DREAM Act and DREAMers shaping 2012 and beyond

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With Benita’s appearance, both parties must confront the issue of what each would do to modernize the nation’s broken immigration system. This includes a look more narrowly at what each would do with undocumented youth who will benefit from President Obama’s executive DREAM Act. Listening to the speeches of President Obama, former President Bill Clinton, and Texas Mayor Julian Castro indicates that an Obama victory in November ensures the continuity of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, at least until congressional action is finally taken. Conversely, Mitt Romney has refused to say whether he will continue the program, with hints from top advisors indicating Obama’s deportation directive would “be subject to review and repeal” if Romney won the White House.

Uneasiness and controversy has been the hallmark of Republicans on the issue of immigration. Republicans like Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who has compared immigrant to dogs, have been the most vocal voices for the party on immigration. This is not to say that the Republican party is the problem; rather, it is the current and extreme right elements controlling the party that is the problem. Indeed, DREAMers supported and campaigned for Republicans including Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) in primary races against Tea Party candidates. Recognizing their weakness, Republicans in Tampa deliberately ignored the issue of immigration and advisors to Mitt Romney have urged the candidate to avoid it on the campaign trail.

While the economy is of primary concern to Latinos, immigration is an issue of personal attention, specially to Latinos of mixed status families. Republican nominee Mitt Romney has endorsed SB 1070, Arizona's anti-immigrant law, to become a model for the nation, put forth a “self-deportation” policy, and promised to veto the DREAM Act. As a party, Republicans have adopted an inflexible enforcement-only approach to immigration, including a national E-verify and “encouraging” SB 1070 copy cat laws. Republicans have lionized anti-immigrant hawks like Sheriff Arpaio, who has been taken to court by the Department of Justice for discriminating Latinos. And it doesn’t stop on immigration policy. Republicans across the country have been persistent in suppressing Latino, Black, and youth voter turnout by passing voter ID laws and early voting restrictions laws. These laws have been struck down by federal courts in Texas, Ohio, and Florida as denying access to the franchise. These were the reasons undocumented youth in Florida organized and marched against the GOP in Tampa.

Democrats and President Obama have an opportunity to demonstrate bold leadership that moves away from flashy rhetoric and closer to the core of hope and change.

But, as there always is in politics, the inclusion of a DREAMer also sheds lights on President Obama’s difficulty to fulfill his promise to pass comprehensive immigration reform or the DREAM Act, as he did with health care. An administration who in his first first three years has deported more than 1 million

undocumented immigrants, more than any presidential administration since the 1950s. While many were violent criminals and properly deported, there were also many more innocent fathers and mothers who were separated from their families. Most importantly, the story of Benita is only one of thousands stories that include more than stellar students. They include stories of entrepreneurs, community leaders, undocumented fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters working long hours to elevate their family closer to the American Dream.

DREAMers unquestionably arrived in Charlotte to a more inclusive environment at the Democratic Convention. In fact, Democrats have been voicing their support for the DREAM Act for almost a decade. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has been the leading champion of the DREAM Act. It was House Democrats that passed the DREAM Act in 2010. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) has been the first lifeline by an emboldened President Obama to Latino families who have struggled with immigration status.

Nevertheless, Democrats should be cautious to think simply mentioning the DREAM Act or standing next to a DREAMer during a press conference will suffice to gain our support and the Latino vote.  

DREAMers have made a lasting political impact and will continue for years to come. There is much work to do. But it is work that falls not only on President Obama but on the American people and our movement to secure accountability from elected officials from both parties. President Obama’s experience as chief executive prompted a modest speech but secured an open vision leaving the political territory open for us to keep him accountable. On November  7, DREAMers will be at the doors of the White House and Congress to remind Democrats that, as Governor Deval Patrick urges, “it’s time to grow a backbone and stand up for what we believe.”

Vargas is a national activist for the DREAM Act with the DREAM Action Coalition.