After deporting more immigrants than any President in recent history – and we are talking in the hundreds of thousands – President Obama’s decision this past June to grant deferred status to DREAM Act-eligible students was very much a long-awaited and welcome one. It was, and is, a reason for celebration as it represents a move forward for the movement to defend and support the rights of immigrants. DREAM Act students have led the way when it comes recognizing the presence and contribution of immigrants to this country. They have given this movement a face and a powerful story. Though I am sure this is not what the Republicans meant when they professed last week at their convention in Tampa, “We Built It,” it is certainly a true statement for immigrants to make that claim about the United States – “They Built It” is spot on.
At the announcement of his decision President Obama stated, “[DREAMers] are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper.” He went on to say that his decision represented “a temporary stopgap measure” that would “lift the shadow of deportation from these young people” and make immigration policy “more fair, more efficient and more just.”
I have no doubt the President was moved to act in this way due to two very powerful forces. One is politics: the President must win at least 60% or more of the Latino vote in order to win re-election and he has rightly faced much resistance for his Administration’s frankly reckless handling of this issue and the terror that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have routinely implemented on immigrant communities through raiding immigrant businesses and homes, breaking up families, and deporting hundreds of thousands of people – many of whom represented no threat whatsoever to the safety of their communities. He needed to do something big and he did it.
Secondly, I think the President and his administration have been moved by the stories of DREAMers and the amazing character and bravery they have shown as they have willingly put themselves at the forefront of the immigrant movement. They know that by putting themselves out there they could very well end up arrested and deported by ICE agents, many of whom have shown no respect or regard for the decision made by the President.
To clarify – because there is an attempt by many on the fringe far-right to further demonize immigrants and to cast the President’s decision as one made outside the law – the President’s decision directs the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to stop deporting undocumented immigrant youth and allow them to obtain work permits if they arrived in the United States before they turned 16 and are younger than 30, have no criminal record, have been in the United States for at least five consecutive years, graduated from a U.S. high school or hold a GED, or served in the military.
The President’s decision is definitely NOT the long-term solution we need. We still need Congress to act, to pass the DREAM Act, to reduce the long waits for family members to be reunited, to provide a pathway to undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S., and to protect the rights of workers. But this has been rightly seen as a step forward.
Now, I tend to be jaded and cynical when it comes to politics, but even I did not expect the anger and the backlash by far-right conservatives, some of them whom I thought were not that extreme. Judiciary Committee member and Senator from Iowa, Charles Grassley responded to the President’s announcement, saying, “The president’s action is an affront to the process of representative government by circumventing Congress…It seems the president has put election-year politics above responsible policies.” Hmmm, interesting comments by Senator Grassley, especially since we know that Republicans (and some Democrats) have been putting election-year and xenophobic politics above responsible immigration policies for years. And his concern about circumventing Congress seems also an interesting commentary since Congress – again, due to Republicans and a handful of fearful Democrats – have been circumventing responsible governing for years when it comes to providing humane and reasonable solutions to a broken immigration system. But don’t let introspection get in the way of scoring anti-immigrant rhetorical points Senator Grassley!
Republican Governors have been getting into the act as well. When they aren’t too busy making it impossible for seniors and poor folks who can’t afford government-issued photo ID’s to vote – thereby reinstating the poll tax from the 1950s and before – many Republican Governors are now mandating that state agencies not give driver's licenses or other benefits to undocumented immigrants who obtain work authorizations under the deferred status granted them by President Obama. In states like Nebraska, Mississippi, Texas, Arizona, and others, Governors have chosen to stand in the way of progress and to score anti-immigrant rhetorical points by slamming the door shut in the faces of people who want nothing more than to be recognized as human beings and to contribute to a society that is their home.
This is when anger simply knows no reason, when hatred towards immigrants has no basis other than to simply hate and prevent them from coming into the fullness of their humanity. In many ways, the Governors’ actions taken against DREAMers are redundant to current laws in their states. Therefore, the reason they took their action was not for any other reason than to assert their own (mis)use of authority; to dampen any enthusiasm for the President’s announcement among DREAMers; to perhaps reassert for themselves that theirs is not a dying social and political order. To cut off DREAMers from the state benefits serves nothing other than to be mean and spiteful.
And like all meanness and spitefulness, the negative impact will be felt more deeply by the Governors and their states they supposedly lead than by the DREAMers. As stated above, many of these executive orders given by Governors are already found in current state law. This is nothing new for DREAMers, but by mandating it in this way, the Republican Governors open themselves up for further legal challenges by DREAMers. Those legal challenges are going to cost states financially and these are states that are already ridden with legal costs because of past multiple anti-immigrant laws. In addition, it shows once again that hatred for undocumented immigrants clouds one’s judgment and does not allow people who are in the business of hating and benefitting from hating to see that if undocumented immigrants were allowed to work they would contribute far more to economically strapped states than would doling out thousands of dollars for legal fees for laws that are designed to marginalize and not build up.
At the end of the day, those of us who support immigrants, those of us who are building a movement among people of faith to defend and support the rights of immigrants need to learn one major lesson from all of this mean-spiritedness directed against DREAM Act-eligible students. That lesson is this: anti-immigrant forces have absolutely no interest – and I mean zero interest – in finding common ground for real solutions to a broken immigration system. There is no possibility of negotiation when the other side has nothing on their minds than the absolute and complete deportation of millions of people, breaking up hundreds of thousands of families, and instituting a reign of terror never seen before inside the borders of the United States.
So what do we learn from this? For us to constantly try and negotiate with people like Governor Brewer of Arizona, or Governor Bryant of Mississippi, or Governor Perry of Texas or Kris Kobach, the writer of the Arizona and Alabama anti-immigrant laws, the writer of the voter ID law in Kansas and other states, and the primary advisor to Mitt Romney for his immigration policies shows not only their meanness, but our stupidity. There is only one answer to such meanness: we must build a movement more powerful than theirs. Our movement, based on love and respect certainly has the potential to be more powerful – love is truly the most powerful force in the world. But we have got to stop insisting that we try and find common ground with these people who simply hate immigrants. We have to overpower them, plain and simple. So far, all too often, their meanness has been more powerful than our love.