Latinos Are Human Beings

“And I thought he was foolish, this man in his seventies, who had no idea what you must do. But the fanaticism of my twenties shocks me now. As I feared it would.”

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Let me say first that I am a supporter of “The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act”–better known as the “DREAM Act”–as I have been since I first heard about it in 2001, in its first incarnation.

That said, barring any unforeseen development in the Senate, the DREAM Act is currently dead. If it is not saved by an 11th hour miracle, it will remain so until at least after the 2012 election.

For me, my support of the DREAM Act has always been a rather complicated thing. It is not a support without qualification. It does not come from a belief that this law (should it become law) is in itself a form of justice. In fact, I willingly admit to the possibility that it may be a step backward in the cause for migrants’ rights in this nation.

My support comes from my belief that is it good policy, for that is what it is. It is policy. It is fair policy, though it could be more fair. It is productive policy, though it could do more to alleviate the inequitable distinction between the “legal” and the so-called “illegal.”

But it is just policy. It is not perfect, but policy never is. It is a creature of an imperfect realm–government–and is thus never going to surmount the shortcomings of the world of its creation.

I don’t expect the political process to produce true, equitable, humane justice. I am not so naive nor am I that optimistic in my view of power. I do expect it to not to stand in the way of what is just. I do expect it to move in the direction of what is just.

But I don’t believe it can be more than a tool in this movement–it is not the movement itself. As I do not expect the running shoe to run marathon for me, I do not ask policy to do the work only you and I can do.

True and meaningful justice in the realm of migrants’ right would entail far more than the DREAM Act endeavors to do and far less of what it promises. Humane immigration reform entails governments recognizing and protecting peoples’ innate human right to secure a livelihood, even when that entails movement across borders. It means respecting and rewarding work, especially when that work is life-reproducing. It is about not militarizing the border, not criminalizing that which you promote, and not nurturing systems that provide for the abuse of migrants.

True and meaningful justice in the realm of migrants’ rights would mean expanding, not contracting, our sense of who “counts” as a citizen. The notion that the undocumented have to prove their worthiness by being a student or in the military is offensive to me. They are here because we feast off their marginal status in our economy. Most have “proved” their worthiness long ago.

One of the causes of the DREAM Act’s imperfections in terms of migrants’ rights is its chief attribute in the realm of policy. It was and has been intentionally bi-partisan. It was designed to have as wide a reach as is possible while still securing as wide a base of political support. It is a compromise, bought by being explicitly limited, conservative in its scope, and uncontroversial in those it seeks to serve.

While I continue to do my part to advocate for what is truly and meaningfully just and right, I am not so inflexible as to ignore compromise when it can make real people’s lives better.

Now, with its death knell once again ringing, I find my support wavering. I am tired of compromising, of preparing for the imperfect, when this sacrifice produces nothing more than a recurring need for us to do so again, only to a larger extent. What is the value of compromise when it gets you nothing?

The students with whom I have worked with over the better part of the past decade make this measure a very personal one for me. Some of them have been “Dreamers”; some have been undocumented and, yet, due to one or more factors would not fall under the proposed legislation; and most have been neither, just dedicated students–in the prime of their socially conscious young lives–who have been moved to join the cause. I worry for what this kind of politics will mean for the youth working so hard to secure the measure’s passage.

I recently began thinking about what kinds of support I could offer them from my perspective as a middle-aged academic with his own history of political involvement. And then I realized, I have never been a part of a successful political cause.

My first real and sustained involvement in the political process came in 1994, when Californians passed what was called Proposition 187. Then the fight was about affirmative action, first at my university system and then statewide with Prop 209. Then it was bilingual ed with Prop 227. I have been hoping and working for immigration reform since the late 1990s.

Each time “we” lost. The issue sometimes moved toward our favor by the courts but more often this was not case. What’s worse, the terms of the battle have been entirely set by the Right.

Even at the time, the struggle to protect affirmative action seemed ironic. It was a compromise to begin with, a way for the system of power to assure a wider public that something different was being done without substantively altering the dynamics of power in our society. Thirty years later, the Left found themselves struggling (unsuccessfully) to protect this compromise as if it were progress to do so. The lessons are powerful for me.

The present moment in the history of the DREAM Act makes me want to tell young people to abandon ship. It is time we stop advocating for the middle when the other side is pulling that middle farther and farther to the right. The “center” has become a moving target in the world of immigration politics. In the time we’ve been working for our compromise, the Right has mobilized to such an extent that the bill’s original author isn’t even a supporter anymore.

This moment is a time to leave the political maneuvering to the policy people and the politicians. Those of us who stand for what is fundamentally right and moral must refocus our energies and foster movement toward our goals.

That can not happen in the current environment on a piecemeal basis. Compromise has failed. It’s time may return but the present moment is no longer it.

Now we need to set the stage for change by more actively confronting the debate at its core. Too many Americans do not recognize the basic humanity of Latinos. While we have been phone banking for compromise they have been converting more to their side–nurturing their army of hate, of fear, and of ignorance.

The targets have changed. We must recognize this and strategize with it in mind.

As a source of encouragement I offer two points. First, the unsuccessful fight on principled grounds is far more satisfying than the unsuccessful compromise. Even when we lose there are amazingly important things that are won, not the least of which is ground in the battlefield of people’s ways of knowing.

Second, almost anything is possible when we work together. History teaches us that real change only comes when people unite in mass movement. Even the great compromises of our past century were won in a context where people of conscience were actively demanding and mobilizing to secure even more.

Our day is before us if we so choose to pursue it.

History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands,
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For a new beginning.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.

From Maya Angelou, “On the
Pulse of Morning,” (1993)

4 thoughts on “Latinos Are Human Beings

  1. Tomas, I’m once again in awe of your eloquence. Your perspective of the bigger challenge Latinos in the U.S. face beyond the mere passage of the DREAM Act is a powerful indictment of the injustice that is a daily reality for so many of us. I share your belief that as a group, Latinos are blocked by deep seated prejudices from being full participants in U.S. society. At the same time, I feel there is room under our tent for progress in every form — including short term political gains that involve compromise. All of us can contribute something to la lucha and we should not spurn anything that helps advance that cause. As you so well stated, history is on our side and every halting step forward is progress.

  2. Thank you for the kind words. I, too, believe there is “room under our tent for progress in every form” but, as they say, it takes two to tango. The harsh political reality of our present and immediate future is that active steps towards compromise on this issue are met with indifference and intolerance from the other side–anything but a willingness to compromise on their part. At some point we must stop shouting against the wind; we must harness it to our chosen ends.

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