(AP Photo/Matt York)
Last Tuesday was momentous in my UCLA class on democracy and social movements. While President Obama was announcing his immigration reform agenda, we were studying the case of the Dreamers, the student movement for immigrant rights that won historic recognition from Obama in June 2012. Lecturing yesterday were Professor Kent Wong, director of UCLA’s labor studies center, and Betsy Estudillo, an undocumented graduate student now studying ways to sustain the morale of the movement while also organizing car-wash workers.
Both recognized the achievement of the historic day, and both worried about the outcome of the political compromises being considered in Washington. But the Dreamers’ “darkest hour,” Wong recalled, was the failure of the federal DREAM Act to pass the US Senate in 2010, which caused the Dreamers to redouble their civil disobedience until Obama’s executive order last year. And Estudillo reminded the students that so-called experts had predicted that recent campaigns to organize janitors and homecare workers “were never gonna happen, until they did.”
The Dreamers movement emerged from an underground subculture of students and young people who were born in the US to parents who came here without documents. America is the only place they know as home, but they existed in the shadows here, clandestinely, in fear of deportation, unable to seek scholarships, to drive, to work legally or to vote. Starting a decade ago, they began to find and help each other in coming out from the shadows, and began pushing for legal alternatives to miserable lifetimes in limbo.
The Dreamers remind me of the Freedom Riders fifty years ago who, deciding they wouldn’t settle for life under Jim Crow, risked jail and racist violence until the Kennedy administration was won to their side, and a political party realignment began. The Dreamers have petitioned, engaged in civil disobedience, lobbied for legislation at state and federal levels, and refused to accept defeats along the way. They even were sitting-in at Obama’s campaign offices last June when the president issued his “deferred action” order effectively protecting their status.
The Kennedy brothers in earlier times sympathized with those like John Lewis, Diane Nash, Charles McDew and others who were defying segregation. But the Kennedys also were uncomfortable with the Freedom Riders and sit-in movement because their actions threatened to upset the unholy alliance of Northern liberals and Southern segregationists on which the power of the Democratic Party rested.
Because of the unrelenting pressure of young people, however, the Kennedys moved forward with desegregation and voting rights, granting new protections and powers to 20 million Southern blacks. Politically, the outcome was the rise of Goldwater’s all-white Republican coalition and a realigned Democratic Party that saw the appearance of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson and many more.
Now it may be the Dreamers’ turn to realign American politics by empowering 2 million of their own number and perhaps 11 or 12 million in the underground gulag. Places like Arizona today are like Mississippi and the Black Belt of yesteryear, where anti-immigrant forces are fighting ferocious rearguard battles against the tide of immigrant workers and voters. Echoes of nineteenth-century wars and persecution against Mexicans, native tribes and Asian immigrant laborers can be heard in the present as well.