In a little more than a week, Congress and the White House will once again face a potential government shutdown and a fateful decision about immigration. The nation's leaders can't avoid the question, largely because, against all odds, a determined group of young immigrants has already won the cultural battle: More than 80% of Americans favor a legal path to permanent residency, if not citizenship, for those who came to this country as children and remain in the United States illegally.
It's worth jumping back in time to understand how this wave of support grew. On a frigid December Saturday in 2010, the Senate convened for an unusual weekend session. Hundreds of onlookers crowded the gallery in support of two proposals that had already passed in the House of Representatives. One was the Dream Act, designed to extricate "alien minors" from the larger, sidelined attempt to reform immigration policy. The second was the repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law, which had become a tool used to discriminate against LGBTQ members of the military.
When it came to the vote on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the question was less "should we repeal it?" than how and how soon? But a wide gulf still existed between those who supported the Dream Act (the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act of 2010) and those who argued against it. The Senate voted 65-31 to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The Dream Act died by five votes.
Today, it is the Dream Act that is less a question of "should we?" than how and when? The change is in part due to demographics. Immigrants make up a larger share of the U.S. population than at any time since 1920. More than a quarter of children in the U.S. have an immigrant parent. Moreover, households are increasingly bilingual. The result: Issues and perspectives once crucial primarily to marginalized groups now filter into the mainstream.
The shift can be seen in the difference in media coverage between the 2010 Senate session and Congress' immigration debates today. None of the commercial English language networks carried the 2010 vote live, just Spanish-language outlets such as Univision and Telemundo. (In English, it was only available on C-SPAN.) When President Trump hosted lawmakers to talk about how to deal with "Dreamers" earlier this month, CNN and MSNBC showed themeeting as soon as they had access to the video.
But demographics alone can't explain the nation's overwhelming support for Dreamers. It is the result of dedicated activism and strategic alliances. Many Dream Act organizers, such as Greisa Martinez, of United We Dream, and Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, cut their teeth on grassroots issues, starting with local immigrant rights and college access for those in the country illegally. They staged teach-ins, then sit-ins, then hunger strikes, upping the ante to stay in the spotlight. When the networks and newspapers ignored them, they turned to social media, over the years rallying more and more of the undocumented, old and young, to share their experiences and come out of the shadows.
The Dreamers trained with veteran immigrant organizations, learned from black and LGBTQ civil rights advocates and from labor groups. They spent years tending to the unglamorous details of activism: setting up phone banks, leadership-building, fund-raising and sacrificing their time, privacy, money, health and security for the cause. Eventually, they earned the trust of donors and tech leaders who provided funds to expand their work.
As focused as the movement was, it never spoke with just one voice. It was buoyed and shaped by those who sought protections for a limited few, and by those who want to see borders abolished altogether. As is often the case, those who made more radical demands forced lawmakers to pay attention to those asking for basic human rights.
The Dreamers who have worked so hard to get legal status will stay active. If they get the full prize — citizenship and the vote — they will be more likely than the average American to use it. And if they don't get it, their U.S.-born siblings and friends in the ascendant millennial population are unlikely to forget. Beyond this battle, young and not so young people nationwide have seen that their voices and bodies can still make a difference in Washington.
The Dream Act faces many hurdles as the president and lawmakers fight to marry its narrow purpose to a border wall and to limits on, or at least changes in, an immigration system that still requires massive, structural reform. Whatever the outcome, it will not be the end of the debate. But the battle over this bill and the Dreamers has prepared us for that larger conversation.
Laura Wides-Muñoz is the author of the new book "The Making of a Dream: How a Group of Young Undocumented Immigrants Helped Change What It Means to Be American." A former Associated Press immigration reporter, she is vice president for special projects at Fusion TV.