After Bittersweet Summer, DREAMers Solidify Role In Communities
Eleven years ago, Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) received a phone-call from a constituent trying to help her 18-year-old daughter out of a very specific mess.
“She’d been brought to America from Korea at the age of two – no papers filed. She was now 18 and she was an accomplished concert pianist. She’d been accepted at the Juilliard School of Music and the Manhattan Conservatory of Music, and when she went to fill out the applications and it came to citizenship, she turned to her mom and said, ‘Mom, what am I supposed to put there?’” Durbin told attendees at the Campus Progress National Conference in Washington in late July.
Durbin’s office found that deportation guidelines required the young pianist to leave the United States for a minimum of 10 years, an outcome the senator said left him thinking, “What in the heck did she do wrong?”
Today, most Americans recognize this narrative as one that’s shared by 1.4 million undocumented youth. They’re now known as DREAMers in honor of the DREAM Act, a Durbin-sponsored bill that would provide them with legal recognition and status in the country they grew up in.
According to Mariella Saavedra, a Columbia University graduate student and DREAM activist, this new awareness exists because undocumented young people are “coming out” about their immigration status and banding together for mutual support.
Two years ago, Saavedra joined a group of her peers in what she now recalls as an epic trip from Miami to Washington, attending a number of marches and mock graduations organized by DREAMers and allies.
“I felt more empowered,” she said, “being with those other DREAMers.”
This summer, Florida Gulf Coast University graduate Marco Quiroga is immersed in the movement through his work in undocumented communities as an intern at the American Federation of Teachers.
“The best way that DREAMers can influence others is by our own experiences of being undocumented, as a community that lives in fear of someone that they cherish and love being deported,” Quiroga said.
Saavedra, Quiroga and thousands of other undocumented youth around the country are deeply invested in policy shifts on immigration. And as the summer winds down, they are looking back at a season that has been a mixed bag in terms of political gains. Though mid-June saw President Barack Obama announce a policy of ‘deferred action’ that grants DREAM-eligible youth two years of protection from deportation, immigration advocates had only a few weeks to celebrate before the Supreme Court upheld a provision of Arizona’s S.B. 1070 law that allows police officers to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being undocumented, a policy many believe – and the Court concurred – could open the door to racial profiling.
Now accustomed to their new role as outspoken activists, DREAMers say they see the complicated developments of the summer as a sign that they have more work to do, both on behalf of their communities and against their opponents.
‘THEY DO KNOW BUT THEY DON’T’
President Obama said that he believes implementing a deferred action policy is “the right thing to do,” and DREAM allies largely agree that it was. But they also recognize that obtaining a deferral is a difficult and potentially fraught process.
“We need to make sure DREAMers don’t get ripped off,” Saavedra said.
With many undocumented immigrants eager to secure their status as soon as possible, some are looking to take advantage of what they see as easy pickings. Reports about scams set up by individuals offering expedited deferrals for a fee have begun to pop up in the national media. Meanwhile, U.S. Customs and Immigrations Services has explicitly stated online that it will not be expediting deferrals under any circumstances.
On the ground, beyond informative web pages, such schemes continue to mushroom. Quiroga said undocumented communities in Florida are facing a barrage of offers from “people trying to take advantage of them.”
“There are lawyers offering [to do the paperwork] ahead of time and taking cash upfront,” he explained. “There are other individuals in communities telling people they should sign up for some program, and there are ads with offers in Hispanic newspapers.”
Saavedra said United We Dream and DreamActivist, two key DREAMer advocacy organizations, are making efforts to ensure that the new administrative allowance is clearly understood by DREAMers and their families.
Durbin has also entered the fray, announcing that he will host an event in Chicago on August 15 to clarify details of the new policy.
Undocumented immigrants are currently vulnerable to being exploited because they are “misinformed” about the policy’s details and the resources available to them, Quiroga said.
He characterized the situation as one in which DREAMers “do know but they don’t.”
That knowledge gap could take its toll in terms of time, money and an emotional cost.
FIGHTING A DANGEROUS PRECEDENT
Quiroga’s time helping the undocumented fill their deferral request forms is only a small part of this summer’s push for broader understanding on immigration issues. DREAMers across the nation are also focused on arguing against the Supreme Court’s ruling on S.B. 1070.
Speaking two days after the decision was announced, Alejandro Gutierrez, a senior at Yale University and former leader of the campus chapter of Chicano advocacy group MEChA, said that the court’s interpretation failed to satisfy young activists.
“As an immigration activist myself, I am glad that the majority of S.B. 1070 has been struck down and will set precedent for future cases, but the decision did not get to the heart of the matter, which is that the bill effectively legalizes racial profiling,” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez’s concern is rooted in the wording of S.B. 1070, which grants police officers the authority to question people they “reasonably suspect” of being in the United States illegally. The fear is that for law enforcement officers, then, classifying suspects by skin color could seem an obvious option.
“The Supreme Court has decided it’s okay to racially profile people,” said Saavedra, the graduate student. “Anyone brown, really.”
Katherine Aragon, a California native who served with Gutierrez as a leader of MEChA de Yale, said allowing officers this level of latitude in one state could lead to repercussions in others.
“To borrow an idea from one of my professors, Alicia Schmidt-Camacho, recently we have seen Arizona evolve into a sort of chemistry lab and testing grounds for very extreme legislation, including laws regarding immigration, often backed by special interest groups,” Aragon said. “What happens in Arizona does establish a precedent for other states looking to modify their own laws governing treatment and regulation of migrants.”
In a press release issued the day the ruling was announced, the American Civil Liberties Union said it had raised over $8.5million to fight racial profiling cases in Arizona and anti-immigrant measures in other states. Though they are working on a smaller scale, many DREAMers seem just as determined to counteract what they perceive as institutionalized discrimination.
Aragon said she believes that activists need to focus on combating anti-immigrant rhetoric and statements by reminding America that immigrants are critical to the nation’s economy and not “evildoers out to destroy the fabric of American society."
They’ve got the numbers to back that argument: studies from across the political spectrum, whether at the Center for American Progress or conservative New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s Partnership for a New American Economy, have shown that immigrants add to the U.S. in terms of innovation.
While changing minds may take decades, the 2012 election season means that DREAMers have a shot at influencing policy – and its impact on their community – through the ballot box.
DREAMers recognize this and are increasingly motivated to register Hispanic voters, Saavedra said.
The Latino demographic is one that presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has attempted to court this summer, including with an address to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, but Saavedra said she thinks Hispanics are more likely to vote for President Obama because Romney has not seemed clear about his stance on comprehensive immigration reform.
Quiroga said DREAMer advocates this season are also focused on pressuring candidates running for any level of office, right down to state legislatures. Had such an effort been made in Arizona, he suggested, S.B. 1070 might never have been passed.
If Quiroga's suggestion rings true, perhaps a more active and visible DREAMer movement will, eventually, lead to a less discriminatory future.
Akbar Ahmed is a journalism intern with Campus Progress.