Eighty-four years ago, the American poet Langston Hughes wrote a simple, politically prescient essay titled "A Dream Deferred," which expressed the author's lament at the lack of socioeconomic progress of his fellow African Americans 61 years after emancipation.
In 2010, the struggle for civil rights continues. Last month's victory for gay Americans (the repeal of the military's divisive, damaging "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy) came two days after a major setback for immigrants' rights activists, who watched 41 U.S. senators kill "The Dream Act."
Only three Republican senators supported the Dream Act, which, in its latest incarnation, would offer young people who arrived in the United States as children the opportunity to work toward U.S. citizenship by graduating from high school, having a clear police record, and agreeing to attend at least two years of college or serving for two years in our armed services. Republican senators who fought against the legislation included the fractious Southerners Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. They reflexively labeled the bill as "amnesty for lawbreakers." Graham stated that the Dream Act should form part of a comprehensive immigration reform package which "might" be considered only after tough enforcement measures are achieved at our border with Mexico.
Amnesty, as commonly defined legally, is a simple act of forgiveness for past offenses. We've allowed Republican politicians to turn this benign legal term into a monstrous category of sin, but offering amnesty to minors who have committed no crimes (many young people who would benefit from the Dream Act came to the U.S. as infants in the arms of their parents) is reasonable, responsible, and humane. We don't want to define the U.S. as a nation that punishes kids who have committed no crime, but that's exactly what the U.S. Senate did in December by voting down the Dream Act.
Graham's disingenuousness on the issue is clear to all who have been following the Dream Act. Since early last year, the Obama administration has been beefing up border security, cracking down on workplaces that employ undocumented workers, and deporting by the thousands undocumented persons who run afoul of U.S. law. President Obama was convinced that a greater emphasis on "border security" would please Republicans, allow him to pass the popular Dream Act, and pave a legislative pathway to much needed comprehensive immigration reform. But the sometimes naive president was outmaneuvered by a group of slick Southern senators who — let's face it — are uninterested in supporting any of Obama's legislative agenda.
It's important to note that the Dream Act that failed in the Senate last week was a thin, anemic version of the original Dream Act. The latest Dream Act (unlike previous versions) put in an eligibility age cap (29) and insisted that only people who were 15 years of age or younger when they arrived would benefit from the law. It offered no repeal of a ban on in-state tuition benefits to the undocumented and would have prevented undocumented students from applying for Pell Grants or other assistance to finance college. For progressives, the current incarnation of the Dream Act is discouraging, but it's certainly better than nothing.
We must continue to fight for the Dream Act. Young people who could benefit from passage of this legislation should begin a massive letter writing campaign to representatives and senators in Washington. The good citizens of this country, the teachers, coaches, clergy, and the millions of others who work with and love these Dream Act kids need to become vocal on the matter and show the Senate that we're paying attention. We can start by reminding senators that Hispanics, who are disproportionally affected by this issue, are becoming an increasingly significant force on Election Day, and the numbers are growing. They will remember the mean-spiritedness with which the Dream Act was voted down in December 2010.
We need national leadership on this issue. Unfortunately, we don't have the poetic voice of a Langston Hughes or a unified, sustained commitment within the Hispanic community, so we allow people like Sessions and Graham to define and misrepresent the issues. These — and 39 other senators — might not know what we know as readers of the great poet of the Harlem Renaissance: A dream deferred can indeed explode.
Michael J. LaRosa teaches history at Rhodes College.