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Student Organizers Cheer Arrival of Deferred Action, Brace for Bigger Fight

As President Obama's Executive Order halting the deportation of undocumented youth goes into effect, student leaders are optimistic -- and prepared to keep fighting.

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The presence of such youthful energy is not a coincidence; though sometimes overlooked by the mainstream media, the fact is that the immigrant rights movement is also a student movement. Primarily student led, the movement’s strategic goals also center around students’ needs and basic rights: the Dream Act, a piece of legislation that has been the most high-profile demand made by the movement for the last 10 years, primarily seeks to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented students, and has been spearheaded by student movement leaders.

“The students have led these efforts,” Mora said emphatically. “A lot of people sympathize with young people who are doing their best to go to college and get a degree. So that is a big advantage, because we can connect with a lot of people. And we have taken advantage of that.”

But the experience of fighting for immigrant rights has hardly been all rosy. Before the recent run of success the movement has enjoyed – including the passage of the California Dream Act in 2011 and Obama’s Executive Order – came a period of defeat. While the movement was able to force a vote in Congress on the Federal Dream Act in 2010, it failed to withstand a filibuster. And simultaneously, on the statewide level the anti-immigration movement was winning major victories, including the enactment of Secure Communities and the passage of SB 1070.

For Mora, who was in Washington, DC for a month in an effort to get the Federal Dream Act passed, the failures were a wakeup call. He and his fellow organizers decided to adopt a focus on the state level, culminating in the passage of the California Dream Act. Moreover, they decided to go back to the states with the same emphasis on direct action and civil disobedience that they had used in fighting for the Federal Dream Act. These actions were revelatory in the amount of personal sacrifice they required: in one particularly high-profile example, in 2010, four students walked 1,500 miles from their homes in Miami, Florida to Washington, DC to raise awareness about the plight of undocumented youth. Although, the federal legislation ultimately failed to pass, there was nevertheless a sense that the daring tactics they’d used in that fight had had a profound effect. “Because the students organized through direct actions, they staked the movement to a whole different level,” Mora said. “That changed the course of the conversation around immigration reform.”

Yet even with their recent victories, the atmosphere in the CHIRLA office does not suggest a movement that has become either satisfied or complacent. For these students, a stopgap solution like the Executive Order may be a start, but it is not enough. To taste that victory so quickly, and after so many failed attempts, has empowered student organizers to continue to fight and has built a sense that they are on the verge of a breakthrough. “We accomplished our goal really early into the [Right to Dream] campaign,” Mora said. “Many students felt a sense of empowerment. I think that has given youth new hope – to continue fighting, to continue organizing.”

Student organizers have no reason to believe that this victory was a fluke. They believe in their tactics and are buoyed by their strong, personal ties to the movement – most organizers are themselves undocumented and are therefore fighting for their right to exist in the only country they know. These strong ties are also a motivating factor when student organizers undertake the often intense acts of personal risk and sacrifice that have become more and more a part of the movement.