Student DREAMers and the Fight for Immigration Reform

President Obama's recent decision to stop deporting some young undocumented immigrants came in the context of a powerful movement by young people to enact the immigration reform proposal known as the DREAM Act.  Student readings examine the new Obama policy and the tireless efforts of young activists to change U.S. immigration policy.


To the teacher: 
In August 2012, the Obama administration began implementing a new immigration policy. Under the policy, the U.S. will stop deporting some undocumented immigrants and begin granting them work permits. Immigrants under 30 years old who came to the United States as children, have no criminal records, and are honorably discharged veterans or high school graduates will now be able to stay in the country without fear of deportation.
In effect, the new policy enacts a large portion of the decade-old Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives in 2010, but was narrowly defeated in the Senate. 
Much of the discussion and debate in the wake of the president's announcement has focused on the president's use of his authority to enact the new policy without Congressional approval. The media has paid less attention to the young activists who have worked tirelessly in support of immigration reform. Without constant pressure from these DREAMers--as they have been become known--would the Obama administration have felt as great a need to act on the issue?
This exercise consists of two readings. The first reading discusses President Obama's immigration action, its specifics, and the responses from critics and supporters of his plan. The second reading looks more closely at the DREAMers and their efforts to push for immigration reform. Questions for student discussion follow each reading.



Student Reading 1: 

Obama's new immigration policy

In mid-August, the Obama administration began implementing a new immigration policy. In doing so, it followed up on the president's announcement two months before that his administration would stop deportations of some undocumented immigrants and begin granting work permits to this group. Immigrants under 30 years old who came to the United States as children, have no criminal records, and are honorably discharged veterans or high school graduates will now be able to stay in the country without fear of deportation.
In effect, the announcement enacts a large portion of the decade-old Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives in 2010, but was narrowly defeated in the Senate. The DREAM Act was first introduced in 2001 by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois). It was designed to offer a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants of "good moral character," many of whom who have lived the majority of their lives in the United States. 
In the summer of 2012, recognizing that the DREAM Act was unlikely to be passed through the Republican-controlled Senate, the Obama administration took matters into its own hands by changing how the federal government will enforce existing immigration law. Immigration officials will no longer pursue deportation of individuals who would be covered by the DREAM Act, instead focusing their attention on "high-priority" undocumented immigrants. 
Conservatives who favor tighter immigration controls have criticized the DREAM Act since its inception on the grounds that it resembles an amnesty program. They have also taken issue with President Obama's recent announcement, arguing that the administration's use of "prosecutorial discretion" when enforcing immigration law represents a violation of the exiting laws. As Matthew Spalding, a blogger for the conservative Heritage Foundation, writes in a June 19, 2012, post: 
The Administration insists it has wide "prosecutorial discretion" when it comes to enforcing immigration law. No one doubts that judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officers should have discretion about what charges to bring and how to handle particular cases. There are always exceptions to the rule. But Friday's order, which uses the term discretion some 10 times, seems to go beyond discretion to the point of creating a policy scheme contrary to existing law. The exception has become the new rule.
Imagine a police chief instructing everyone on the police force to issue no speeding tickets to anyone under age 26, regardless of how fast the driver was going. That's not discretion; it's a policy instruction that changes the meaning of the law. 
The Obama administration has fired back at critics who have called the plan "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants. As the Huffington Post reported on June 15, 2012:  
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters that the policy change is part of a general shift by the Obama administration to focus on deporting high-priority undocumented immigrants.
"This grant of deferred action is not immunity," she said. "It is not amnesty. It is an exercise of discretion so that these young people are not in the removal system. It will help us to continue to streamline immigration enforcement and ensure that resources are not spent pursuing the removal of low-priority cases involving productive young people."
"More important, I believe this action is the right thing to do," she continued.
The policy change will effectively enable Dream Act-eligible young people, often called DREAMers, to stay in the United States without fear of deportation, and without legislation from a Congress that is unlikely to pass a bill. 
Defenders of President Obama's immigration announcement note that immigration authorities have been using prosecutorial discretion to stop deportations for over three decades. 
As the liberal media watchdog organization, Media Matters, reported in a June 15, 2012, blog post:
In a 2009 article, Penn State law professor Shaba Sivaprasad Wadhia stated that in the immigration context, "The use of prosecutorial discretion... was revealed by INS in 1975 as a consequence of a lawsuit involving John Lennon and Yoko Ono." Wadhia added that before 1975, prosecutorial discretion "was a secret operation of the INS." 
By 1975, immigration officials were factoring humanitarian considerations, youth, and longtime presence in U.S. into immigration cases. Wadhia stated that in 1975, the government issued instructions stating that if deportation of a person was "unconscionable because of the existence of appealing humanitarian factors," government officials should not deport that person. Other factors to consider while exercising prosecutorial discretion included "advanced or tender age" and "many years' presence in the United States." [The Role of Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Law, Connecticut Public Interest Law Journal, 9/21/09]
Immigration reform advocates have cheered the Obama administration's action, citing it as a just and humane approach to young immigrants who are contributing productively to American life. Yet without being passed into law by Congress, the provisions of the DREAM Act enacted by President Obama are vulnerable to being reversed by a future administration. 

For Discussion:  

  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2. What was the DREAM Act designed to do?
  3. On what grounds do critics of the new enforcement policy object to the administration's action? What do you think of their arguments?
  4. Why does the Obama administration feel that its new policy fall within the bounds of "prosecutorial discretion"? What does this term mean?
  5. How do you feel? Should young people who immigrated with their parents when they were children and have lived in the United States for years be able to stay without fear of deportation?


Student Reading 2: 

Student DREAMers fight for immigration reform

Since the White House's immigration announcement, much of the discussion and debate has focused on President Obama's use of his authority to circumvent Congress. Less attention has been paid to the young activists who have worked tirelessly and at great personal risk in support of the DREAM Act since its introduction more than a decade ago. Without constant pressure from these DREAMers--as they have come to be known—it is unlikely that the Obama administration would have felt as great a need to act on this issue.
It is hard to overstate the fearlessness that DREAMers have displayed while undertaking civil disobedience in order to raise public attention and build support for their cause. Take activists Jonathan Perez and Isaac Barrera, for instance, who intentionally subjected themselves to arrest to show that previous immigration policy was misguided. As the Huffington Post reported in a December 16, 2011 story: 
A pair of college students from Southern California recently walked into a Border Patrol office in Alabama, the state whose immigration law is considered the harshest in the nation.
Jonathan Perez, 24, and Isaac Barrera, 20, openly admitted to the federal officers on duty in Mobile, Ala., that they were undocumented. It was a brazen act of protest against what the students said were the contradictory immigration enforcement policies of the Obama administration.
Within the hour, the Pasadena City College students were arrested and swallowed up in what critics call the quagmire of immigration detention. They spent more than two weeks in custody, initially in Alabama and later at a federal detention facility in Louisiana.
Perez, who came to the U.S. from Colombia with his family when he was 3 years old, said landing in federal immigration detention last month "was about coming out of the shadows."
"We need to live without fear because the fear paralyzes us," Perez told the Huffington Post. "If we stay quiet, we stay in the shadows." 
The protest by Perez and Barrera was just one in a swelling tide of similar creative actions undertaken by DREAMers in recent years. In 2010, four young people made a 1,500-mile march from Miami to Washington, D.C. to draw attention to the cause. Students have also used the time-tested tactic of the sit-in—occupying Obama campaign offices, for example, with the aim of making immigration an election issue.
Each time such actions have made headlines, more individuals who would benefit from the passage of the DREAM Act have been emboldened to join the movement. Following President Obama's announcement in June, the program Democracy Now! featured guests Jose Antonio Vargas and Lorella Praeli. Vargas, an undocumented immigrant, "came out" last year in a story for the New York Times. Lorella serves on the United We Dream National Coordinating Committee. Both spoke about their respective decision to get involved in immigrant rights advocacy: 
JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Watching these... four activists [who] walked from Miami to Washington, D.C., to fight for the DREAM Act, the Trail of Dreams, right? I felt like a coward, and I felt accountable. And that's when I decided that, you know what? I got to go do this. My career could not keep going without kind of confronting this. So that's why I decided to do it.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Lorella, the impact of all of the DREAMers, as you're saying you found a community, you no longer felt isolated in that way--what kind of impact do you think the protests, the sit-ins have had, the people coming out, on this final decision of the Obama administration?
LORELLA PRAELI: A defining. You know, I almost feel like I don't have words to describe it, because this country has changed so much since I got involved. So, I was one of those people watching everything, right, through the computer, and really battling. There is this--kind of this internal tension that comes about: "Do I come out? Do I not? And what does it mean if I don't? Am I a coward if I don't? But I'm scared of getting deported if I do." But I saw that people were doing it, and I began to question why I wasn't ready to take that step. And, you know, I went back to the underground railroad people, right? And I said, "This is something I need to do."
Gaby Pacheco and the DREAMers who walked from Florida to D.C., I think that's all changed the narrative in this country. And they have shown us, through -- just by living their lives, by dedicating themselves to this issue and to raising awareness about it and to having the uncomfortable conversations, right? It's not easy to come out and say, "I'm undocumented," because you're still kind of really going through all the process inside about figuring out what this means for you, what the new identity will mean. That all paved the road to get to where we are. 
The actions of the DREAMers in recent years are an important reminder that political change does not take place in a vacuum. The hard work of those dedicated to forcing change is an important factor in influencing the policy decisions made by those in Washington. 

For Discussion:  

  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered? 
  2. What are some of the actions taken by young people to help gain support and visibility for the DREAM Act?
  3. Why have some students risked getting deported in order to draw attention to this cause? How do they explain their reasons for taking such risks?
  4. Do you think these protests are effective? What ideas for public demonstration or civil disobedience do you think have been best?
  5. Can you think of other issues where students or young people have played a role in influencing the decisions of policymakers?
Research assistance provided by Eric Augenbraun.