3 Mistakes to Avoid in Advocating for the DREAM Act

By Bill Mefford

This is an important week for immigration advocates in DC and throughout the country as they turn their full attention to passing the DREAM Act, which will give citizenship to undocumented students who came to the United States as children. I worked on the issue of immigration when I worked for the United Methodist Church and led the church in our organizing work for a decade. We came within 5 votes of passing the DREAM Act in 2010 and not passing it was one of the hardest losses I have seen or experienced.

Much has changed since 2010, but sadly much has not. Below are three mistakes that too many folks made in 2010 and I hope the current advocates will avoid these mistakes so that we can finally achieve a meaningful first step towards just and humane immigration reform.

1)      Demand a clean DREAM Act

This is simple: refuse to allow Republicans to tack on all of the horrific anti-immigrant amendments to the DREAM Act. We cannot reform our broken immigration system if we constantly allow those who hate immigrants and who do not want any immigrants to enter into the country control the terms of the legislation. We need to call out those who are not opposed to undocumented immigrants – THEY ARE OPPOSED TO ALL IMMIGRANTS! Steve King, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, Louie Gohmert, Ted Cruz, and far too many other Republicans like them will never allow the DREAM Act to pass and if it were to pass, they will do everything in their power to add on every poison pill they can find, including funding for the stupid and environmentally disastrous border wall, more border militarization, increased interior enforcement (or what I like to call state-sponsored terror), or any other vile and dehumanizing legislation they can find to hurt people and do things that do not make sense and cost money.

Advocates have to be willing to go the limit on this: sit-in, protest, march, whatever it takes. The sad reality though is that the supposed immigrants’ rights groups based in DC – far from the reality so many immigrants are facing daily outside the beltway – are already figuring out the politics and deciding to live with whatever Republicans offer them. They will say this is politics. But no, it isn’t. It is political capitulation and cowardice. I have seen this so many times: in 2006, 2007, 2009-2010, 2013, etc. Before they even begin to fight, too many DC-based groups accept that any “pathway to citizenship” will be long, unnecessarily arduous, and will involve denying access to millions of immigrants.

The truth is we do not need to beg for a “pathway to citizenship” for a few. We should demand citizenship for ALL! We do not need to request nicely for a stop to some of the deportations and detentions. We must demand a stop to ALL deportations and detention immediately!

Here is a novel idea. Let’s ask ourselves what policies will actually fix a tragically broken system and make those policies our agenda, rather than start by playing inside baseball politics which benefit only those inside the beltway and almost no one outside it.

2)      Avoid 6 words at all costs

The worst phrase that has unfortunately come to describe DREAM Act students that should never be repeated by those who care for immigrants and want other forms of immigration reform legislation to pass in their life time is “through no fault of their own.” You know how the saying goes: DREAMers were brought here “through no fault of their own.” Even worse, I am hearing some talking heads in the media shockingly say that DREAMers “should not be punished because of the sins of their parents.” Whaaaaat?

STOP!!!

Keep using these phrases and you will ensure that we never have another positive piece of legislative reform enacted in our lifetimes. Remember who the hell you are fighting for! Do you really believe immigrants “sinned” when they could not find employment in their home countries due to giant multinational corporations or giant agribusinesses buying up enormous pieces of land and doing others forms of resource extractions? Do you believe that immigrants sinned when they were forced to move from their farms and homes and seek employment in nearby cities swelling the numbers of unemployment so large that they were ultimately forced to cross into this country just to feed their families? Do you believe that immigrants sinned when they were paid under the table by unscrupulous employers who denied their right to collective bargaining and forced them to work in unsafe working conditions while many businesses refused to pay them for the work they did? Do you think immigrants sinned by having to uproot their families and bring them to the United States because the parents knew that they had to sacrifice their own dreams in order to provide any hope for economic sustainability for their children?

Are those the “sins” you are referring to? No, immigrant parents have not sinned. They have worked their asses off providing for their children, contributing and building up local communities, and being role models for their children and ours.

We need to quit referring to some immigrants as “deserving of citizenship” and others as “undeserving.” No immigrant, regardless of any actions they have committed or status they have been given by our government, is undeserving in any way. All immigrants are beloved children of God and deserve mutual respect and love. To call some immigrants “undeserving” is to deny God for God created all people in God’s image and no person is undeserving of love and respect. Splitting up migrants between deserving and undeserving is a theological heresy that is not supported by Scripture.

Let us corporately repent of this messaging and repentance is needed when sins against God’s creation have occurred. Calling some migrants worthy and some unworthy is sinful. Let us vow to never use this framework ever again and let us work to lovingly confront and correct those who do.

3)      Disband the Evangelical Immigration Table

Several years after I began working on immigration at the national level for the Methodists something called the Evangelical Immigration Table was created to try and mobilize evangelicals to support immigration reform. I was told at the time of its founding that this was what was needed to “flip Republicans.” I was told that progressive religious people couldn’t do it. So, since that time millions and millions of dollars has been poured into this venture from New York-based funders and you know what? They have failed. This thing hasn’t flipped one person I know of. It is time to end it.

And you know what else? The central for why this thing was created in the first place is wrong. Progressive religious people can’t flip Republicans? Wrong. Tell that to the progressive faith folks in Iowa who flipped Senator Grassley from being opposed to sentencing reform to actually authoring sentencing reform legislation and then guiding it through his committee in 2016. Yep, this was done by progressive faith folks.

Further, how can you flip Republicans on immigration reform when the policies you are asking for isn’t really reform? Two of the principles of this table include “guaranteed secured borders” and “fairness for the taxpayers.” Whaaaaat? First, what are faith leaders doing “guaranteeing” a sealed border? And what does “fairness for the tax payer” have to do with ensuring citizenship for undocumented immigrants?

Even more, in 2012 the US spent $18 billion on “securing” the border. Given that these evangelicals want to guarantee secure borders – which, in effect means sealing the border – how many more billions of dollars will that cost and how in the hell does that bring “fairness to the taxpayers”? It’s more like bringing even more affluence and political prestige to an already bloated defense industry. These principles are utterly ludicrous and shows this table was not created with any sound theology in mind, but only because someone thought it was politically expedient. They were obviously wrong. 

Beyond the hypocrisy, the simple fact remains that you can’t flip Republicans to support immigration reform when the principles you stand for reflect the anti-immigrant values of those Republicans you are trying to flip. No wonder they haven’t flipped any Republicans.

The truth is that there are evangelicals who truly want genuine just and humane immigration reform, but these principles were not made with them in mind. I have worked with evangelicals who are sincerely interested in immigrant-centered reform and I never talked to them differently or used different principles than I did with progressive faith folks. And this is why the Evangelical Immigration Table should immediately be disbanded. There is no need for it and it has probably done more harm than good. 

You build movements not because you have millions of dollars and slick media access. Movements are built on relationships and it doesn't matter which end of the theological spectrum one resides on. It only matters if someone is in incarnational relationships among immigrants. 

The bottom line is that the immigration advocacy community in DC needs to model the world we envision if an immigration reform bill – a just and humane one – is enacted. We don’t want a world where certain communities are ghettoized as evangelicals are now, never meeting or working with other people of faith. We do not need a world where certain communities have different rules or are treated special as evangelicals are now. This is not fair to them or anyone else. We need an advocacy community – and a world – where all are recognized for their differences and are welcomed to work and walk together as we struggle for justice.

We want a world where all are welcome, where no one is excluded, and where all contributions to the common good are recognized and held sacred. We can’t ask elected officials to create a world we are not willing to model.

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