Many an immigrant rights activist and blogger (not to mention immigrant students themselves) is mourning the defeat of the DREAM Act this week. And rightly so. But while we should indeed be saddened by this legislative defeat, there’s actually little time to do so given the threat looms on the electoral horizon: anti-immigrant Democrats joining Republicans.
Beneath the death of the Dream Act lies an even deadlier (as in more desert dead and more detained children and families) future previewed in key developments this week. Among the most disconcerting developments are statements about immigration made this week by Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), the powerful chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and an architect of the Democratic congressional victories of 2006. Emmanuel is quoted as saying that immigration “has emerged as the third rail of American politics, and anyone who doesn’t realize that isn’t with the American people.” He also added that “This issue has real implications for the country. It captures all the American people’s anger and frustration not only with immigration, but with the economy,” and that “It’s self-evident. This is a big problem.”
Talk of a “third rail” coming from one of the top Democrats-one who is central to plotting strategy and raising money towards their 08 campaigns – is nothing less than dangerous. Such statements mean that candidates and incumbents not only need to stay away from immigration issues; such talk means that some Democrats will feel encouraged to follow the anti-immigrant path trod by some of their peers previously. Consider the crop of recently elected “pragmatists” like Montana’s Senator John Tester and Missouri’s Senator Claire McCaskill. Both ran to the hard right of even the most basic immigration reform earlier this year. And when the Dream Act came up for a vote Tuesday, they joined the Republicans in denying the Dream to immigrant students.
Rather than look at last year’s or this week’s votes, some of us need look back a bit further, to 1994, in search of answers about what is now likely to happen with the Democrats-and what we should do about it. That watershed year brought us the beginning of contemporary anti-immigrant politics in the form of California’s Proposition 187, which sought to deny health and education benefits to the children of the undocumented (sound familiar?). Most students of immigration politics trace the origins of the Republican anti-migrant kulturkampf (culture war) to then California Governor Pete Wilson and the Republican party. While true and while important to understand the similarities between California 1994 and a U.S. circa 2007 that’s starting to resemble the Golden state demographically, we miss much if we fail to include the other father of the anti-immigrant politic: Bill Clinton.
As we begin the search for a new way in immigration politics, some of us would do well to remember that the exponential increase in immigrant deaths in the desert began not with the Minutemen patrols but with Clinton, who launched “Operation Gatekeeper” in 1994. Recent desert history makes tragically clear that the Clintonian and Democrat third way in immigration leads directly to deadly mirages.
Rather than Dream with Democrats, some in the immigrant rights movement need to awake from the electoral slumber and get back to basics: local& regional power-building and direct action. Power-building because Emmanuel is almost right when he says that immigration “captures” people’s frustrations with the economy. But,I’d substitute the word “economy” with the word “capitalism”. “Economy” implies a faith in an economic system that’s abandoned even whites, which is why you have rabid Republicans, populist haters like Lou Dobbs and, lest we forget, Minutemen. “Capitalism” because it, not “the American Dream”, drive millions to levels of desperation requiring them abandon their homes, “capitalism” because it has pushed us to the brink of environmental destruction that creates environmental refugees who are branded “criminals” and “invaders” by the very people who either pilfer illusions like the now dead “American Dream” or sell them.
The possibility of the Dream Act and of “immigration reform” was not born in the rotting bosoms of the two corporate parties, nor of their allies in the community. It was born of dreaming and acting on the part of those with nothing to lose. I remember calling DC-based advocates last year and asking them about the prospects for new legislation. Most sounded like they do now: sad, lonely and scared, much like immigrants facing a less political, more existential reality inspired by the rabidity of the raids. Then, suddenly, the movements took schools, streets and the country entire. And the prospects for “reform” changed.
Elections and politicians alone will not solve either the general crisis at hand or the even greater immigration crisis that looms.;They matter only when there is power from below that obligates or persuades them to move.
So, I think we need to take a break from looking to DC groups and their Democrat allies for “reform”. That formula has failed and failed with fatal consequences for many years. Let’s stop believing the siren songs already heard in the Beltway that sound something like “Just wait til we elect a Democrat.”
Our timing needs to look beyond the electoral clock. Our target can’t solely be white and black voters. Our vision can’t just be limited to the illusion of the border. And we don’t just need to change parties. We need to change the country, change capitalism.
The Dream Act is dead. Time to Dream – and Act.