In 2006, the movement for immigrant rights — born out of high school walkouts and massive demonstrations that shut down Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Phoenix and other cities — handed president Bush his first major political defeat and changed American politics forever. The movement’s goal was to defeat a draconian piece of federal legislation aimed at criminalizing millions of undocumented immigrants.
The current national debate on the “Bipartisan Framework for Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” lauded by President Obama, provides the immigrant rights movement with a new opportunity to rise up and take to the streets to assure that the new immigration law gives us the equality and full citizenship we deserve.
After two decades of debate, President Obama and some other politicians are promising that some version of the federal DREAM Act will be enacted as part of the overall reform. The new movement will have to be vigilant to make sure this happens.
Undocumented students and youth who have led the immigrant rights movement from its inception have treated the DREAM Act as the movement’s most immediate and pressing demand. Winning this demand is important because it will provide the movement with a cadre of emboldened leaders.
The proposed reform also allows some undocumented workers to get social security cards and drivers licenses. This is another concession to the power of the movement. These gains will inevitably result in the recipients pressing for voting rights and all their civil rights, propelling the movement forward once again.
However, the new legislation is completely flawed and unsupportable precisely because it leaves the overwhelming majority of undocumented people with no guarantee of ever achieving full citizenship. The best young leaders of the movement know this. Under BAMN’s leadership, these youth, many of whom have already used the Deferred Action program to come above-ground and get a first taste of freedom, can use a victory on the DREAM Act to mobilize our communities in a fight to expand, extend and make the new reform beneficial to all undocumented people. The most important thing to understand is the independent strength of our movement.
In words, Obama claims to support providing the vast majority of undocumented people with a pathway to citizenship while praising the “bipartisan initiative” and calling for its speedy passage. Every liberal and most supposedly radical commentators will now echo the president’s line — better to have quick and limited reform rather than go through a drawn-out process that risks no reform or results in nothing substantially better than what is being proposed. Every self-proclaimed “community” leader will urge the movement to act “reasonably” in other words, to lie down passively instead of standing up boldly. They will rely on people’s sense of urgency for change to try to cow the movement into accepting much less than we have the power to win.
Our job is to expose the lie that the speed and the quality of reform are counterposed. We must mobilize our communities to fight to win the freedom and equality we deserve. The movement’s leaders cannot be merely armchair critics of the reform or activist cheerleaders for what is an unacceptable reform package. We can shape the contours of the final bill if we mobilize and fight for a set of demands that provide the immigrant communities with a positive program to mobilize around.
The pathway to citizenship for undocumented people must be open to all. The ability of undocumented people to attain citizenship must be severed from the vague, unattainable goal of “securing the borders.” We need a defined, quick, inexpensive and easy process for undocumented people to get green cards and become citizens. It is absurd to tie the citizenship rights of millions of people to the federal bureaucracy’s capacity to enforce airtight visa controls or to the political exigencies of southwestern governors and attorneys general, as the “bipartisan framework” does.
So long as goods and capital flow unencumbered over the border with Mexico, the people who produce and consume the goods and services will find a way to follow. BAMN supports open borders. Reasonable politicians and policy wonks know that opening the borders is the only way to restart economic growth and end the scapegoating of immigrants.
The movement must demand that any provision providing a special pathway to citizenship for undocumented youth be extended to cover all children without regard to when or how they made the crossing. The idea that small children would receive no protection simply because they are too young to contemplate college or a career makes no sense and is a recipe for social explosions.
It is time for the new movement to return to the streets. The politicians and their rich and powerful backers are proposing some kind of reform because they know we have power, and they hope that their proposal can appease us enough to keep up from marching, walking out and reasserting the power of 2006.
When your enemies retreat and offer an olive branch, you know you can win so much more. This is our situation. Ready the baby strollers, put on your walking shoes, watch the Internet postings from 2006 again and figure out where, when and how to jump a school fence or open the gate. We have an opportunity to fight and win more than what is being offered and to declare that we will never be satisfied with anything less than full equality and the dignity and respect we deserve.
David Douglass is a member of BAMN and submitted this op-ed on behalf of the organization.
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