Activists across the country have rallied around the DREAM Act as a first step toward comprehensive immigration reform. The DREAM Act, which broadens undocumented youths' access to higher education, basically granting conditional relief to enable students to finish their degrees, is framed as a "noncontroversial" concept that rational people, even conservative-leaning folks, would find hard to oppose on moral grounds. In fact, even the Pentagon is a big fan, according to a documentary recently featured on Democracy Now!. Really.
In Yo Soy El Army, media activist Marco Amador looks at the backstory behind the DREAM Act in his exploration of the Pentagon's predation on Latino communities. While the DREAM Act has inspired bold activism led by educators and students, its status as a pillar of the immigration reform movement is somewhat undercut, the film suggests, by the taint of the military recruitment machine. Specifically, the bill contains a provision that offers military service as an option, alongside higher education, as a "path to citizenship."
JORGE MARISCAL: The dream, really, of citizenship is the main thing that people—that recruiters offer. Related to that is something called the DREAM Act. Now, the DREAM Act would actually take noncitizen youths, who have been raised here, who were brought here as children, are bilingual, bicultural, fluent in English, and graduated from high school, that would allow them to serve in the military in exchange for temporary permanent residency...
What one has to realize about the DREAM Act is that the military option wasn’t attached. The military option was there at the beginning. The Pentagon helped write the DREAM Act. That’s what people have to realize.
Controversy emerged in the activist community over the military-related provisions of the act a few years ago when it was proposed and ultimately quashed in the ugly wrangling over immigration on Capitol Hill. Justin Akers Chacon and Lee Sustar wrote in a 2007 Socialist Worker commentary that the DREAM Act would encourage the encroachment of the military on a vulnerable population of struggling youth. Given the economic hardships and other barriers many young immigrants face, which often put education out of reach, regardless of immigration status, the military could be a tantalizing alternative to hitting the books. The possibility that the DREAM Act would present higher education as a channel to legalization alongside the slick PR machines of the armed services has alarmed more radical activists, especially since the military already welcomes non-citizens as soldiers. Chacon and Sustar cautioned:
Progressive opponents of the DREAM Act don't deny the positive emphasis on education and the need to create a path to legalization. Instead, they point out that the education options under the proposed law would be highly limited for many, if not most, immigrant youth. As a result, they argue, the DREAM Act would become primarily a means to corral immigrants into the military.
"Largely due to the war in Iraq, the Army is struggling to meet its recruitment goals," he said. "Under the DREAM Act, tens of thousands of well-qualified potential recruits would become eligible for military service for the first time. They are eager to serve in the armed forces during a time of war."
The featured excerpt of Yo Soy El Army also details the marketing strategy used by savvy recruiters. One officer matter-of-factly explained her racial theory:
LT. COL. MARGARET STOCK: Many Latinos are comfortable with a more conservative or traditional lifestyle, I suppose you might say. They’re not—they’re able to handle a hierarchical military structure where people in charge will give orders and everybody else is expected to follow the orders. There are some communities that are less likely to be interested in that kind of lifestyle. But generally speaking—and again, this is, you know, a generalization—Latinos adjust pretty well to that kind of lifestyle.
Funny how these kinds of "generalizations" cut both ways. Remember, Stock is talking about the docile, loyal, diligent immigrants that the hard right likes, not to be confused with the throngs of "illegals" overrunning Arizona, who display no respect for law and order and threaten to undermine the American way of life. The bad immigrants, by this logic, deserve their own separate legislation and a one-way ticket back over the border, courtesy state lawmakers and Homeland Security. But the good ones can get sent across the border under more auspicious circumstances, to spread democracy abroad with automatic weapons, courtesy our uniformed services.
Amador isn't an absolutist about the DREAM Act, but he's also not blind to the compromises that were needed to make the legislation viable in a political arena where immigrants are welcome to the extent that they can be exploited:
Now, within the military ranks... They understand that college is an expensive alternative for a lot of these folks, so they’re offering the military. And they say it very blatantly. ...
Now, we’re not, you know, focusing or saying that the students, you know, the youth that are involved in the DREAM movement are at fault here. What we’d like to understand is, do the organizations fully understand the implications of accepting the militarization of the immigrant rights movement?
As we've reported before, the role of people of color in the military is fraught with moral and political questions about patriotism, self-empowerment and increasingly, the meaning of citizenship. As activists struggle to secure freedom for undocumented youth, let's hope that the movement keeps its eyes open as it awakens to the troubling side of their dream.
Crossposted from Racewire.org