(DREAMers and parents take an oath in a mock citizenship ceremony during a “United we Dream,” rally on Capitol Hill in July, 2013, sending a signal to the House of Representatives GOP leadership as they discuss immigration reform with their caucus. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon))

Opinion: DREAMers: Altering political narrative, engaging youth and nation

During Hispanic Heritage Month, NBC Latino will examine – through stories, analysis and opinion pieces- different groups which constitute part of our nation’s over 50 million Hispanics. 

On August 21, something extraordinary happened in Arizona.  The Arizona Dream Act Coalition was holding a candlelight vigil outside a Phoenix immigration detention center when a bus, full of shackled immigrants, tried to leave the facility.  The young activists and their mothers ran to the bus, surrounded it, and blocked its path.  With the headlights of the bus shining on them, the protestors prayed, chanted, and sang together.  After hours of a peaceful standoff, the bus returned to the facility.

While this incident may have only delayed a scheduled deportation, it nonetheless generated headlines.  It’s just the latest action by the Dreamers, the immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.  The Dreamers constitute a political phenomenon.  With little power, status, or money, these young people have become the foot soldiers in the struggle for immigration reform.

It wasn’t always this way.  As Arely M. Zimmerman, Ph.D. has documented, immigration supporters had long confined their activism to traditional legal and political channels.  “Initially, student issues were not a prominent part of the immigrant rights movement’s broader agenda,“ she notes.  “Many of the youth groups that were involved in national marches had to assert themselves and fight for inclusion.”  After the Dream Act failed in October 2007, however, the Dreamers began to question established advocacy methods.  Frustrated, they embarked on what was then considered a radical course of action: “coming out” as undocumented under their full names, which placed them at risk for deportation.

In going public, the Dreamers altered the narrative of the immigration debate; no longer were undocumented immigrants faceless, threatening criminals. Valedictorians, honor students, and aspiring soldiers — the Dreamers showed that they were like other young Americans, except that they were here illegally though no fault of their own.

Billing themselves as “Undocumented and Unafraid,” the Dreamers created their own organizationsnetworks, and coalitions.  In 2010, they led a sit-in in Senator John McCain’s office, and a hunger strike outside Sen. Charles Schumer’s office, proving that they were willing to challenge leaders in both parties.  The Dreamers staged mock citizenship ceremonies in Washington D.C., rallied throughout the country in their graduation caps and gowns, andenlisted celebrities like Lady Gaga in their cause.  They ignored critics who accused them of acting “entitled.”  Borrowing techniques from both the civil rights and the gay rights movement, these emboldened young adults transformed immigration reform into an American movement.

Undocumented immigrants are among the most marginalized groups in society.  Yet the Dreamers have appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Dreamer Benita Veliz made history when she addressed the Democratic National Convention last year.  Gaby Pacheco, who once walked 1500 miles from Miami to Washington D.C. to raise awareness about the Dream Act, has testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Even Roy Beck of the anti-“amnesty” group NumbersUSA acknowledges their success.  “They have framed their story in a very popular way, he told the New York Times, “and they’ve leveraged that story very effectively.”

True, immigration reform is stalled once again.  But the Dreamers’ political impact cannot be underestimated.  Last year, they pressured President Obama to end deportations through executive action, on social media and by occupying his Colorado campaign office.  Then on June 15 the president announced his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, granting Dreamers temporary relief from deportation.  The Department of Homeland Security reports that more than 455,000 undocumented immigrants have since been granted deferred action status.  Not bad work by a group of people who cannot even vote.

The Dreamers inspire Hispanics and other Americans through their civic engagement and civil disobedience.  They challenge the stereotype of young people not caring about politics.  And by refusing to give up their quest for citizenship, they embody Cesar Chavez’s famous call to action: Sí se puede, Yes we can.

Opinion: DREAMers: Altering political narrative, engaging youth and nation raul reyes nbc final1 e1370809324282 politics NBC Latino News

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.

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