Originally published by Politico
Within hours after Attorney General Jeff Sessions broke the news on September 5 that President Donald Trump was canceling the program known as DACA, protesters were blocking traffic in streets near the White House. In New York, at least 34 demonstrators were arrested for sitting down across Fifth Avenue in front of Trump Tower. Students walked out of high schools in Denver, Fort Worth, Phoenix and Albuquerque, among many places. The next day, two dozen protesters, properly dressed in business attire, paraded through the lobby of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, chanting, Here to stay!
The swift and widespread reaction surprised the White House, but not the Dreamers. Over the past decade, these young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children have built an intensely organized political movement-speaking out, staging demonstrations, building alliances and hounding lawmakers to expand their legal foothold in the United States. Emerging from the undocumented underground, in 2012 they wrested a victory from President Barack Obama, by protesting, lobbying and shaming him for his record of aggressive deportations until he used executive authority to create the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which now shields nearly 800,000 Dreamers from deportation. Since Trump’s election, Dreamers have been busy laying plans to rise up in resistance if he carried through on his campaign pledges to take the program away. Now their careful organization is paying off.
Our community fought way too hard to get to this moment, said Adrian Reyna, an organizer for United We Dream, the largest of the immigrant youth organizations, on a conference call with more than 6,000 members from across the country on the night of September 5. The discussion was partly group therapy to console frightened DACA holders, some of them sobbing. But mostly, it was a call to the ramparts. We are resilient, Reyna reminded them.
We’re ready, hundreds of voices shouted down the line.
Until now, the Dream movement, even when it was growing, has not always been visible, because of the constant risk that people without legal immigration status could pay for activism with the high price of deportation. The Dream Act, a bill providing a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants, from which the Dreamers take their name, was first introduced in Congress in 2001. But for years it languished unnoticed with little popular support.
But every Dreamer has a moment, generally toward the end of high school, when he or she first confronts the hard limitations of being undocumented in America. Often it comes when they want a driver’s license, financial aid for college or a first real job. Before DACA, the barriers could become insurmountable, forcing young people to recede into the low-paying limbo of the shadow economy. And about a decade ago, as a large generation of undocumented youth came of age, many of them started to reject the constraints, and a movement began to take shape.
In 2008, Cesar Vargas, a Mexican-born undocumented immigrant from Staten Island, New York, was in his first year of law school at the City University of New York, starting to contemplate the likelihood he would never be able to practice law. He began to search on line for others in the same predicament.
It started out as a loose network of people who randomly found each other, Vargas says. The glue that bonded us was the reality of what it means to be undocumented.
It was 2009 when Viridiana Martnez, a Mexican growing up in rural North Carolina, first told a reporter about her anger that she couldn’t go to college because she couldn’t afford the tuition demanded of nonresidents. Julieta Garibay, from a Mexican family in Texas, was thwarted in her goal of becoming a nurse.
Gaining confidence as they grew in numbers, they and other Dreamers began to reveal their status, sometimes in public coming-out ceremonies, taunting authorities to deport them. Early on they discovered they could use their personal stories, tales of upward striving the American way, as powerful tactical tools to advance their cause.
No single date marks the beginning of the movement. Some activists point to the Dream Walk, when four immigrants-three of them undocumented-set out from Miami in January 2010 on a four-month hike to Washington. Exposed to arrest for deportation at any point along the way, they called on Congress to pass the Dream Act. One of the walkers, Gaby Pacheco, born in Ecuador, remains a prominent Dream leader to this day.
Others recall an act of civil disobedience in May 2010 by five immigrants in caps and gowns, who staged a sit-in protest in the offices in Tucson of Arizona Senator John McCain, defying police to arrest them. The action ended peacefully, and immigration agents never arrived to deport them.
By late 2010, the movement was rolling with momentum, with Dreamer rallies proliferating across the country. But they hit a wall in December when the Dream Act failed in the Senate by a narrow vote.
That defeat brought recrimination and feuding among nascent organizations. The movement split into three main groups with different tactics but indistinguishable names-United We Dream, DreamActivist, Dream Action Coalition. But instead of fading, the divided groups morphed and expanded, with chapters springing up on college campuses and in far-flung communities, where each year more Dreamers were coming of age and looking for help.
What they all shared were hostile relations with Obama, a Democratic president who held himself up as an avatar of civil rights but in practice was relentlessly deporting undocumented immigrants, including Dreamers and their parents. Studying immigration law, the groups created rapid response teams to stop deportations. They would flood the White House and the Department of Homeland Security with calls while besieging immigration agents with protests. In Arizona, activists lay down in the street to block federal vans from conveying immigrants to deportation.
Movement leaders became convinced that Obama, who was in the midst of his reelection campaign, had the power to stop deportations on a larger scale. Street protests picked up pace, focused on the president rather than his Republican rival, Mitt Romney. In early June 2012, two protesters closed down the Denver offices of Obama’s campaign for a week with a hunger strike, shocking his staff.
Obama announced DACA on June 15. With no approval from Congress, the program was only temporary, providing protection against deportation for Dreamers for two-year renewable terms. But it also came with a work permit and a Social Security number, opening many doors.
It was incredible, almost surreal, to see the power we had to make the president act, Garibay recalls.
The program provided a vast pool of new recruits for the movement. Dream organizations helped immigrants to sign up, bringing them in to their networks at the same time. In strategy conferences and trainings, they taught street protest tactics and coached young immigrants on how to tell their stories for maximum effect. They offered comfort-including a suicide hotline-for young people whose future in the United States remained gnawingly insecure.
Opening another front, Jose Antonio Vargas, a gay Filipino undocumented immigrant from California who had been a reporter at theWashington Post, had a spectacular coming out in 2011 by revealing his illegal status in an essay in the New York Times magazine.
Convinced that Dreamers needed to burnish their image with American voters, he became an untiring master narrator of his own saga while helping others to become the same. In June 2012, after DACA was announced, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, surrounded by dozens of Dreamers. Too old by four months to be eligible for DACA, Jose Antonio Vargas founded an organization, Define American, that makes sympathetic films and videos about Dreamers and today has local chapters at 48 colleges. The aim is to achieve broader acceptance and permanent status for all undocumented immigrants.
For some other young immigrants, just protecting Dreamers was not enough. In actions designed to provoke immigration authorities, activists from one militant group, including Martnez, exposed themselves directly to arrest, then set to organizing other immigrants in the detention center in Florida where they were sent. They wanted to prove that many adult immigrants who were being deported were not criminals any more than Dreamers.
We realized, wow, this is powerful, Martnez says. We were harnessing our power to let our people know they could fight their deportation cases, too.
Some Dream leaders said the protest was reckless, needlessly exposing the activists to disastrous deportations. In an ironic outcome, the authorities, seeking to avoid a detainee uprising, expelled the protesters from the detention center and banned them from returning.
After Obama won a second term, youth leaders stalked the halls of Congress as the Dream Act was included in a broad immigration bill that passed the Senate in 2013. But it became clear the Republican-led House would never approve that measure, and activists set their sights once again on Obama. After a new round of escalating demonstrations, in November 2014 the president used executive action again, this time to create a program styled after DACA but much larger, that would benefit millions of undocumented parents.
It never took effect, stopped in the courts by Republican-led states that saw it as a lawless overreach by Obama. But Dream activists kept working, shifting to the states, pressing them to adopt laws ensuring that DACA permits would allow them to get them driver’s licenses and professional certificates and pay for college at in-state rates. Cesar Vargas won a long legal battle in New York be able to practice law. Along the way, Dreamers knit together alliances with big city and small town mayors, business and university leaders, and churches.
By 2016, some Dream leaders decided to move squarely into electoral politics. Lorella Praeli, a movement veteran, became national coordinator for Latino voters for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Cesar Vargas took a similar position with Bernie Sanders, setting up a fierce head-to-head competition.
But then Trump was elected. Dreamers, who had hoped a President Clinton would move a broad reform with citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants, quickly returned to a familiar combative mode. United We Dream, which now claims 400,000 members, had trained a new generation of street activists called the honey badgers, named for animals known for holding their ground and shaking off snake bites. They are prepared to take protests to inhospitable terrain to confront Trump supporters. Garibay, a United We Dream founder who at 37 is a senior stateswoman of the movement, moved back to Texas to mobilize opposition to a crackdown there. Martnez still works to stop deportations through her group in Durham, North Carolina, called Alerta Migratoria.
Cesar Vargas is going local, too, centering his work in Staten Island to raise support among voters for Congress to pass the Dream Act at long last. To signal to Trump that he is not backing down, he applied earlier this year through a federal employment website to become the secretary of homeland security.
Obviously I didn’t get that job, he says slyly.
But his and other Dreamers’ diligent organizing has paid off nonetheless.Last week, when Trump canceled DACA, he triggered more than the Dreamers’ wrath. Patiently cultivated allies decried the move, including hundreds of major business CEO’s, Roman Catholic prelates and evangelical Christian leaders, Democrats including Obama and even some Republicans. New York and 13 other states sued to stop the cancellation, as did the University of California.
The message got through. By the end of the first day of protests and furious pushback, the president seemed to back down. If Congress didn’t pass legislation to legalize DACA within six months, Trump said in a tweet, he would revisit his decision to end the program.
Read more: www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/09/09/dreamers-daca-learned-to-play-politics-215588
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