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Let Dreamers Lead, Allies Must Follow

by David Bennion

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Thumbnail image for UrielIt's been hard for me to set fingers to keyboard to organize my thoughts about yesterday's Senate vote blocking the DREAM Act. I have a lot of thoughts and emotions swirling around inside right now. Even before the vote, I felt stymied--anxious about the bill's prospects, angry at the obstinate ignorance displayed by opponents, and frustrated at my own feelings of powerlessness.

If there is any cause for optimism in this dark moment, it is that the DREAM movement has now come into its own. Dreamers will never again be token poster children held up to support someone else's agenda--the enforcement first, legalization later agenda unsuccessfully promoted by President Obama, Democrats, and national advocacy groups.

That agenda failed, the plans that others made for Dreamers failed, and at the end of it all, advocacy groups and politicians jumped on board the DREAM Act bandwagon because it was the only legislative vehicle that was moving, the only one that had even left the factory. And the primary reason the DREAM Act got as far as it did this legislative session was because of the activism of Dreamers: the hunger strikes, the 1500-mile Trail of Dreams march, the acts of civil disobedience targeting key legislators, the Dreamers coming out to journalists, and hundreds of other actions around the country planned and executed by Dreamers themselves.

As we look for a way forward, it is important to think about what has worked and hasn't worked so far. With this in mind, I want to address a few key groups.

To my fellow pro-migrant allies and advocates:

I don't question your devotion to the cause of improving the lives of immigrants and working to realize the potential of this nation of immigrants. I know I could have done more myself to advance this cause if not for my own failings.

But the time for formulating immigration reform strategies in back rooms and delivering them with instructions for implementation to immigrant communities is over. The time for mobilizing communities without informing them has passed. This top down strategy failed, and will continue to fail if given the chance.

It's not a charitable reading, but I take the strategy by the national coalition to have been this: (1) Gauge existing public sentiment on immigration after a successful 30-year nativist campaign had poisoned public opinion against immigrants (2) accept core precepts of the nativist narrative as baseline assumptions, (3) aim for what is politically possible in that barren environment, always settling for less, always lowering expectations when pressured. That may not have been what was initially intended, but it is what I watched happen. That is why a coalition consensus formed around a supposedly bulletproof employment verification system to stamp out unauthorized employment forever, national ID cards, racial profiling programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities, and rhetoric ("go to the back of the line," "admit that they broke the law") that endorsed the criminalization of immigrant communities.

This was a strategy seemingly designed to fail. And not surprisingly, it has crashed and burned spectacularly.

I propose that the principal reason this strategy was so poorly designed and implemented is because undocumented immigrants themselves were only involved at the margins.

When was any civil rights battle won--or even convincingly fought--by allies or surrogates? Rights are only granted after those who suffer the violence of an untenable system push that system to its breaking point. Not only do we citizens not have the same incentive to fight as hard as undocumented do (with notable exceptions, for instance, members of mixed-status families), we often can't fight the same way.

I haven't been arrested. I haven't gone on hunger strike. I haven't quit my job to organize full time, as many Dreamers did this year.

I'm unlikely to be targeted for violence because someone thinks I won't call the police or believes that I don't belong in my community. But most of all, I can't be deported.

My stake in this struggle is derived from those who are targeted by law enforcement and whom law enforcement allows to be targeted by others. Other allies are closer to this pain than I am: those who have undocumented family members or who belong to communities still under the ugly cloud of prejudice.

But all of us allies should acknowledge when it is time for us to step aside and let others take the leading role. Just as leaders of past struggles were members of the targeted community--who often paid for their work with their lives or their freedom--the immigrant rights movement will only succeed when it is led by undocumented immigrants.

So I ask you, please, get out of the way and let them lead. Please gently remind me when I forget to do this myself.

To the Dreamers:

I can't pretend to understand the pain and disappointment you are dealing with right now. I saw a Facebook update today that quoted the lyrics to K'naan's World Cup song, and I took it as I think it was intended, a manifestation of hope after hope was crushed:

When I get older, I will be stronger
They'll call me freedom, just like a waving flag

You are older. You are stronger, and you are only getting stronger still. You don't know your own strength, so let me tell you: you are stronger than a hundred attorneys, more powerful than a thousand politicians. You embody perseverance and the ideal of justice in a way that no Senator does or can. It seems otherwise, but your power springs from the oppression you suffer, from the injustice visited against you.

My advice is this: Don't rely on me.

What I mean by that is don't rely on allies to do what only you have the power to do. Don't wait for advocates to make things happen, don't wait for this society to live up to its own stated ideals. It will never happen ... unless you make it happen.

My request is this: Let me know how I can help.

To all opponents, bystanders, and tourists:

We look forward to your eventual support, whether before or after the laws in this country catch up to the people who live and work here. Your children and grandchildren will learn about this struggle from their schoolteachers, and will be taught to embrace the ideals of this movement. If you can't live with this scenario, I can refer you to some good attorneys to help you emigrate somewhere else.


Dave Bennion

About The Author

David Bennion is an immigration attorney at Nationalities Service Center, a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia. He blogs at Citizen Orange.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.