The DREAM Act: Elements of Defeat


When the DREAM Act failed in the Senate last month, I took some time to think about what had gone wrong. What led to a vote where the legalization of hundreds of thousands of high-achieving immigrant kids fell five votes short?

There are five sets of actors that played a role in the failure, and I would like to look at each one separately and in conjunction with one another:

—Immigrant rights advocates

—President Obama

—Democratic leadership in Congress


—The Tea Party

The advocacy community will be hashing over this failure for years. How much of it can be laid at our doorstep?

There was major national funding behind passing some immigrant rights legislation in 2010. There was dedicated grassroots support for it. Immigrants themselves mobilized in massive numbers, from the more than 200,000 people who participated in the March 21 rally in DC to the thousands who were arrested in non-violent civil disobedience actions around the country.

These actions had a profound impact on many elected officials, but they could not change certain mathematical facts, the most prominent of which was that 40 senators hail from states with virtually no immigrant electorate. These senators voted overwhelmingly against all reforms because there was no in-state political gain that could be demonstrated by activists.

In other words, the activists could put the issue on the table, but they could not, by themselves, drive it home. Their grass-roots power was concentrated, but only in 20 states.

Someone who could have put the issue on the table was President Obama. He had a national platform to speak about immigration reform in 2009 when his popularity was at an unprecedented height, yet he was silent on the issue. In January 2010, he could have set reform on its course during his State of the Union Address, but he dismissed it with a few ambiguous sentences.

It was only in March, facing denunciation by Latino leaders, that Obama spoke out about reform on the day of the massive rally in Washington.

And then silence again descended on the White House.

Obama’s absence was particularly harmful when the discussion turned from comprehensive immigration reform to passing the DREAM Act. When the Senate voted on the DREAM Act for the first time back in September, he was virtually silent.

Many Americans only heard about the bill after it was defeated, but the president wasn’t the only reason that the DREAM Act wasn’t well known nationally. The immigrant rights movement took until Labor Day to shift gears away from comprehensive reform and towards piecemeal legislation.

The Congressional Democratic leadership is tough to criticize on the failure of the DREAM Act. Majority Whip Dick Durbin and Speaker Nancy Pelosi were unwavering in their support. After Harry Reid was reelected with Latino votes, he got religion too.

But the fact remains that there was a chance to pass the DREAM Act if all the Democratic senators voted for it, and they didn’t. And we know none of the defectors will suffer for that vote, at least not until the next election.

While Democratic defectors stole the DREAM Act’s margin of victory from us, we should also remember that 90 percent of Republicans in the House and Senate voted “No.” The once sizable contingent of GOP immigration moderates who supported reasonable reform through compromise has vanished.

One of the original authors of the bill, Sen. Orrin Hatch, was joined by the two senators from Maine, Olympia Snow and Sue Collins, as well as by John McCain and Lindsey Graham in voting against a measure that they had earlier seen as responsible legislation.

These seven Republicans were whipped into their votes by the Tea Party.

When the Tea Party first manifested itself in April 2009, it was not explicitly anti-immigrant. In fact, some of its early leaders said they did not want their movement to take on “social issues” like gay marriage and illegal immigration. They said the movement was primarily directed against increased taxes and a growing federal deficit. But demographics overcame these desires.

The Tea Party drew its followers almost exclusively from the ranks of white conservatives, a demographic that has historically been hostile to immigrants. That fact, coupled with the avowed plan by anti-immigrant groups to infiltrate the Tea Party, pushed the movement toward anti-immigrantism.

The shift in the Tea Party from neutrality to hostility on immigration became clear early in 2010 when Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer became the poster girl for the Tea Party after she signed SB 1070.

If you can think back to the days after the bill was signed, you might recall that establishment Republicans were largely silent on the measure. A few, like Marco Rubio, were critical of the legislation. But once the Tea Party enthusiastically came out in support of SB 1070—which would institutionalize the racial profiling of Latinos—many Republican elected officials were cowed into following suit.

Tea Party primary challenges to moderate Republicans in the spring and summer of 2010 and the decidedly anti-immigrant campaigns of Tea Party darlings like Sharron Angle and Rand Paul served notice on the GOP that a victory party was not going to be held in a big tent. The key to survival for a Republican was to assuage the Tea Party base. The remaking of John McCain into a born-again restrictionist was only the best known such modification.

This caught some immigrant rights groups by surprise.

For example, many immigrant activists thought that Maine’s Senators Snow and Collins would surely vote for the DREAM Act. They were moderates in the great Northeastern Republican tradition. Their state had long had a progressive Republican party structure.

Activists, however, hadn’t accounted for the Tea Party takeover that occurred in the Maine GOP over the past year. Snow and Collins are now part of a state party that has moved significantly to the right. And the Tea Party in Maine has shown that they are willing to sacrifice Republican office holders to achieve ideological compliance.

It is this factor, the rise of the Tea Party and its ability to corral Republican senators, that ultimately played the most significant role in defeating the DREAM Act. Pro-immigrant strategists, who wrote off the Tea Party as a fringe or “Astro-Turf” pseudo-movement a year ago, will have to plan for future battles with a full awareness of the strength of this highly charged wing of the Republican Party.

Image courtesy of America’s Voice.

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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