by Chad U. Jones
In the spirit of MLK Day this week, the DREAMers — the relentless caste of undocumented, first-generation, young Americans who are pursuing higher education against odds of deportation — are among the most visible civil rights leaders of the 21st century. As a Black man, I am inspired by the dream of Martin Luther King, particularly his faith that a racially desegregated America would come true and that we — Black and Brown included — would “be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.” I see that dream inextricably tied to the efforts of the fearless DREAMers.
Much like the teenagers and young adults who were Freedom Riders in the early 1960s, the DREAMers have repudiated their elders who counseled that they have more patience, just sit quietly for a little longer. Indeed the DREAMers know that there is no time like now: more immigrants have been deported since 2009 than ever before – 396,906 people in 2011. For the pursuit of a higher education and in coalition with the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US, the DREAMers offer a vision of comprehensive immigration reform steeped in justice and dignity. Plenty of African Americans may hesitate at the notion that we share a similar lot with undocumented immigrants, who are overwhelmingly people of color. But evidence of shared fate is present in the Supreme Court challenge of Fisher vs. University of Texas where the highest court in the land may put the final nail in the coffin of affirmative action.
Sixty years after the legal dismantling of segregation, intermittent integration has confused many Blacks about where we stand and our relationship to the power establishment. Many of us have consumed the blue pill of individualism, mistakenly thinking that we have made it. We are deluded because a select number of us have received college degrees and white collar jobs, home mortgages and fancy cars, duped into believing that we live in a post-racial nation, evident by the blackness in the White House.
Quiet obedience can go on for decades, as happened for Jose Antonio Vargas. Vargas – the Filipino-American, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who was still undocumented 18 years after emigrating – is now one of the 16 percent of undocumented immigrants spared by President Obama’s Deferred Action for the Childhood Arrivals executive order signed in June 2012. For the other 84 percent of undocumented immigrants, life in the USA is a 21st Century version of Langston Hughes’ “dream deferred.”
For immigrant families, an organized mob threatens to storm through the door in the middle of the night, just as Black families feared 100 years ago. The three letters have changed from KKK to ICE, but the destruction of families and communities is the same. Rather than the de facto lynching orchestrated by Grand Wizards and sheriffs, immigrant families face the threat of de jure detention and deportation by local law enforcement officials, which has been greatly expanded by the Obama Administration. These policies backfire by harboring more fear and greater mistrust between communities of color and local authorities.
The federal government is wasting billions of dollars on the vast system to detain and deport immigrants, approximately $18 billion according to a report released this month by the Migration Policy Institute. This is more than all other federal law enforcement combined. These are the misguided priorities of a broken immigration system.
Our federal officials could choose to spend $18 billion on new school buildings that are equipped for 21st Century education rather than pour it down the drain on high-tech surveillance in the war on immigrants. Like African Americans have done for centuries, the DREAMers are organizing for more access to education, for progressive policies that expand, rather than restrict, opportunities to learn.
This January, let us remember how Martin Luther King implored in countless church sermons that we must love those who hate us. Love is the only way for us to confront the aggressor, transforming ourselves and them simultaneously. The young people clamoring for education, safety, jobs, healthy food and communities recognize that law enforcement will only relent when confronted as happened with Erika Andiola’s brother and mother earlier this week in Phoenix. The people must organize in order to stop the excesses of Homeland Security.
In this spirit of nonviolent struggle, the DREAMers persist. Their numbers have grown and inspired new iterations of young people over the last five years. Their focus is on creating more political will for comprehensive immigration reform that supports, rather than criminalizes, families. By standing up to the threats of deportation and detention, they have shown their elders that nonviolent, direct action will cause the state to relent. With an unquenchable life force, new formations such as Undocumented and Unafraid in Chicago, and the Dream Defenders in Florida are rising across the country.
Along with Julian Bond, Melissa Harris Perry, and Ben Jealous, I stand with the DREAMers because the assault on immigrants over the last decade have reconstituted a permanent caste of second class citizenry that is separate and unequal. The DREAMers emulate SNCC by confronting segregation – registering voters, crossing state lines with their campaigns, doing all direct actions non-violently. Now, like then, it will be the concerted efforts of determined and inspired young people that catapult all of us closer to fulfilling our nation’s democratic promise. It was everyday people who registered to vote, sat at lunch counters, and rode on buses across state lines who ultimately broke Jim Crow’s back. 50 years later, the dispossessed and oppressed are realizing another USA is possible, and bring all of us closer to the dream.
Chad U. Jones is from the Mountain West, and lived in Kenya, Guatemala, Swaziland, Minnesota and New York. Follow him on Twitter @FLO_A