A direct action success for DREAM activists

In past couple of weeks, activists from the National Immigrant Youth Alliance staged sit-ins at Obama campaign offices, demanding an executive order halting the deportation of youth eligible for the DREAM Act. Obama caved to the demands, issuing a Department of Homeland Security directive stopping certain kinds of deportations.

An estimated 1 million young people could benefit from the deferral. To be eligible, applicants have to be between 15 and 30 years old, live in the U.S. for five years, and maintain continuous U.S. residency. People who have one felony, one serious misdemeanor, or three minor misdemeanors will be ineligible to apply.

In the past, I have written about the problems with the DREAM Act. The DREAM Act would require the overwhelming majority of immigrant youth — I estimate around 3 out of 4 — to choose between military enlistment and remaining undocumented. It goes without saying that such a requirement would be extremely exploitative.

Nonetheless, the success of DREAM activists in winning the DHS directive is very impressive. It is not every day that a group of undocumented youth force the hand of the President of the United States. As with any substantial victory, we should ask ourselves the question: what can we learn from this success?

My takeaway is two-fold. First, comprehensive campaigns are a necessary backdrop to direct action success. The DREAM Act campaign is more than a decade old, has introduced bills in Congress, won position commitments from many leading Democrats including Obama, and has won support from influential groups like the AFL-CIO. There is no way these direct action sit-ins — as brilliantly conceived as they were — would have worked as standalone actions. Actions must be part of serious, on-going campaigns to have effect.

Second, election time can be a good time to push things forward. I have no doubt that one of the reasons Obama caved is his interest in the Hispanic vote. As the fastest growing population groups, Hispanics will be an essential component of any Democratic electoral victory for decades to come. The campaign office sit-ins put Obama in a really tough situation. His campaign could not ignore the sit-ins for months on end, and it also could do nothing to stop them. Calling the police was off the table as doing so would put the activists at risk of deportation and inflame the Hispanic voting base. Thus, giving in was Obama’s best option.

Pushing issues and policies at campaign time runs counter to the typical approach to elections. Instead of using election time to push favored candidates to do things for them, many left groups treat it as a time to pull back and get their candidates elected. The usual approach involves not rocking the boat for the candidate, getting the vote out for them, and then hoping that the support translates into leverage post-election. As far as I can tell, that approach has not worked too well lately. Perhaps it’s time to use a new approach to election time politicking, and follow the lead of the DREAM activists.