On July 22nd, the “Dream 9” – nine undocumented activists who were raised in the U.S. since childhood but were recently deported or self-deported to Mexico – attempted to re-enter the country at Nogales, AZ, in protest of U.S. immigration policies. They were arrested and put in federal custody for violation of U.S. immigration law.
While in custody, organizers with the National Youth Immigration Alliance (NIYA) carried out a national campaign to publicize the detention of the Dream 9 organizers and to build support for their immediate release into the U.S. They organized pickets, vigils, phone blasts and sit-ins to push members of Congress into pressuring the Obama administration to approve their release. Meanwhile, the nine activists organized inside the Eloy Detention Center where they were held, at times in solitary confinement, drawing public attention to the conditions inside the detention center and organizing a hunger strike 70 other detainees.
The campaign worked. Two weeks ago, the Dream 9 were released and allowed to return to their home communities in the U.S. Immigration asylum officers found that all nine had credible fear of persecution in their birth country and could therefore not be immediately removed. Their cases now go to an immigration judge who will decide whether to grant asylum, a process that could take years in court.
This direct action by the Dream 9 marks a qualitative turn in the immigrant rights movement and has sparked debate over immigration reform, strategy and tactics in the movement. What follows are several brief points about what is important about the Dream 9.
First, the Dream 9 action is stirring the debate about and moving beyond the strategy of trying to push the Democrats to the left in order to win justice for immigrants. While the national campaign that NIYA was pushing centered on contacting congress to get support, the action itself of openly crossing the border and of organizing inside Eloy went far beyond that strategy. This action is a new form of confrontation. As such, it cannot be considered outside of its development out of 10-plus years of struggle that has advanced from petitions and letter-writing, to confrontations with politicians, to sit-ins and occupations, to coming out “undocumented and unafraid,” to infiltrating detention centers and now to direct and open defiance of U.S. immigration policy at the border.
This activity is forcing a reckoning with the contradictions internal to the movement. What does tying itself to the Democratic Party achieve for the immigrant rights movement? Are the Democrats really an ally in this struggle? Is the current CIR bill a victory or a defeat for immigrants? Is direct action an irresponsible “distraction” from winning legal reforms? These questions and more are all being debated in circles around the country, with the conservative wings of the immigrant rights movement – the progressive wing of the Democrats and its corresponding non-profit industrial-complex – already calling this action a dangerous defeat for immigrants. They would much rather keep the fate of the movement tied to a CIR bill that will only serve to legalize a permanent underclass of undocumented workers and to bolster the militarization of the border and the incarceration of undocumented immigrants.
Second, although critics view this in a negative light, the Dream 9 activity will change the political conditions on the ground, raising the potential for a definitive break with the official party politics of more conservative wings of the movement. A similar shift occurred in 2006. At that time, the draconian Sensenbrenner bill was on the table in Congress, and fed up with the absence of real opposition by the Democrats, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protests, marches, strikes and walkouts. The weight of their activity wiped that bill off the table and forced capital to regroup and adapt to that show of working class power. Unfortunately, for different reasons, the unions, non-profits and other establishment groups were able to channel the people power from the streets back into “safer” outlets.
Here we are seven years later. The rightwing character of CIR today demonstrates that pushing the immigrant struggle out of the streets, schools and workplaces and back into the halls of official politics, into petitioning and get-out-the-vote efforts for this or that politician only weakens the movement and allows capital to do what it does best – devise ever more effective ways to divide and exploit workers.
Today, the infiltration of detention centers and the open defiance of the border may have a similar impact as the protests of 2006. The current CIR bill is shit, but rather than wait around and hope for something better or for permission to act from the movement “elders,” this layer of undocumented youth are devising new ways of directly resisting detention and deportation. We can look at the example of SNCC workers putting their lives on the line to resist segregation in new ways in the early 1960s , or the emergence of independent popular committees challenging the control of more mainstream organizations in Palestine during the First Intifada , to understand the explosive potential that such a shift contains.
Third and finally, as new activity breaks out and changes conditions on the ground, the leftwing of the movement is bringing about its own confrontation with the question of whether the struggle around immigration is a citizenship or human rights struggle or if it is a class struggle. Making this leap requires advancing the understanding of labor and what role does immigrant labor play today, why the attack on undocumented workers is taking its current forms, finding the connections to the attack on other workers, and making sense of the development of new forms of resistance around immigration in light of the global upsurge in struggles in Egypt, Brazil, and elsewhere.
Many undocumented Latino workers already have an acute political awareness that their place in the division of labor is directly tied to their immigration status. Immigration status is one form by which workers can be separated and more easily exploited for the needs of capital. The generation that this layer of brave undocumented youth comes from is itself the product of class struggle. They are the children of the counter-revolution by the U.S. and national ruling classes against the rebellions of workers and peasants all across Mexico, Central and South America from the 1970s-1990s. Fleeing violence and poverty, their parents and relatives migrated to the U.S. and built new communities and families here while acting as a super-exploited pool of cheap labor for U.S. capital. Therefore, this movement cannot fight for fundamental changes around immigration without dealing with the underlying labor-capital relation.
What this will look like in practice is yet to be seen. The Dream 9 are laying a foundation by waging a cross-border campaign, putting out the call to expand that and advancing other forms of confrontation. Long-term, this leap might entail developing tenant committees in apartment complexes that can organize against landlords who are extorting extra fees out of tenants because of criminal records or undocumented status. It could entail defense committees that defend against police, ICE and private security harassment of black and brown folks, or that develop networks to spread word about and undermine police checkpoints & ICE raids. Since many workplaces are stratified along racial/ethnic lines, this could also involve building networks of worker militants across skill, industry, and workplace lines to fight issues like wage theft that affect both workers with and without papers (albeit in different ways).
 For more info on this reference to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), see Clayborne Carson’s In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Harvard University Press, 1981).
 For more info on this reference to the First Intifada, check out Glenn E. Robinson’s Building a Palestinian State: The Incomplete Revolution (Indiana University Press, 1997).