DREAM Activists: Rejecting the Passivity of the Nonprofit, Industrial Complex

Tuesday, 21 September 2010 08:25 By Neidi Dominguez Zamorano, Jonathan Perez, Nancy Meza and Jorge Guitierrez, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed | name.

DREAM Activists: Rejecting the Passivity of the Nonprofit, Industrial Complex
(Photo: Ruben Hernandez / DreamActivist)

You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

. . . We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

                     -- Martin Luther King, Letter From the Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963

We are undocumented youth activists and we refuse to be silent any longer. The DREAM Act movement has inspired and re-energized undocumented and immigrant youth around the country. In a time when the entire immigrant community is under attack, and increasingly demoralized, stripped of our rights, the DREAM movement has injected life, resistance and creativity into the broader immigrant rights struggle.

Until we organized this movement, we had been caught in a paralyzing stranglehold of inactivity across the country. We were told that the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, or CIRA, was still possible. Yet we continued to endure ICE raids and we witnessed the toxic Arizona SB1070. Meanwhile, CIRA had lost bipartisan support and there was no longer meaningful Congressional or executive support for real reform.

Youth DREAM Act activists stopped waiting. We organized ourselves and created our own strategy, used new tactics and we rejected the passivity of the nonprofit industrial complex. At a moment when hope seemed scarce, we forged new networks of solidarity. We declared ourselves UNDOCUMENTED AND UNAFRAID!

Mirroring the experiences of Dr. King and the youth activists of Birmingham, our allies encouraged us to avoid implementing "controversial" tactics.[1] We were told to wait for a better time in the future where immigration reform would again become plausible.

Just as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee followed the advice of Ella Baker to create their own organization independent of older organizations, we did the same. The nonprofit organizations and politicians pushing for Comprehensive Immigration Reform continued to try to dictate what our actions should be.  We felt that a barrier in achieving legalization was the Nonprofit Industrial Complex.

The Nonprofit Industrial Complex is a network of politicians, the elite, foundations and social justice organizations. This system encourages movements to model themselves after capitalist structures instead of challenging them.[2]  In this manner, foundations control social movements and dissent; philanthropy masks corporate greed and exploitation. We reject this by functioning as donation-only and volunteer-based organized groups controlled by the communities we are a part of.

We are building the DREAM Movement action-by-action, city-by-city, and campus-by-campus. In the spirit of the Freedom Rights and Chicano movements of the 1960s, we have decided to put our bodies and lives on the line. Repeatedly, undocumented youth have risked the threat of physical violence, incarceration, and deportation by engaging in acts of non-violent direct action in order to push the immigrant rights movement forward.

On August 19, DREAM Team LA and OC DREAM Team, in collaboration with the Dream Is Coming, a national campaign, held the first DREAM Act town hall organized and led by undocumented students. The objective of the town hall was to address major questions and concerns about the legislation as well as to discuss the strategy and tactics that undocumented youth have embraced. One main goal was to create a safe space for undocumented youth and allies to talk about the shift in the DREAM Movement.

More than 250 people attended the town hall, and more than 50 people joined through live stream from all over the nation. More than half of the participants stayed all the way until the end of the evening at 10:30 pm, after we responded to the last question from the audience and finished all announcements from different members of the Los Angeles community.

For the first time undocumented youth publicly shared their work and experiences as UNDOCUMENTED, QUEER AND UNAFRAID activists in the nation. Also, the event allowed these same youth to address the critiques from friends and allies regarding the military service option of the DREAM Act.

The energy in the church was overwhelming and exciting. We knew that in this place we would need to conduct painful but necessary conversations. We invited everyone who is part of our larger community -- especially those who we know are not in full support of our work or the military service option of the DREAM Act, which is part of the current language of the bill.[3] We had decided that instead of waiting for the people in the audience to ask the difficult questions, we would pose those same questions there in public, just as we do in private and in our organizing spaces.

We accomplished this through a panel of all UNDOCUMENTED AND UNAFRAID activists. Our panelists were: Lizbeth Mateo, one of the arrestees in Senator John McCain's office in Arizona on May 17, 2010; Yahira Carrillo, another arrestee from the Arizona action on May 17, 2010 who also identifies herself as a queer woman; Carlos Amador, one of the many hunger strikers from California who organized a 15-day hunger strike for the Dream Act in front of the Senator Dianne Feinstein's office and Jorge Guiterrez, a queer man who also participated in the 15-day hunger strike in California that started July 19, 2010.

Many of the straight men who took the mic had strong critiques of the DREAM Act and its military provisions. They questioned our support for an admittedly less-than perfect piece of legislation. Each time, the panelists responded candidly to questions as well as concerns about the DREAM Act and our movement.

This experience was uplifting as well as frustrating for us. We did not want to silence anyone in that space, nor did we dismiss anyone's critiques or comments, but we left that space feeling like it was necessary for us once again as UNDOCUMENTED AND UNAFRAID activists to put forward our responses and reactions to these critiques, with the purpose of creating dialogue in order to move forward. After a number of conversations with fellow DREAMers, we felt that we needed to challenge the attitudes of privilege and self-righteousness that we believe fuel the opposition to our movement.

Our so-called allies need to realize that they are not undocumented and, as such, do not have the right to say what undocumented youth need or want. Our progressive allies insist in imposing their paternalistic stand to oppose the DREAM Act and tell us that this is not the "right" choice for us to acquire "legal" status in this country. We wonder: Who are they to decide for us? And by what criteria do they deem the DREAM Act not to be the "right" legislation for undocumented youth to become "legal" in this country?

The passage of California's AB 540 in 2001, a bill that allowed undocumented youth to pay in-state tuition for college, and the later creation of the DREAM act, gave our communities hope; they held out the promise that legalization was eventually possible. A decade later, we face a horrific anti-immigrant backlash, and tens of thousands of our sisters and brothers are languishing in prisons; untold numbers of human beings have been killed or have died of thirst during increasingly dangerous border crossings.

Many of us have been organizing in other movements such as the anti-war, LGBTIQ, and labor movements. We have also studied and learned through experience and academics from past freedom movements. We learned to see our struggle in a global perspective and historical context -- that attacks on undocumented immigrants and refugees of color are not unique to the United States. We see the same thing happening in Europe, Oceania, Asia and Africa. We understand that we are working within an imperialist nation. There is a long history of Nativism in the United States and it continues to manifest itself with laws that criminalize immigrant communities and communities of color.

The DREAM movement has come under criticism by liberal and conservative critics alike. We face racist, sexist, homophobic attacks from the right wing.  From the left, many peace activists and immigration-rights advocates disapprove of the DREAM Act because of its so-called military option. Meanwhile, CIRA supporters across the country remain largely silent in this debate and fail to heed the voices of undocumented youth activists. Seemingly impervious to the growing anti-immigrant hatred sweeping this land, some of our former allies began advocating for a watered-down Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill that would lead to more enforcement and criminalization of our immigrant communities and communities of color. 

Today, nearly two million so-called undocumented students languish in our society. Some of these students are high school honor students who are prevented from attending college; those who can attend college often cannot receive scholarships or in-state tuition simply because of where they were born. Countless thousands are prohibited from learning skills and acquiring the education they need to survive in this society.

The DREAM Act would provide a crucial opening for these immigrants, and yet many people of good faith oppose the DREAM Act because of the military option added to the bill by Senator Feinstein. They argue that the DREAM Act is a Pentagon-supported bill that is dressed up in a pro-education and pro-immigrant costume. We believe that progressive politics should be based on facts and not conspiracy theories.

It has been argued that the military option will funnel thousands of young people into the military. We disagree with this argument. Military recruitment in our communities will continue whether the DREAM Act passes or not. In 2007, the DREAM Act did not pass, but the military recruitment in communities of color continued unabated. Moreover, who, in this current anti-immigrant climate would step forward to sponsor a reconfigured DREAM Act without a military option? A military option could easily be introduced as a stand-alone bill.  Let's be honest.  We all know that the Democratic Party refuses to be painted as "unpatriotic," especially with mid-term congressional races looming. A DREAM Act shorn of its military option, sadly, is an impossible proposition.

Why should undocumented immigrants pay the price of US militarism while more privileged groups in society see their interests looked after? The undocumented youth movement -- unlike some other causes -- is led and shaped by the people most directly impacted. The social justice elite have posed the argument that because of the current state of public education it is unwise for the DREAM Act to pass because it will force undocumented youth into the military. So should we wait until there are no more wars? Should we wait until our public school systems are perfect?

Should we wait until a perfect politician introduces the perfect bill? Or should we wait until there are another 1.8 million undocumented youth with little chance at a successful future. We say hell no! We are tired of our third-class status, and we are tired of the social justice elite dictating what we can and cannot do, all the while speaking on our behalf and pretending they represent our interests.

The nonprofits, think tanks, the privileged and self-righteous activists who comprise the social justice elite have had their hand in stopping the DREAM Act from being introduced, and at times, they have been more vicious than the right.

WE DO NOT WANT IMMIGRATION RIGHTS "ADVOCATES" SPEAKING FOR US ANY LONGER. WE DEMAND THE RIGHT TO REPRESENT OURSELVES!

From the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa to the freedom movements in the 1960s and to the Chinese student rebellions in Tiananmen Square, youth have always been at the forefront of successful movements and radical social changes. Unfortunately, it seems that we have not learned from this rich heritage of youth speaking truth to power. Because if we accept and embrace the current undocumented student movement, it means the social justice elite loses its power -- its power to influence politicians, media and the public debate. The power is taken back by its rightful holders.

We have challenged the Nonprofit Industrial Complex, the Prison Industrial Complex and the Military Industrial Complex. Many of the DREAMers have organized in high schools and universities against military recruitment and done anti-military recruitment education with thousands of women and youth of color. Undocumented students have shown the country and the world that we are more than capable of leading a new freedom-rights movement in this decade.

DREAMers face unique challenges in this country: We must support our families while going to school; we must pay for college while we organize and at the end of the day, our allies attack us. Some of us have made the sacrifice and risked deportation willingly. The DREAM movement is a genuine large-scale movement; we have taken from what happened in the '60s, learned from it, fine-tuned it to our current context and relentlessly moved forward.

For all of these reasons and more, undocumented students and our allies have launched a struggle that will culminate in a victory for immigrant rights in the United States. In order to understand the current situation, we must look to the students who are shaping this movement. We must look to Yahaira, Mo, and Lizbeth, the students who staged a sit-in in McCain's office. We must look to the "Trail of Dreams": Felipe, Gaby, Carlos, and Juan. We must look to DREAM Team LA and Orange County DREAM Team, groups of young activists for the DREAM Act. We must look to the women and men in the DREAM movement, undocumented queer and transgender young activists with emerging ideologies that challenge the capitalist, heterosexual and misogynistic systems here in the United States.

We are not only the undocumented youth that live in the United States; we are the displaced youth from across the Americas, Asia, and Africa. We were displaced by American-funded violence, wars, and the expansion of capitalism through globalization.

We have lived with fear since arrival and our exploitation runs rampant because we are also women, queer and transgender people of color. For those of us undocumented youth who also identify as queer, coming out is a something we must do twice. We come out as queers to our families and friends and then come out again as undocumented in this country.

We can no longer be afraid of revealing our status or identities. We must fiercely challenge privilege and oppression, whether located among allies or the opposition. We hold the right to self-determination of those most affected by the US empire's oppression. We are in a struggle to regain what has been taken from us: our dignity, our freedom and our spirituality. Our fight is for the legalization of all people, and the DREAM Act is a vehicle towards that goal.

We, the undocumented youth have shaken the social justice struggle to the very core . . . and we have so much more to offer. We know that our acts of liberation and hope will generate more acts of liberation and hope.


"Caminante, no hay puentes, se hace puentes al andar"

(Voyager, there are no bridges, one builds them as one walks)
                                                                   -- Gloria Anzaldua

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail. Foreword by Rev. Bernice A. King (Harper Collins; 1st edition (August 1994).
[2] INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, eds., The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (Cambridge: South End Press, 2007).
[3] For more information on the DREAM act, see the DREAM Act portal at: http://dreamact.info/ 

Last modified on Tuesday, 21 September 2010 15:17