By Brad Sigal
Minneapolis, MN - On Dec. 10, seven students here started ato demand that Congress pass the DREAM Act. The DREAM Act is a proposed law that would give some undocumented immigrant youth the possibility to gain legalization if they go to college or join the military.
The students gathered for a vigil the evening of Dec. 10 at El Colegio high school in South Minneapolis to announce the start of the hunger strike and mobilize community support. The hunger strike is based at El Colegio, where students have covered the walls of the school’s gallery with art and murals dedicated to the DREAM Act. Over 40 people came to the kick-off vigil.
According to hunger striker Alejandra Cruz, “We decided to start the hunger strike in solidarity with the San Antonio, Texas DREAMers who had gone 31 days with no food. Also to put pressure on the Senate and show them that we are one, we’re together in the same struggle. We believe in our dreams of higher education and to be able to contribute to this society.”
The U.S.passed the DREAM Act last week by a vote of 216-198. was slated to vote on the DREAM Act the morning after the House vote, but tabled it because there were not enough votes to block the possibility of a Republican filibuster against the bill.
While passing the Senate is far from assured, it’s worth noting that this is the first legislation that includes a significant legalization component which has passed in either house of Congress since the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which among other things granted amnesty to around 3 million undocumented immigrants.
The 1986 bill, and all other immigration reform proposals in Congress since then, have grouped legalization provisions that activists support together with increased restrictions and repression that most activists have opposed. While the DREAM Act does not include any provisions that increase repression, the Democratic leadership reintroduced a new version of the DREAM Act in recent weeks that restricts the number of youth that would benefit from it and also increases the ‘conditional status’ waiting period from six to ten years.
Despite overall support for the DREAM Act, many activists have been critical of the military provision of the bill. The original version of the DREAM Act included a non-military service option. Critics of the military provision point out that many immigrant youth don’t finish high school, so if the choice is only between college and the military, more undocumented youth will be tracked into the military. They call for a non-military service option to be added back into the DREAM Act. DREAMers respond that it may or may not be true that more youth will join the military than go to college, but since there are in fact undocumented youth who want to join the military, those youth should have the same rights in all spheres of life that other young people have, including the right to join the military.
It is a dramatic turnaround that the DREAM Act passed in the House of Representatives, and still has a chance of passing the Senate to become law. A year ago the congresspeople who tend to be the most supportive of immigrant rights were telling activists that it wouldn’t be possible to pass any immigrant rights legislation this year. During his electoral campaign in 2008, President Obama promised to pass immigration reform in his first year in office, but instead the administration has increased deportations and border militarization, while not taking any action on immigration reform legislation that included legalization, such as ’s proposed CIR-ASAP bill.
Rather than being disillusioned by politicians’ inaction, the DREAM students pushed forward with a series of dramatic actions to demand that Congress pass the DREAM Act this year. A group of DREAM students risked deportation by doing a sit-in at Senator John McCain’s office in Arizona. Four students ‘came out’ publicly announcing they were undocumented during a walk for justice from Florida to D.C. to demand action on the DREAM Act. In Chicago the Immigrant Youth Justice League declared themselves “undocumented and unafraid,” publicly announcing their undocumented status and demanding that Congress take action. And there have been a series of DREAM Act hunger strikes in front of congresspeople’s offices from North Carolina to New York to Texas to Indiana. The determination of these students, along with broad support from the Latino community and social justice movements, rallied the immigrant rights movement out of an impasse and has brought the DREAM Act to the verge of passing Congress.
Democratic Party leaders in the outgoing lame duck Congress, which still has Democratic Party majorities in both houses, have vowed to try to pass the DREAM Act despite Republican efforts to block it before the session ends in the next week. Most observers assume that if the of Congress doesn’t pass the DREAM Act, that any immigrant rights legislation will likely be dead for the next two years in the more conservative incoming Congress.
Over the past few weeks students have mobilized supporters to make hundreds of thousands of calls to Congress. The hunger strike in Minnesota is another bold action that is captivating the imagination of thousands of people while not allowing Congress to delay yet again taking action for immigrant rights