How Bernie’s Run Is a New Opening for the Immigrant Rights Movement

by Frank Seo, Truthout | Op-Ed –


On April 30, Senator Bernie Sanders, the only socialist in Congress, announced his presidential candidacy in the Democratic race. So far, he is the only candidate challenging Hillary Clinton from the left. For immigrant rights activists and organizers, Senator Sanders’ populist agenda provides a new platform to develop an alternative strategy and vision for the movement.

Since 2006, mainstream immigrant rights organizations and legislators have heavily focused on passing some form of comprehensive immigration reform legislation that provides a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (while further militarizing the border). However, during this process, actual voices and concerns of undocumented immigrants were often lost, if not neglected. Undocumented immigrants’ personal – and sometimes painful – stories were used to garner sympathy for the legislation instead of addressing the root causes of the problem.

More than anything else, the DREAM Act demonstrates the failure of mainstream immigrant rights organizations. Initially, the DREAM Act focused on undocumented youth amid federal failures to move something more comprehensive. The bill soon garnered popularity and gained support from both the Democrats and the Republicans. As the bill’s popularity rose, many undocumented youth adopted the term “DREAMers” to identify themselves.

However, the DREAM Act’s characterization of undocumented youth created dilemmas within the immigrant rights movement. In the words of the Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, “The DREAM Act will give children brought to this nation by their parents through no fault of their own … the opportunity to gain legal status.” This popular – and now dominant – narrative portrayed many undocumented youth as clueless and innocent children who deserved second chances and their parents as wrongdoers. Moreover, the bill’s requirements – such as 4-year college education, military enlistment or the age limit – marginalized thousands who did not meet the criteria.

These internal contradictions could be ignored because the prospect for the immigration reform was so positive, and the legislation created space for a groundswell of undocumented youth to step out of the shadows. At the same time, they severely restricted the energy of the movement. Mainstream organizations and the media tokenized DREAMers as aspiring Americans with remarkable academic achievements. Moreover, many immigrant rights organizations recognized the appeal of DREAMers to wider audiences, and foundations turned them into lucrative funding source. In a way, DREAMers became a commodity for fundraising efforts while perpetuating model minority stereotypes.

The current political paralysis at the federal level exemplifies the immigrant rights movement’s need for an alternative strategy and vision. In 2013, the Senate passed its own immigration bill, concomitant with the explosion of a new electorate sensitive to – or directly impacted by – reform efforts. Still, the GOP-dominated House failed to produce any meaningful legislation – apart from an attempt to repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a temporary protection for undocumented youth.

Moreover, President Obama, who calls himself “champion in chief” of immigrant rights, continues to tear apart thousands of communities every day. Unless the administration’s draconian deportation policy is stopped, President Obama will deport more than 3 million people by the time he leaves office. Last November’s executive action, which expanded protections for undocumented people (while further excluding others), resulted from dedicated pressure from immigrant rights activists. Even then, this temporary and insufficient measure is on hold in federal court.



Reprinted with permission from Truthout