Elitist theory of social change and the DREAMers

In the fallout from Russell Brand’s advocacy of egalitarianism socialism, some folks complained about the attention paid to him, arguing that really it is the most exploited and most oppressed that make social change. Others pushed back, Doug Henwood leading the charge, arguing that, as an empirical matter, social movements have often been comprised of elite folks, or at minimum the most advantaged of the disadvantaged.

Henwood cites an article (Maurice Pinard, Jerome Kirk, and Donald von Eschen, “Processes of Recruitment in the Sit-In Movement,” Public Opinion Quarterly 33, no. 3 (1969): 355-69) which reports the demographics of the early civil rights sit-in movement. Henwood claims that the article reports that the early sit-in movement was about 1/3rd black, that only 4% were working class, that the black non-student participants were 60% upper-middle class, that the black student participants were 92% upper-middle class, and that the white student participants were 100% upper-middle class.

I know very little about the empirical literature on social movements, but in the course of watching this debate, I recalled the DREAM movement folks. For those not in the know, the DREAM movement is a movement meant to provide permanent residency to undocumented immigrant youth.

Interestingly, nearly every spokesperson or activist I’ve ever met or seen on TV from DREAM organizations (e.g. United We Dream) appear to be college students or recent graduates. No doubt this an elite subgroup within the overall group of undocumented immigrant youth. College students and graduates are an elite subgroup among youths in general, but, one presumes, among undocumented immigrant youth especially.

So, it seems like the DREAM movement could be a present-day example of the theory that says that social movements are led by the most advantaged of the disadvantaged.

Perhaps this also explains why recent versions of the DREAM Act have been so geared towards benefiting college students, condemning the overwhelming majority of undocumented youth to having to decide between remaining undocumented or enlisting in the military. For instance, I previously estimated with back-of-the-envelope math that around 74 percent of undocumented Latino youth would wind up on the military track in the DREAM Act for permanent residency, not the college track. If college student undocumented immigrants (the most advantaged of the disadvantaged) are leading the movement, it makes more sense why this fairly troubling policy proposal is the one being pushed.

How much do Latinos even care about immigration?

After the thorough thumping the GOP received last Tuesday, GOP leaders started moving to the left on immigration. Hannity, Murdoch, and Boehner all came out in support of immigration reform. The conventional wisdom is that the Republicans have realized that they have walked themselves into a demographic dead end, and are trying to appeal to Latinos in order to crawl out of it. But does this particular strategy make any sense?

The strategy seems to assume that immigration is the thing keeping Latinos from favoring Republicans. But when polled, the overwhelming majority of Latinos don’t rank immigration as their most important issue. Only 16% of registered Latino voters that were born outside the US rank immigration policies as their most important issue. Only 14% of registered Latino voters who parents were born outside the US do so, and only 7% of third-generation Latinos do so.

These are not trivial numbers of people, but is this really a serious strategy? For this to be a serious strategy, you would have to think that there are a substantial number of Latinos who, but for the GOP’s immigration policies, would vote for the GOP. But where is that in these numbers? It sure looks like the policy issues most important to Latinos are just those issues traditionally considered in the domain of the Democratic party.

It is very mysterious to me how the Republican party adopting a slightly less ridiculous stance on immigration will turn a great number of Latinos on to them, given what else we know about Latinos’ policy preferences. If the GOP shift on immigration does not increase their appeal to Latino voters, they may end up digging themselves into an even deeper electoral hole by creating more Latino citizens, and therefore voters.

Reconsidering the DREAM Act

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act) is a piece of legislation which aims to provide paths to permanent residency for undocumented youth. Organizations like United We Dream and the United States Student Association have come out in support of the legislation, arguing primarily that not providing permanent residency for undocumented youth is manifestly unjust. Penalizing immigrant youth for being undocumented — something they had no control over — runs against the basic tenets of fair and equitable treatment.

The DREAM Act is supposed to remedy this injustice by creating two specific paths to residency. There have been various versions of the bill over the years, but the present version in the senate basically lays out a two step process. Undocumented individuals under 35 years of age with a high school diploma or GED will be eligible in most circumstances to apply for conditional permanent residency. Once individuals are granted that status, they have 6 years to either complete a two-year post-secondary degree, complete 2 years of a four-year post-secondary degree, or enlist in the military for 2 years. After doing so, they can apply to have the conditional status removed from their permanent residency.

Advocates of the DREAM Act have focused much more attention on the education track of the bill than on the military track. The defenses of it tend to rely on conjuring up the idea of students getting a college degree while also getting out from under their unjust second class status. However, in reconsidering the DREAM Act, I think it is important to determine what percentage of undocumented youth would even make it through the much praised education track provided in the bill. Given that Latino immigrants are the primary constituency that will be affected by the DREAM Act, I will focus on them.

According to a report from the Pew Hispanic Center, 18 percent of Latino immigrants do not graduate from high school. Of those non-graduates, 57 percent have not passed the GED by the age of 26. So, slightly more than 10 percent of Latino immigrant youth receive neither a high school degree nor a GED, and would thus be ineligible for even the initial process of receiving conditional residency status.

As far as I know, there is no reliable data on the percentage of Latino immigrants who obtain post-secondary degrees. Those numbers would not be helpful in any case because they are certainly skewed downward due to the difficulties of attending college as an undocumented student. Nonetheless, there are numbers for the overall Latino population which should approximately reflect how Latino immigrants would fare if they were given the same opportunities to attend college as non-immigrant Latinos already have.

According to another report from the Pew Hispanic Center, 82 percent of Latinos who graduate from high school go on to college. Of those who attend college, 36 percent go on to achieve a bachelor’s degree, certificate, or associate’s degree. These are the types of degrees that are required to complete the second step of the permanent residency process under the DREAM Act.

With these numbers, a rough estimate of the reach of the DREAM Act’s education track can be derived. If we generously assume that all of those who receive a GED fare as well as high school graduates in obtaining post-secondary degrees, a representative group of 100 undocumented Latino youth would achieve the following on the education track:

  • 10 — No GED or high school degree — permanent residency denied
  • 16 — GED or high school degree, but no post-secondary education — permanent residency denied
  • 48 — Post-secondary education attempted, but no certificate, associates degree, or bachelor’s degree achieved — permanent residency denied
  • 26 — Post-secondary degree achieved — permanent residency granted

So on the education track, the DREAM Act, even when making generous assumptions, will only provide permanent residency to 26 percent of undocumented Latino youth. Admittedly this is an approximation, and challenges to the effect that it is too low or too high can certainly be brought against it. It could be challenged, for instance, that the incentive of permanent residency will drive undocumented Latino youth towards education more than documented Latino youth, and so using data from the latter generates an estimate lower than it should be. On the opposite side, it could be challenged that the lack of Pell Grant access and other difficulties associated with being undocumented might actually generate hardships that documented Latino youth do not face, making the 26 percent number too generous.

With those objections noted, it appears that 26 percent is at least somewhere near what the actual number will be. This number, I think, poses challenges for the DREAM Act campaigners. For 10 percent of undocumented Latino youth, the Act provides no help at all; for 64 percent, the Act forces them into an unjust position where they must choose between deportation, living life undocumented in a permanent underclass position, or joining the U.S. military.

Forcing nearly 3 out of 4 undocumented Latino immigrants to make a choice like that is as equally unjust as the problem the DREAM Act is set up to remedy. Putting someone into an extraordinarily loaded situation like that for reasons totally outside of their control — their immigration status — is exactly the kind of thing that proponents of the DREAM Act criticize in the status quo.

Instead of fixing the injustices the immigration system forces on undocumented youth, what the DREAM Act primarily does is set up an easy road for military recruiters to fill the ranks of the armed forces with vulnerable populations that have no other option. In a candid reconsideration of the legislation, it is hard to see how one could support it. The education track is great — even if limited in reach — but if coupled with the military track, the bill as a whole slants heavily towards encouraging the exploitation of the overwhelming majority of undocumented youth.