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Dreaming Wide Awake: The Powerful Youth Voice, the DREAM Act, and Election 2012

On June 15, 2012, after years of congressional and executive inaction, the Obama Administration announced that undocumented immigrants under the...

On June 15, 2012, after years of congressional and executive inaction, the Obama Administration announced that undocumented immigrants under the age of 30, who came to the United States before the age of 16, pose no criminal or security threat, and have been successful students or served in the military, would be eligible for a two-year deferral from deportation and be able to apply for work permits.

This directive gives approximately 1.7 million young, undocumented immigrants (frequently called Dreamers) the chance of applying for temporary two-year deportation relief and work permits. The inspiration for Obama’s deferred action directive came from the DREAM (acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act, bipartisan legislation, initially introduced to Congress in 2001 to benefit undocumented minors.

Since then, it has been unsuccessfully re-introduced in both chambers of Congress a number of times and in a variety of forms with both Democrat and Republican co-sponsors. After so many years of silence and passivity on this issue, why did the White House suddenly take action?

Simply put, the answer is: young people. As Roberto G. Gonzales, a Sociologist and Professor at the University of Chicago, said after Obama’s announcement, “I think lots of people want to take credit for that victory, but it really belongs to the students themselves” and “most of what we witnessed last week would not have happened if it were not for this impressive movement of young people.” Janell Ross, a business reporter covering Obama’s announcement, reiterated this when she said that “young, undocumented immigrants steeped in the language and culture of American protest were the gas in the activist machine that pushed the Obama administration.”

Gonzales and Ross were both referring to the powerful, dynamic, and young movement behind the DREAM Act that is compiled of a number of groups including Students Working for Equal Rights,, United We Dream, and other state-specific youth-led organizations. Through the mobilization of high school and college students and the effective use of social media, online organizing, and location-specific protests, this movement has been able to bring the DREAM Act to the national spotlight and has made it a key part of the larger immigration reform debate.

The advocates and activists have come to be known for their youth, creativity, and energy. Their courage has become increasingly obvious as more and more youth in the movement are publicly disclosing their undocumented status at great personal risk, as Jose Antonio Vargas did through his articles in the New York Times and Time Magazine. Another particularly moving account of courage and dedication to the cause can be seen in the story of Gaby Pacheco, a 25 year-old undocumented immigrant who was brought to the U.S. from Ecuador as a 7 year-old. As part of her work in advocating for the DREAM Act, Gaby spent four months walking the Trail of Dreams from Miami to Washington D.C. with three other undocumented students, to bring attention to the situation of approximately 2 million undocumented youth brought to the U.S. as minors.

In early June of 2012, DREAM activists began staging sit-in protests in Obama for America offices in Colorado, and these protests quickly grew to include other Obama campaign offices in Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, California, and North Carolina. As part of this wave of social action, 96 legal scholars, the majority of whom are law school professors, also sent a letter to the White House advocating for executive action on this issue. Media attention on the protests and visibility of the DREAM Act activism grew, more protests were planned in key swing states, and external pressure on the White House grew. After years of hard work and weeks of targeted efforts, the movement was finally able to celebrate success when the Obama Administration announced the deferred action directive on June 15, 2012.

At a time when American youth are frequently criticized for low levels of civic engagement and political participation, the DREAM Act movement is a model of effective and powerful youth activism. Despite the movement’s recent victory, large-scale federal immigration reform is still needed and the recent directive is only a small step. The recent changes put in place by the White House do not qualify as comprehensive reform and the directive still excludes many Dreamers—those over the 30-year age limit for example. It's still an impressive victory for the many young—both immigrant and nonimmigrant—individuals who took an active role in making this happen.

Young people have already had a tremendous impact in this field, and their continued efforts will be crucial in continuing to push reform and bringing key issues to the national U.S. immigration debate.

For more on this issue follow Generation Citizen.

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