All posts by David Bennion

In 2013, the Dream 30 Fought to Come Home

Post by David Bennion (occasional blogger for the site, joined July 2013). See:

Note: The National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA) is not affiliated with the Open Borders website, and the views expressed herein are those of the author alone.

On September 30, 2013, 34 people crossed the pedestrian bridge from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and presented themselves to U.S. officials at the port of entry in Laredo, Texas. Thirty-one were Mexican citizens, two from Honduras, and one from Peru. None had permission to enter the U.S. They were dressed in the graduation caps and gowns that have become identified with undocumented youth and the DREAM Act, the perennial bill which would provide legal status to young people who grew up in the U.S. without papers. The group was accompanied by reporters covering the event for audiences across the U.S. and Mexico. Each of the 34 handed an ID to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials. Each was interviewed and expressed a fear of returning to his or her country of birth. All 34 were then taken into custody by CBP.

What these 34 individuals had in common is that each had previously lived in the U.S. without lawful status prior to being deported or “attritioned” due to anti-immigrant state and federal policies. Most were in their late teens or early twenties and would have qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative, a federal administrative reform that tracks the requirements of the DREAM Act, had they not been on the wrong side of the border on June 15, 2012, the date the policy was announced. A few had left the U.S. just weeks–even days–before that date.

This group became known as the Dream 30. Organizers at the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA) conceived of and coordinated the action. As an immigration attorney, my role was to provide legal advice to the participants and represent them in the immigration interviews and hearings that were to follow. The organizers built on a similar action which had taken place two months earlier with nine participants, dubbed the “Dream 9.” The Dream 30 differed from the Dream 9 in two important ways. First, four participants in the Dream 30 action were parents, older individuals who would not have qualified for DACA or the DREAM Act because of their ages when they came to the U.S. (This is one reason that the “Dream 30” shorthand was used even though there were 34 participants.) By contrast, each of the Dream 9 participants was a Dreamer, someone who had come to the U.S. as a child and grown up here without lawful immigration status. Second, three of the participants in the Dream 9 action had voluntarily crossed from the U.S. to Mexico for the purpose of participating in the action with the other six participants already in Mexico. This was a controversial and, to some observers, brazen element of the Dream 9 action which was not part of the Dream 30 action.

Life in Exile

The Dream 30 had departed the U.S. for a variety of reasons. Some were deported or left to join parents who had been deported. A disproportionate number hailed from Arizona and had been driven out by the campaign by elected officials there to purge the state of Latinos. Many had hit a wall after high school or college, unable to pursue work or continue education because of their immigration status. One had traveled to attend a green card interview based on an approved petition filed by her U.S.-citizen stepfather and was wrongly rejected and denied re-entry to the U.S.

Most of the Dream 30 were from Mexico. After returning to Mexico, they found a different country than the one they had left as children. The drug war that began in 2006 had claimed between 60,000 and 120,000 lives and is still raging in much of the country. Members of the Dream 30 came from states wracked by cartel violence like Sinaloa, Michoacan, Veracruz, and Guerrero. In much of Mexico, the authorities cannot be trusted. The entire police force of the city of Veracruz was deemed irredeemably corrupt by the federal government in 2011 and disbanded. Viligante self-defense groups have formed in Michoacan as lists emerged of government officials on the payroll of the cartels. Several of the Dream 30 were victims of extortion or threats by the police themselves. Many had relatives who were kidnapped or murdered. Most of the Dream 30 were readily identifiable as having lived in the U.S. due to their accents or appearance, or by word of mouth. Consequently, they were at risk of being targeted by the cartels or police on the assumption that they had relatives in the U.S. who could pay ransom. Some experienced persecution based on their race or sexual orientation. Some had left the U.S. to apply for visas “the right way” on the mistaken assumption that they would be able to return to the U.S. on student or visitor visas. Instead, they were told their sentence of exile was anywhere from 10 years to life. Many found their school credit didn’t transfer over to schools in Mexico and that their education and career opportunities were no better than in the U.S. They had become foreigners in the land of their birth. The situation was all the more painful because they had missed, some by days, the protections and opportunities they would have been afforded under DACA had they been able to remain in the U.S. until the date the policy was announced.

Fighting to Stay

Elsy, one of the Dream 30 from Honduras, crossed the footbridge with her severely disabled four-year-old U.S. citizen daughter. Elsy was released into the U.S. later the same evening to seek medical treatment for her daughter. Seven others–all minors and their parents–were released on October 1, the first day of the government shutdown. Another 17-year-old who was not accompanied by a parent was taken to San Antonio to be processed for release two weeks later as an unaccompanied minor. The remaining 25 participants were transferred into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody and transported to the El Paso Processing Center, a ten-hour drive from Laredo.

Each of the 25 Dreamers was scheduled for a telephone interview with one of a team of officers at the Houston asylum office the following week to determine whether he or she had a “credible fear of persecution” if deported. The asylum offices are part of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). USCIS, ICE, and CBP are sub-agencies of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The credible fear interview is only an initial step in the typically lengthy and difficult process of applying for asylum. Asylum is a status granted to those who meet the legal definition of a “refugee” but are either already inside the U.S. or are knocking at the door. The credible fear standard is lower than the standard that must be met for a grant of asylum in a full removal proceeding. As Professor Bill Hing wrote in a letter of support for the Dream 30:

The credible fear concept functions as a pre-screening standard that is broader and less rigorous than the “well-founded fear of persecution” standard that is required for an actual asylum application. A finding of credible fear merely gives the prospective immigrant the opportunity to apply for asylum in removal proceedings. Without this more generous screening standard, the nation risks returning immigrants to grave dangers, including situations involving political violence, police corruption, gang violence, and torture.

During the initial interviews on October 7, some of the interviewing asylum officers were openly skeptical and cut my clients off as they described their experiences. The asylum office refused to accept the asylum applications and packets of supporting documents we had prepared for each individual, as had CBP at the port of entry, saying the detailed information and evidence of persecution wouldn’t affect their decisions anyway as it would not be reviewed. (Later, after NIYA publicly criticized the asylum office, the officers agreed to accept and review some supporting evidence.) The asylum office took the unusual step of re-interviewing twelve of the participants on October 15 since, as a supervisor told me, these were high-profile cases.

The asylum office began issuing credible fear decisions shortly after the second set of interviews. The average credible fear denial rate nationally for Fiscal Year 2013 was about 8% (AILA InfoNet Doc. No. 13081316, p. 29). However, nine of the 25 Dreamers interviewed for credible fear were denied by the asylum office, a denial rate of 36%. The officers refused to acknowledge that the heightened risk of extortion, kidnapping, or murder by virtue of being a Dreamer warranted a full asylum hearing in front of an immigration judge. While the Houston asylum office is bound by the rulings of the conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, even there, the law governing the specific claim of fear of persecution based on being a member of the class of Dreamers is not settled. The majority of immigrants interviewed for credible fear are unrepresented by counsel, don’t speak English, and often lack formal education. Often there are discrepancies between the initial border interview and the subsequent credible fear interview. For instance, an applicant might tell a border official she was coming to work in the U.S. and later disclose the additional motivation of fear of persecution to an asylum officer. My clients requesting credible fear had all been educated in the U.S., were represented by counsel both prior to and during the interviews, and were fluent in English. There were no significant discrepancies between the border interviews and the credible fear interviews. I emphasized to my clients the importance of telling the truth, and I and the small team of lawyers and assistants working with us reviewed the case histories for consistency and accuracy. Anecdotally, it is rare for credible fear applicants represented by counsel to be denied by the asylum office. I would have expected the credible fear denial rate for the Dream 30 to be lower than the normal rate, not four and a half times higher. By comparison, all of the Dream 9 passed their credible fear interviews and were paroled into the U.S., including the three who had returned to Mexico for the purpose of participating in the action.

Little Help from “Champions” in Congress

Days stretched into weeks, and still ICE refused to release those of the Dream 30 with positive credible fear determinations. This was in violation of an ICE policy announced in 2009 to parole people found to have credible fear who do not pose a flight risk or danger to the community. I believed at the time that ICE’s intransigence was a form of retaliation for this unorthodox, highly-public action. Later, NIYA learned that ICE’s practice of holding asylum-seekers in violation of its own policy was more widespread than we had thought.

The mothers of two of the participants with negative credible fear findings–Jonathan and Rocio–traveled to Senator Bob Menendez’s D.C. office on October 24 to ask for his help. Menendez is the only Senator in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) and is a visible proponent of immigration reform in Congress. Over the last few years, he and other members of congress had worked behind the scenes with NIYA and other youth organizations to persuade ICE to stop deportations in individual cases. But the Dream 9 and Dream 30 actions represented a bridge too far for most of the CHC and the immigrant advocacy organizations that guide the politicians’ decisions. Comprehensive immigration reform legislation was still on life support in October, and congressional Democrats and their organizational boosters feared the Dream 30 action might kill it by giving Republicans in the House another reason to oppose reform. Menendez and most of the CHC closed ranks and left the Dream 30 hanging, giving the green light to ICE to deport any who didn’t make it through the credible fear process. The two mothers refused to leave Senator Menendez’s office unless he agreed to help their children. Instead of helping, Menendez’s staff called the police to arrest the mothers. Defiant, Jonathan and Rocio’s mothers came back to the office the next day. Menendez still refused to help.

Meanwhile, the Dream 30 were becoming increasingly frustrated with their continued imprisonment. The men staged a sit-in on Friday, October 25. Most of the participants went on hunger strike over the weekend. Early the following week, ICE took some of the men to emergency care. I was later told that ICE attempted to obtain a court order to force feed the hunger strikers, but that the treating doctors refused to sign off on the request since the men were still in good health. Tuesday morning, October 29, an ICE officer called to ask me to persuade my clients to end their hunger strike, saying they could not be released while their health was in question. I suspected that the opposite was true, that the pressure tactics were working and ICE didn’t want the negative press that might come if the hunger strike continued. Around the same time, I received word that ICE had denied my last-ditch request to stop the deportation of Rocio, one of the participants whose negative credible fear decision had been rendered first. By the time I was notified of the decision, she was already on her way to Mexico. Later that evening, eleven Dreamers were released. Five more were released on Friday, November 1. While the hunger strike and protests going on around the country had not prevented Rocio from being deported, they had successfully brought others in the group home despite the best efforts of the U.S. government to keep them out.

The Dream 30 forged strong bonds at the migrant shelter in Nuevo Laredo where they met and in prison in El Paso. The 16 who had been released from the El Paso Processing Center promptly got in a van and Benito Miller, a NIYA organizer, drove them to Washington, D.C. The morning of Monday, November 4, they began a series of sit-ins in the offices of members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, including Representative Gutierrez. Gutierrez lashed out, declaring he was severing ties with NIYA. Mohammad Abdollahi, a NIYA organizer, dryly noted that NIYA hadn’t had a working relationship with Gutierrez’s office in years.

To deflect the negative attention the offices of Menendez and Gutierrez were getting in the press, staffers told the parents of the Dreamers that I had provided bad legal advice to their children and that they and their children were being manipulated by NIYA. Furious, Maria Hernandez, the mother of one of the Dream 30, wrote a scathing open letter to Gutierrez that was published in the Huffington Post. She wrote, in part:

Personally, these “manipulative” organizers, as the congressman calls NIYA and the Dreamers, have been a constant support to me, to all the parents and to our children, and to the community. Despite their young age they know what they do. But why do they know? Because they have lived it. Such a person can move the world. Thanks to them we have been reunited with our children, which is what these politicians should do.
. . .
Congressman Gutierrez said he will withdraw support from these organizers, but I say, what support? The only thing he has supported is the deportation of these two young people, Brandon and Rocio. Congressman Gutierrez and his colleagues in Congress are well aware that if they support these Dreamers, more Dreamers will come and that is what they do not want, family unity.

By trying to discourage the parents from pursuing the release of their children, the offices of Senator Menendez and Representative Gutierrez were in effect working with ICE to deport the Dream 30. The staffers, including lawyers who should have known better, attempted to impede my ability to represent my clients by giving false information to their parents.

Most of the national immigrant advocacy organizations ignored the Dream 30 action, as they had the Dream 9, hoping that the story would quickly disappear. The action didn’t fit with the approved narrative that Republicans are to blame for the nearly two million people deported during Obama’s presidency. The estimated 500,000 Dreamers living in Mexico are an inconvenience that most congressional Democrats would prefer to forget.

Challenging the System, Shifting the Debate

I and my nine clients who had received negative credible fear determinations asked for review by an immigration judge. The regulations provide for a limited hearing that falls far short of a full asylum hearing and its attendant due process protections, such as they are. Three of the negative decisions were overturned on review by a judge or after reconsideration by the asylum office. ICE deported the remaining six despite their strong ties to the U.S. and legitimate fear of harm in Mexico. Some of those deported had lived in the U.S. since they were toddlers. In all, 28 of the original 34 were released into the U.S. to pursue asylum or other relief in immigration court in their home states.

At the outset, I had hoped for the same outcome that the Dream 9 had achieved: parole of all participants after passing a credible fear interview. I believe the different result this time came from a combination of factors. The DHS agencies involved–CBP, ICE, and USCIS–closed ranks in an attempt to shut the action down. DHS was on notice after the Dream 9 action and wanted to discourage future attempts by exiled Dreamers to return to the U.S. The asylum office manipulated the legal standard for credible fear determinations in order to deny my clients’ cases at over four times the normal rate, and ICE ignored its own directives on discretionary release of low-priority detainees. Over the past couple of years, ICE rank and file officers have chafed at instructions from D.C. not to deport Dreamers. In the absence of support from legislators and the administration, ICE was free to treat the Dream 30 as though they weren’t Dreamers and deport some of them. A few prominent immigration lawyers gave the administration and the CHC political cover by publicly undermining the Dream 30’s legal cases.

It was important for DHS to discourage more Dreamers from trying to rejoin their families in the U.S. Otherwise the public might become aware that the consequences of U.S. immigration policy extend beyond our borders, and that people don’t vanish once they are deported. They keep living, they keep dreaming. As Prerna Lal aptly wrote

“the deported are not lost to us. They will come back because they are responsible, committed, and dedicated mothers, fathers, children, siblings.”

Even though those of the Dream 30 who were paroled have not secured permanent status in the U.S., they now have the time and resources to prepare to fight their cases. Inside prison, ICE has the upper hand, as legal representation and support networks are disrupted and the cases are heard on an expedited schedule. Immigration judges presiding over prison courts are among the harshest in the country. That dynamic is flipped once a person is released. With time to gather supporting evidence and locate reliable local counsel, and in front of more sympathetic judges, chances of success rise dramatically. But perhaps more importantly, upon release, my clients have likely secured their futures in the U.S. While it is impossible to predict the outcome of the individual cases, it is unlikely that ICE will detain and deport the Dream 30 even if they ultimately lose their cases. They are now embedded in a network of Dreamers and allies that will mobilize to protect them if necessary. The Obama administration says it doesn’t deport Dreamers, and the Dream 30 have become Dreamers on the right side of the border once again. If Congress crafts a DREAM Act that excludes the Dream 30 and the Dream 9, they and their supporters will fight back.

In the midst of the Dream 30 action and a series of civil disobedience actions coordinated by the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON) to disrupt ICE operations, Representative Gutierrez pivoted away from the comprehensive reform orthodoxy, acknowledging that piecemeal legislation would now be the only realistic way forward. The week following Gutierrez’s public dispute with NIYA, he criticized President Obama for saying one thing and doing another.

While pressure is rising on Obama to enact additional administrative reforms, immigrant rights supporters remain divided over who to target: the President or House Republicans. At the heart of the rift is a difference in objectives and analysis. The first approach involves a sustained push for compromise legislative reform, understanding that it may not produce results until long-term demographic changes work their way through the electoral system. Most analysts predict that the GOP will hold onto the House in 2014, and I believe that House Republicans will become even more resistant to immigration reform as the primary season progresses. I do not know if or when broad amnesty legislation will pass through Congress, but it could be years. The changes contemplated under existing proposals would not significantly alter the immigration system. The second strategy is to directly challenge the deportation system and and push for fundamental changes to the underlying immigration regime. Both approaches have their merits, but disputes are inevitable where the stakes are so high and the analysis so different. We are entering another window of opportunity for an administrative policy shift, as comprehensive immigration reform is stalled and public focus shifts back to Obama’s deportation record. Direct action keeps up the pressure and helps shape public opinion, challenging the “Democrats good, Republicans bad” narrative that has facilitated the administration’s deportation and attrition policies.

I can’t speak for the participants or organizers of the Dream 9 and Dream 30 actions or for the undocumented communities they represent. But to me, the actions represent a challenge to the border as an illegitimate construct, built in a misguided attempt to protect status and power in a changing world. The actions question the global immigration and citizenship regime which, perhaps more than any other single factor, perpetuates extreme social, political, and economic inequality. I believe the actions:

  1. Pushed for a new “Dreamer” particular social group to be defined as a protected ground under asylum laws.
  2. Reunited families.
  3. Helped shift control over policy messaging and strategy back to undocumented people themselves and away from citizen allies purporting to speak for undocumented communities.
  4. Put pressure on the administration and the Democrats to enact further administrative reforms.
  5. Raised awareness of the large number of exiled Dreamers and their family members, most of whom will be shut out of legislative or administrative reforms as currently proposed.

Too much, I have become hardened against the suffering endured by my undocumented clients. Perhaps it’s a necessary response to continue to do the work. Even so, I was powerfully affected by a stream of Facebook posts showing happy reunions with family and friends as members of the group finally made their way back to their homes in November. The Dream 9 and Dream 30 bravely challenged the morally illegitimate laws that would separate them from their families and their dreams. As the Twitter hashtag for the actions succinctly puts it, #BringThemHome.

How Undocumented Organizers Can Lead the Way to Open Borders

Post by David Bennion (see all posts by David Bennion)

My perspective on open borders has been profoundly shaped by my work with undocumented organizers in the U.S. In this post, I make the argument that the people most directly affected by closed borders are best able to create the political conditions necessary for open borders because:

1. They have the most to lose and therefore work the hardest for change,

2. They can better analyze the issues and frame the arguments in support of open borders because they directly experience the consequences of closed borders, and

3. Because of 1 and 2, affected individuals are more persuasive messengers to the voting public than intermediaries.

Martin Luther King, Jr. argued that meaningful social change comes through the creation of tension in an untenable system. In a recent OB post, Paul Crider cited King:

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. . . . I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. . . . The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

King’s key insight found expression in the movement for Indian independence, the U.S. civil rights movement, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the Arab Spring.

Undocumented youth in the U.S. have created tension by engaging in direct action to force the fact of their oppression into the public consciousness. The two most significant political events relating to immigration in the U.S. in the past few years were the DREAM Act vote in December 2010 and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative announced by President Obama in June 2012. Both resulted in large part from direct action by undocumented activists.

Undocumented Youth Push the DREAM Act to a Vote

Before 2010, immigrant rights barely registered with progressives, liberals, and libertarians who weren’t directly affected by the issue. In the 2009-2010 legislative session, with solid majorities in both houses of Congress and in possession of the White House, the Democrats didn’t even introduce a bona fide comprehensive immigration reform bill in either house of Congress until after it was clear it wouldn’t be voted on. Most Democrats preferred not to talk about immigration, much less push bills through Congress.

In early 2010, the debate around Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, SB 1070, started to change the conversation on the left. The vote on the DREAM Act in December 2010 further engaged mainstream progressives, who began to learn about immigration and started to pick a side. Even though the bill failed, undocumented youth emerged from the vote as the most visible and empowered segment of the immigrant rights movement.

It wasn’t preordained that the DREAM Act would be voted on at all. In early 2010, the national immigrant rights advocacy groups, then almost exclusively citizen-led, opposed bringing the DREAM Act up for a vote as a standalone bill. Their reasoning was that, having garnered solid bipartisan majorities in the past, the DREAM Act had to be bundled with comprehensive legislation as a sweetener so the larger bill could pass. They also believed that a failure on DREAM would doom any other immigration legislation for the foreseeable future. The advocacy groups told the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to hold the DREAM Act in committee, and the CHC communicated the message to Democratic leadership in Congress. The White House was almost entirely disengaged from immigration reform efforts at this time.

By early 2010, some undocumented youth activists were fed up with the hesitance and dissimulation coming from those purporting to speak for them. Through a series of direct actions, including a sit-in in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office, Reid changed course and agreed to bring the DREAM Act up as a standalone bill. This account of Reid’s conversion from restrictionist to immigrant advocate appeared in the New York Times recently.

But this is what really happened during the run-up to the 2010 mid-term elections.

Even though Reid had been mobilized through electoral politics, most Democrats in Congress were still stuck in a reactive mode. Reid couldn’t bring the Democratic caucus into line on the DREAM Act vote, losing five Democratic votes, which killed the bill given overwhelming Republican opposition.

Rubio Challenges Obama on Immigration and Fails

June 2012 marked another turning point. The GOP presidential primaries were in full swing, with each candidate trying to outdo the next in declaiming immigrants. Obama had little to fear from the Republican candidates themselves. Latinos were not likely to vote for the GOP given the party’s hard turn against immigrants over the previous decade. The question was whether Latino voters would turn out for Obama in sufficient numbers to push him over the top in swing states like Nevada, Colorado, and Florida. Obama’s mass deportation campaign, then in its fourth year, was hurting him with Latino voters.

In the spring of 2012, Senator Marco Rubio floated a proposal for a Republican DREAM Act. Observers speculated that Romney might try to undo the damage he’d caused with Latino voters in the primary by selecting Rubio as his running mate, and Rubio seemed to be working towards that outcome with his DREAM Act proposal. Rubio consulted directly with undocumented youth activists about the bill, acknowledging that their support would be crucial to his effort.

The National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), an undocumented youth group formed by the activists who led the first undocumented civil disobedience actions in 2010, came out early in favor of the Rubio proposal. United We Dream, the other, larger national undocumented youth organization, followed suit. Rubio had presented a way for the GOP to get out of the corner it had painted itself in with the Latino electorate. Obama was feeling pressure.

Then in early June, undocumented youth began staging sit-ins at Organizing for America offices in Oakland and Denver. Days later, President Obama announced the most significant immigration policy reform in over a decade: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The policy tracked the requirements of the DREAM Act, and offered formal protection from deportation to certain undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. With DACA, Obama neutralized whatever momentum for the GOP the Rubio proposal had sparked. The predictable backlash against DACA from Republicans, along with the ongoing public theater around Arizona SB 1070 and other anti-immigrant state bills, sealed a lopsided majority of the Latino vote for Obama in the 2012 presidential election.

Without the last several years of youth activism, there would have been no comprehensive immigration bill, as flawed as it is, passing last month in the Senate with a unified Democratic caucus and 17 Republican votes. There would be no generally-acknowledged connection between the future of the Republican Party and its position on immigration policy. Democrats would still be running from the issue or trying to out-enforce the Republicans. Obama likely wouldn’t have beaten Romney in the Latino and Asian-American vote by the margins that he did. Even had Obama won, the election results wouldn’t have been connected to a major immigration policy closely identified with the President–DACA–because the policy wouldn’t have existed without the organizing efforts that forced the President’s hand.

Documented and Afraid

Driving much of the change over the past few years has been a strategy developed by undocumented youth of publicly identifying themselves as undocumented and encouraging others to do so. The concept of “coming out” as undocumented and unafraid was adapted from the LGBT rights movement by LGBT undocumented activists. “Coming out” is an enormously effective strategy, but early adopters risk harsh penalties for challenging the dominant paradigm. As undocumented activists came out, they presented a different immigration narrative than the public had seen. Citizens came to realize that undocumented youth were not much different than their children or peers. Other undocumented youth saw those who had come out and were empowered to come out themselves. This had a ripple effect that rapidly changed the narrative about undocumented youth. The feared repercussions–deportation of those who exposed themselves as undocumented–never materialized.

Initially, most citizen advocates discouraged activists from being public about their undocumented status. “Know your rights” training sessions held by community organizations teach undocumented people never to disclose their immigration status to the police. Lawyers, advocates, and legislators have gone to great lengths to discourage undocumented activists from participating in civil disobedience actions, usually out of a misguided desire to protect the activists from themselves. Undocumented journalist Jose Antonio Vargas has talked about how most of the people he consulted before writing his seminal “coming out” piece in the New York Times in 2011 discouraged him from publishing it.

Not only did documented advocates fail to formulate effective organizing strategies, many actively tried to prevent undocumented activists from carrying out their own plans. While often based in good intentions, these efforts to suppress the political expression of oppressed people are patronizing and disempowering. This problem is caused by diverging incentives. Citizen advocates are not themselves at risk of harm, though some have loved ones who are at risk. Immigration lawyers like me–including those at legal services nonprofits–get paid whether we are fighting deportations or helping people apply for status; that is, whether immigration reform passes or not. Advocacy organizations can get funding for immigration work, whether to promote immigration reform or to implement it.

Undocumented activists were driven to riskier tactics out of desperation. Not long ago, ICE was routinely deporting all undocumented youth regardless of the balance of equities in individual cases. The risks the activists took in exposing themselves were real and extended to their families.

Citizen advocates are not only not the best immigrant rights analysts or strategists, but also not the best messengers. Over the past several years, I have appeared in my role as lawyer on panels or at interviews along with undocumented activists. Invariably, the interviewer’s or audience’s interest is drawn to the person who is herself affected, who herself risks imprisonment just by being there. For years, organizations and legislators have told the stories of clients or constituents to generate public support for immigration reform. On this, there is a fine line between empowerment and tokenism. Too often, advocates fail this test.

Leading the Way

Moving forward, affected people must continue to create the political conditions that will make better legislation possible. Momentum is on the side of the reformers. U.S. immigration laws are selectively and arbitrarily enforced. Counterintuitively, those who defy the immigration regime most publicly are the safest from deportation. This tells us that the legal system has become disconnected from the moral and political spheres. Citizen advocates and allies can play an important supporting role in reform efforts, but should not take the lead. If they do, they risk forestalling change yet again.

If Congress approves anything like the comprehensive bill passed by the Senate last month, opportunities for citizen civil disobedience will proliferate. For instance, citizens could unlawfully help deported immigrants re-enter the country or knowingly and publicly employ unauthorized workers. The more that citizen allies risk, the more moral authority they will wield. But few will have the incentive or resolve to risk long-term imprisonment–I know I don’t.

Most Americans are taught early on that U.S. democracy is principled, ordered, and fair. Opposing views on a topic are aired and consensus develops. Policymakers respond to and are held accountable by voters. While there were some hiccups in the past (slavery, Native American genocide) we’ve moved beyond those now.

The reality is that millions of noncitizens in the U.S. are exploited, targeted, and reviled with the sanction of the government and approval of the voting public. The U.S. political system not only produced and produces this result but is incapable of rectifying it. These problems are not unique to this time and place. Institutional systems of oppression are rarely overturned through sanctioned channels. Instead, oppressed people must themselves, through nonviolent direct action, create the political conditions necessary to reform the system.

The undocumented population in the U.S. and around the world is a small fraction of the total number of people profoundly harmed by closed borders. But undocumented organizers may present the best hope for reforming the global immigration and citizenship regime.

Undocumented youth in the U.S. are uniquely positioned to mobilize for legislative change because they are able to navigate U.S. culture while credibly speaking for the larger undocumented community. More than the citizens of most other countries, Americans claim to be willing to accept immigrants who make efforts to assimilate. This gives undocumented youth, who often pass as citizens, moral leverage they would not possess in most other countries.

As children, undocumented youth were promised the opportunities afforded to their citizen peers, finding those promises to be hollow only upon reaching adulthood. Straddling the line between global haves and have nots, undocumented youth in the U.S. personify the contradictions between the stated values of the political-economic order and the actual inequality and injustice that the order perpetuates. They blur that line and hint at the possibility of erasing it. If they are able to connect with victims of closed borders in other countries to organize transnationally, undocumented youth in the U.S. could point the way to achieving open borders on a much larger scale.