DREAMers Score a Win with Obama's Immigration Initiative, But the War Is Far from Over

Like a lot of DREAM Activists, Phoenix's Daniela Cruz is both elated and skeptical in the wake of President Barack Obama's watershed decision not to deport young immigrants such as herself.

"I'm happy, and at the same time, I know it's all politics," the 21-year-old says following the June 15 announcement of the stopgap measure that would allow individuals brought to the United States before their 16th birthdays to apply to remain in the country and obtain work authorization.

The president's move was notable for what it was not. On its own, it's not a pathway to citizenship nor is it a blanket grant of "backdoor amnesty," as critics such as Governor Jan Brewer have labeled it.


Stephen Lemons

As outlined in a memo by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the administrative action "confers no substantive right [or] immigration status."

Individuals still will be processed by immigration authorities on a "case-by-case basis" and will be subject to a number of requirements. They can be no older than 30, must have remained in the country for five years, and must pass a background check.

They must be in school, have graduated from high school, obtained a GED, or be an honorably discharged military vet. They cannot have a felony or a "significant misdemeanor" on their records.

If implemented systematically, the president's action could affect the lives of about 1 million individuals nationally. But the legislative concept behind the DREAM Act has been around for more than a decade. In that time, the proposal's advocates have been burned repeatedly by politicians and federal flunkies.

So Cruz, who was brought to the United States from Mexico by her mother when she was 10, would like President Obama to walk the talk.

"The first thing I want to see are DREAMers who are in jail right now — the undocumented students who would fit the criteria — [get] released from detention," she said.

Cruz and other DREAMers plan to "hold Obama accountable" for his words. They're grounded by the knowledge that even if they qualify for what Napolitano calls "deferred action" in her memo, it will last only two years, after which they must reapply.

Also, a lot can happen in two years.

"We know that if Obama doesn't get re-elected, [Republican GOP contender Mitt] Romney might cancel the whole thing," Cruz said.

"Might" is the crucial word there. After all, Obama's smooth move effectively outflanked the Republicans, who had been cooking up a similar legislative proposal to be sponsored by Florida U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, often touted as a prospective running mate for Romney.

Reaction from GOPers to the Obama initiative generally divided into two camps: the shrill and the soft-pedalers.

On local TV news stations, recalled former state Senator Russell Pearce looked as if his head were going to explode in rage. He waved a copy of the Constitution in reporters' faces, calling the president's action "illegal," "unconstitutional," and "malfeasance."

Nationally, some Republicans made similar comments, promising a lawsuit to block the action. But they are as full of bunk as Pearce.

Obama most certainly has the power to do what he did. In fact, more than 90 law professors recently wrote him arguing that he had "clear executive authority" to make such a decision, and that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement possessed "prosecutorial discretion" when it came to the undocumented.

That is, the agency can and does regularly choose whether to pursue the removal of individuals in the country illegally.

That letter was part of a larger effort to nudge Obama into doing the right thing, as the president previously had told students pushing for DREAM Act legislation that he could not issue such an order.

In that instance, he was wrong; he could've issued this new directive at any time during his presidency.

The combination of political expediency and pressure from DREAMers and their allies moved Obama to see the error of his ways.

Immediately after Obama's White House speech on the matter, Brewer called a press conference to denounce the new policy as "blatant political pandering" and a "preemptive strike" on the U.S. Supreme Court's soon-to-be-announced ruling on Arizona's breathing-while-brown law, Senate Bill 1070.

Both points may be correct, but so what? Obama's policy change is only an "outrage," as Brewer called it, if you disagree with it. And polls consistently have shown that Americans support some form of the DREAM Act. Even Arizonans approve of the proposed legislation by a 3-1 margin.

(Note: A Bloomberg poll released as this column went to press showed 64 percent of American voters support Obama's move.)

As for political pandering, that's something Brewer should recognize, as she's a master of it. Signing 1070, fear-mongering, trumpeting a nonexistent crime wave, and talking up fictitious headless bodies in the Arizona desert all helped Brewer get elected. Just as Chuck Coughlin, her ear-whispering political Cesar Millan, told her it would.

But with illegal immigration at a 40-year low and the economy still in the doldrums, nativist politics is proving itself a risky proposition beyond the GOP's nativist base.

For one thing, most people are worried about the lack of money in their wallets. And for another, even Republicans dare not ignore an increasingly powerful Latino electorate.

This explains Romney's reticence to blast Obama's new policy, à la lightweights Brewer and Pearce. Two days after the announcement, Romney appeared on Face the Nation, where host Bob Schieffer dogged him on whether he would repeal the president's decision.

Romney dodged a yes-or-no reply, explaining that if he were elected, he would seek to resolve the issue on "a long-term basis." His main criticism of Obama seemed to be that he had waited so long to act.

"[H]e was president for the last 31/2 years and did nothing on immigration," Romney said, adding, " I would work with Congress to put in place a long-term solution for the children of those that have come here illegally."

Is this the same candidate who, during the GOP primaries, espoused "self-deportation" for the estimated 12 million undocumented people in the United States? The same guy who said he would veto DREAM Act legislation?

Such is political reality. Romney needs to siphon some of Obama's Latino support in the general election if he wants to win, and Obama needs to make sure Latinos turn out for him in record numbers, as they did in 2008. Both politicians are acting accordingly.

Additionally, in Arizona, there are cracks in the wall of bigotry that surrounds the GOP, the successful recall of top brown-hater Russell Pearce in 2011 being the most prominent.

One moment of Republican clarity came during a discussion of the president's DREAM Act order on the Channel 12 news show Sunday Square Off. Asked his opinion on the decision, state GOP spokesman and conservative blogger Shane Wikfors gave a shockingly sane response.

"This is a conversation that's not going to go away anytime soon," he said. "And it's a conversation the Republican Party has got to have at our national convention at Tampa in August.

"I think this party needs to re-evaluate its position on how we deal with people [who] are part of us, part of our community," he added.

Wikfors noted that what he said "went against the grain," but he averred that state party Chairman Tom Morrissey was of the same mind.

Another panelist wondered whether Pearce, the state party's first vice chair, would agree with him.

"I think he would, to a large degree," Wikfors said.

Sadly, that sort of generosity of spirit was not evident in the remarks of Pearce or Brewer. Still, Wikfors deserves props for simply saying what a lot of Arizona Republicans believe but have been too cowed by a nasty GOP strain of ethnic McCarthyism to voice.

Juan Escalante, spokesman for the Florida-based website DREAMActivist.org, is as skeptical as Daniela Cruz of the president's maneuver.

He compared it to the so-called "Morton memos," penned by ICE Director John Morton, prioritizing criminal aliens for removal and laying out guidelines for ICE officers regarding the use of "prosecutorial discretion" in cases where aliens are not a threat to the country.

Escalante noted that people were "very excited" when Morton issued those directives, only to be disappointed later when they were not fully implemented and deportations rolled on to record numbers — 1.5 million for the Obama administration so far.

"It just seems to me that a 'case-by-case basis' means people like myself," he said, "who are politically informed [and advocating for the DREAM Act] are going to fight on a case-by-case basis, begging essentially for the benefits [of the president's policy] to be allotted."

Yet, his jaundiced view aside, Escalante acknowledges that the president's move was a "game changer," though in a way many did not expect.

"It changes the dialogue," Escalante said. "Now people are adjusting their positions, adjusting their messaging . . . because whatever happens on this issue, it's going to get them power."

In other words, Obama's action, though bearing an obvious political advantage for the president, forces all but the most hateful to re-evaluate their opinions on the issue.

See, the DREAM Act is something that's difficult to oppose.

In 2010, the measure was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and would have passed the U.S. Senate were it not for the 60-vote rule on blocking filibusters. The bill won 55 votes in the Senate, just five votes short of cloture.

The bill's failure was not just because of Republican intransigence, as five Democrats either voted nay or did not vote at all, leaving the bill to die once more. Nor was the bill a priority for the president in his first term, despite his public promise to sign it if it got to his desk.

Obama didn't keep the DREAM alive. DREAMers deserve credit for that, through tireless activism, helping pro-immigration politicos get elected, encouraging others to vote, and carrying out demonstrations that often included defiant acts of civil disobedience and sometimes direct confrontation with law enforcement.

I clearly recall, on the day following the massive anti-SB 1070 demonstrations of July 29, 2010, a DREAMer approaching Sheriff Joe Arpaio as he strutted in front of one of his jails, proud of himself after his goons wrongfully had arrested Phoenix civil rights leader Sal Reza.

Arpaio was saying something to reporters about how he was "just enforcing the law," when a DREAM Act student presented himself to Maricopa County's top law enforcement official.

"Why don't you arrest me?" he wondered. "I'm undocumented."

Flabbergasted, the sheriff declined the challenge, telling the young man that he wasn't violating the law for just standing on a public sidewalk.

It wasn't the first time Arpaio or other cops had punked out in front of DREAM Act students declaring themselves "undocumented and unafraid."

A month before this incident, a group of so-called "DREAM Walkers" presented themselves to Arpaio, announcing their undocumented status.

Arpaio ended up hugging it out with the students.

The walkers had participated in similar confrontations earlier that year as they trekked on foot from Miami to Washington, D.C., visiting sheriffs and ICE offices along the way and revealing their status as illegal aliens.

Interestingly, they found no takers.

DREAMers have been willing to be arrested for their cause, risking deportation. For instance, in 2010, DREAMers in graduation hats and gowns staged a sit-in at U.S. Senator John McCain's Tucson offices and were arrested. There also have been hunger strikes and sit-ins at congressional offices in Phoenix, D.C., and elsewhere.

In recent months, DREAMers have been upping the ante and focusing on President Obama, staging sit-ins at Obama campaign offices in Michigan, Ohio, and Colorado.

More had been scheduled before the president's action, and these would have proved damaging to Obama's hold on the Latino vote.

In March, Cruz was one of four undocumented students who blocked traffic with about150 others at Trevor G. Browne High School on the west side, in an action backed by Escalante's DREAMActivist.org.

When Phoenix police in riot gear showed up, the undocumented students would not disperse and subsequently were arrested as they got cheered on by others nearby.

Though Cruz and her compatriots each had ICE holds placed on them, ICE later refused to take them into custody, forcing their jailers at the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office to release them.

Cruz and one other young woman still are fighting charges related to the arrests. She said she "hopes" the civil disobedience in which she and others have engaged influenced Obama's temporary solution to the problem.

"It's still a victory," she explained, even though she does not know how the proposal will affect her or others who share her plight. "To me, [Obama's order] is something to pump us up to work even harder for the DREAM Act."

And, perhaps, for Obama's re-election, as many commentators have noted.

"I would say that the Latino populace, the immigrant community maybe will be energized [to support] Obama's campaign," Escalante said. "But the question will still linger over everybody's head as to why it took so long for something to be done. Why did it take a record level of deportations before some sort of action was taken?"

Hypothetically, the Obama administration could have stayed deportations against an even larger group of people illegally living in the United States. But it didn't. Instead, the policy grants relief to a very specific category of people, and even then, only after individual review.

Many think undocumented adults among us are equally worthy of some form of legalization. But we're not there yet. Currently, it's politically palatable for Obama to extend ICE's "prosecutorial discretion" over young men and women willing to study, work hard, and eschew criminal activity.

But once Americans have digested the idea of accepting 1 million DREAMers, how hard will it be for them to accept that these DREAMers' mothers and fathers should be allowed to stay, as well?

If you acknowledge that America is not going to deport 1 million people here unlawfully, and that allowing them to remain is the realistic and humane thing to do, then how much of a leap is it to accept that the same should apply to the law-abiding and productive of all 12 million undocumented people in the United States?

Viewed this way, Obama's action, qualified and restricted though it is, could be the thin edge of the wedge. Historically, we may look back to this and realize that it was the first step in addressing the premier civil rights crisis of our time.

And it will be the DREAMers, the shock troops of progress, who made it happen the American way.

"We're definitely not going to stop or give up," Cruz promised. "We're going to fight for the DREAM Act and for [permanent] immigration reform. Because our parents are the ones who brought us here and have given everything for us."

Escalante also was looking to the future.

"It will be a very interesting story come two years down the road," he said, "when you and I talk again on this very same issue."

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