be prepared for the headaches and rally-crashers you deserve. People who are trying to stay in the homes they’ve grown up in and love have nothing to lose and their future to gain.


(Gustavo Arellano is the editor of OC Weekly, the author of Orange County: A Personal History and Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, a lecturer at California State University, Fullerton, and a consulting producer on FOX's animated show, Bordertown. He also writes"¡Ask a Mexican!," a nationally syndicated column. Gustavo is a lifelong resident of Orange County the proud son of two Mexican immigrants, one of whom was undocumented. This column was posted first at The Guardian)







Vol 13 Issue 13

Pub: Feb 13, 2015