What happens to a dream deferred?


Rally for fired Chipotle workers in downtown Minneapolis (photo by Sally Jo Sorenson)

Langston Hughes understood dreams, those deferred and those denied. For too many immigrants, the American dream “sags, like a heavy load,” heavier now because of the double blows of the defeat of the DREAM Act and the Obama administration’s unrelenting pursuit of undocumented immigrant workers in the workplace.

Chipotle workers marched in Minneapolis last week, protesting recent firings attributed to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) pressure on their employer to clear the payroll of any possibly-undocumented workers. The tool ICE uses is workplace audits, which have pushed deportation numbers to a record high this year. The timing of the Chipotle workers’ firing-after training in non-Latino replacement workers and before receiving long-awaited Christmas bonuses-tasted particularly bitter.

Our immigration system is broken. Despite the incessant repetition of “why don’t they just get in line to immigrate legally?” the truth remains: there is no line. There is no application for an undocumented worker to file, no line to stand in, no way of ever obtaining legal permission to live and work here. There is no legal immigration route for the millions of undocumented U.S. workers. There is no legal immigration route for the high school students whose parents carried them across the border when they were infants or toddlers. There is no way.

Comprehensive immigration reform is needed, but comprehensive immigration reform has been blocked for years. Even back in the day when Senator John McCain supported it, comprehensive immigration reform never got close to passage. So the Obama administration, though promising to prioritize immigration reform, decided to seek Republican support by imposing a hardline enforcement and deportation regime.

Rather than focusing its enforcement efforts on finding and deporting criminals, ICE went after workers. Reporting on record deportation numbers, MPR talked to  John Keller, director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota:

“What we think is happening is that ICE itself is continuing to want to show an increase in the number — the raw number — of people that it’s removing from the United States,” Keller said. “And the only way they can do that is by getting the easiest people that fall into their laps.”

The DREAM Act would have offered a circumscribed, on-your-best-behavior opportunity to become legal residents to a limited number of young people. Young people brought to the United States before the age of 16 who have lived here for more than five years and then attended college or served in the military would have qualified to apply for legal residence. Even that was voted down by a Senate that is hamstrung by filibuster rules.

In a July interview, John Keller warned about a growing credibility gap for the president on immigration. He suggested that the president could take some executive actions even if he could not get comprehensive immigration reform through Congress, such as granting deferred enforced departure (DED) to students who would come under proposed DREAM Act provisions.

On December 21, President Obama said he will not give up:

“It is heartbreaking,” President Obama said of the failure of the Senate to pass the legislation, which would provide a path to citizenship for children brought to the country illegally if they serve in the military or attend college. “The kids are going to school, like any other American kid.  They’re growing up.  They’re playing football. They’re going to class.  They’re dreaming about college. And suddenly, they come to 18, 19 years old, and they realize, ‘Even though I feel American, I am an American, the law doesn’t recognize me as an American.  I’m willing to serve my country.  I’m willing to fight for this country.  I want to go to college and better myself, and I’m at risk of deportation.’

“One thing I hope people have seen during this lame duck: I am persistent,” the president said. “I am persistent.  You know, if I believe in something strongly, I stay on it.  And I believe strongly in this.”

Though a handful of Democrats also played a role in defeating the DREAM Act, the president said he would engage on immigration reform with Republicans whom, he said, “in their heart of hearts, know it’s the right thing to do, but they think the politics is tough for them.  Well, that may mean that we’ve got to change the politics and I’ve got to spend some time talking to the American people.”

The president is not the only one who can act. In that July interview, Keller issued a call to action to all who care about immigrants and immigration reform:

“If we give in to the political calculations that the president repeated today, that we can’t do anything unless the Republicans join us, it saps our commitment and energy … It turns our back on the very people who are too vulnerable to raise their voices and who are counting on us to fix this issue for this generation. I would challenge anybody who’s frustrated and angered by the lack of action out of Washington to channel that into positive phone calling, conversations with neighbors, working with faith communities, unions, professional associations, Minnesota’s business and other employment-based associations, etc.”