“You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one”
-John Lennon, Imagine
I heard it on the radio driving home from my friend’s house. It was Tuesday, September 5, 2017, the first day after a scorching labor day weekend in Los Angeles, where temperatures in the San Fernando valley approached 115 degrees. A random spark on Friday set ablaze the dry crackling bushes and trees that within 24 hours enveloped more than 5,000 acres of the La Tuna Canyon, evacuating half of Burbank and closing the 210 freeway. Billowing black smoke soon mixed with the usual smog to rain ash and choking particles down upon the sweltering metropolis.
President Donald Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, announced that the administration would cancel DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an executive order begrudgingly signed by President Barak Obama after he had gotten nowhere with Congress and after hundreds of undocumented students and youth courted arrest to draw attention to inaction of an ostensibly liberal President. The Dream Act allowed young people who had been brought to the United States as children to pursue careers and education with the assurance that their arrest and deportation had been indefinitely “deferred” by an Administration that sought to put its immigration law enforcement resources to better use. Now that assurance had been ripped away for upwards of 800,000 young men and women.
I’m a U.S. citizen, but I remember well the crisp fall day in 2011 when hundreds of us poured into the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union hall on Washington street in Chicago’s west loop for a public hearing conducted by the Department of Homeland Security. At the entrance sat an African-American civil servant, wearing a blue skirt, white blouse, and cardigan buttoned sweater, with thick black rimmed designer reading glasses hanging from a chain around her neck. She asked attendees to put their names and information on a sign-in sheet, but the crowd of high school and college age Chicagoans from the predominantly Mexican neighborhoods of Pilsen and Little Village ignored her, whispering to each other not to sign and give out their information as they passed, filling the union’s auditorium.
On the agenda was the Secure Communities Program, which mandated that all local jails and detention facilities send copies of detainee fingerprints to ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As soon as the meeting began, almost the entire crowd—there were more than eight hundred individuals in attendance, walked out. These teenagers knew that law enforcement cooperation with deportation authorities would insure that no undocumented person ever called 911. Criminals would then be more likely to prey upon the barrio, with domestic abuse, sexual assault, robbery, fraud, and battery rampant but unreported. I walked out with the crowd, joining a group of undocumented youth who called themselves a word that was then new to us—Dreamers—because they too wanted a chance at the American Dream. We sat at the entrance to a freeway onramp, chanting, “Not One More Deportation,” and “Undocumented and Unafraid.” The police kept their distance and made no arrests, but I still remember the chanting, smiling faces of the young men and women; some wore ball caps, others wore knit beanies covering their ears. Some had buzz cuts, others short hair parted on the side. A young women had her hair pulled back in a ponytail tied with a bright purple scrunchie; another one had her hair in a bob, pinned in place with a yellow pencil. Another young woman wore a grey hijab. Together they held hands as they sat on the warm asphalt that brisk fall day. They risked deportation from the only country they had ever known. Courageous and calm, they showed no fear.
I have a friend from college who is a Dreamer. We met at UCLA. I had just been appointed as a graduate school representative to the Student Health Advisory Committee, which sought to keep health services affordable as the University of California adopted a self-insured plan. In those days a Democratic congress, elected alongside Barack Obama in 2008, was debating and drafting the Affordable Care Act. My Dreamer friend – her name is Monica – had been elected by the student body to serve as a representative of immigrant students on the student government. We hiked through campus to Covel Commons, where we met with the University administration to demand they do more for undocumented students beyond the small scholarship fund UCLA had already put in place. Most Dreamers at UCLA had grown up in Los Angeles and attended public schools, but they were ineligible for in-state tuition, work-study programs, or government-backed student loans. What courage, I thought, to stand up and say you were undocumented, as I watched Monica, then only 21 years old, lobby a group of mostly white University administrators in business attire.
Since then, Monica’s life has been bittersweet. She ended up pursuing her dreams, taking public health courses at UCLA where she met her husband, now a business school professor in Chicago, and later graduating with a Masters from the Harvard School of Public Health.. They bought a house in leafy Oak Park and became a citizen, and she gave birth to a baby girl, by constitutional birthright a U.S. citizen, in the fall of 2016. Her father flew up from Los Angeles, and held his granddaughter in his lap as we ate dinner together and watched Donald Trump upstage Hillary Clinton during the third presidential debate. We were appalled as we watched him standing behind her as she spoke, swaying and shuffling, looking directly into the camera. Months later I heard that Monica, still only in her 20s, had been diagnosed with lymphoma. I visited her at Northwestern’s Prentice Hospital where she was undergoing chemotherapy on a rainy spring day, her husband and father at her side. She was weak and frail, but optimistic and cheerful, always a fighter, and always a Dreamer.
As I listened to Jeff Sessions explain why the administration was repealing DACA, my stomach began to churn. President Obama had violated the Constitution to circumvent Congress in order to grant executive amnesty to a group of “illegal aliens,” Sessions explained. Illegal aliens, I thought. He made it sound as if these Dreamers were extraterrestrials like in the video game halo, a first person shooter game where astronaut soldiers would retake shops and stations shooting up hordes of hostile space monsters. I felt sick. I contacted my friend Mario, who mentioned that a rally had been hastily planned that day at the Corner of Cesar Chavez and Alameda just north of downtown LA. I was almost home, but I quickly made a U-turn, got onto the 101 and headed back to the city.
Once I had parked I ran into a group of high school students from Roosevelt High School, a massive Boyle heights educational complex where in 1968 a walkout by the Chicano Student Moratorium Against the War helped transform California’s Chicano movement from one primarily organizing rural farmworkers into a far more massive, urban, and cosmopolitan upheaval that would soon transform state politics. I asked to take a picture of their banner, which displayed the name Roosevelt High School, a large portrait of Emiliano Zapata, and the slogan “Here to Stay.” Smiling, the students all agreed, but soon thereafter a Latina adult wearing a United Teachers of Los Angeles T-shirt approached me, asking me what group I was with and where I was from. She wanted me to delete the picture of the students, but after careful inspection let me keep the one of just their painted banner. Fear has a funny way of creeping into the most mundane aspects of daily life.
I walked around the crowd of over one thousand that began to gather in the park. Mostly Latino youth, a few smiled and giggled as if on a field trip. But more wore somber, stoic faces, chanting their slogans as if reciting prayers, and listening to Dreamers address the crowd. Other supporters joined them: pastors, teachers, nurses, politicians, labor union staff, plus a few mainstream news crews, and others with cameras and microphones. On the outskirts of the rally, wearing matching t-shirts, carrying clipboards and soliciting money from the gathering crowd were a group of radicals selling an eight page “communist” newspaper for a dollar and twenty five cents. . They passed out large bold font signs on sticks that read RefuseFascism.org.
Soon the march started. The crowd of 2,000 shuffled triple file out of the park, past the plaza and down a set of stairs to fill two lanes of traffic on a crowded four lane city street. They headed for City Hall. The crowd grew in size, as small groups arrived as they got off work, joining the marchers with their colorful signs and banners. I grabbed a sign and walked with the crowd. Young men wearing florescent yellow arm bands stood between the youth and lanes of oncoming traffic. They watched carefully to make sure none of the kids got mixed up in the traffic. Drivers soon honked, waved, smiled and gave encouraging thumbs up or fist pumps as they drove past, on their way to the freeway from downtown office buildings.
But one middle aged white man, with a five o’clock shadow, dark hair, and plaid shirt stared at me from an idled car, vigorously shaking his head in opposition. “Love you too!” I called out to him. A white gas-guzzling pick-up truck with oversized black tires gunned its engine as it passed the crowd, young white men hollering “Go Trump” as it zoomed past, only to screech to a stop a few feet later in the rush hour gridlock. We crossed an overpass above the 10 freeway, and demonstrators pressed their home-made signs against the chain linked fence to show the passing cars below. A light but steady stream of honks in support could be heard from four lanes of dense moving commuter traffic. We then passed the county jail, a massive grey concrete skyscraper with long and narrow opaque black cell windows, circled in barbed wire. Demonstrators started to look up; we heard a rapid tapping from the floors above. Inmates and detainees were knocking on their windows in support and solidarity, until the entire building seemed to vibrate and shake. The crowd below waved and cheered at those entombed in that concrete fortress.
The crowd was mostly Latino, There were few whites. They were chanting in English, “undocumented and unafraid,” and “No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here!” They were high school and college students, a majority women in their teens and twenties. Mothers and fathers pushed strollers. Teamsters and teachers wore t-shirts with the emblems of their respective trade unions. Nurses wore their scrubs. An older woman was pushing a cart full of flags—American flags, Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan and others. I bought a small American flag, and began to wave it.
Most of the youth had grown up in Los Angeles neighborhoods, attending both public and charter schools. Unlike marches I had attended a decade before, the crowd chanted in English with no trace of a foreign accent; they were bilingual. They sometimes switched to Spanish, as a way to express solidarity with their parents and recent arrivals, but these marching youth, who grew up watching cable television and rooting for the LA Dodgers, were thoroughly Americanized; Their parents were the immigrants who had crossed the border in the booming 1990s and the early years of the new century before the financial crisis and the wave of Great Recession foreclosures so badly tarnished the American dream for that generation.
We circled city hall, and I started to drift to the fringe of the rally. A pro-Trump camera crew was there, asking to interview protesters. A man approached me holding a microphone. He was heavy set, wearing a ball cap, and had a large unkempt black beard with thick bushy sideburns. His blue dress shirt was unbuttoned and his baseball cap read, “I love Canters” in reference to the iconic west LA Jewish Deli. He introduced himself as Austen, and said he was a Trump supporter who was also for DACA and wanted to interview pro-DACA protesters to promote a dialogue between folks for and against the President and his policies. I asked for his business card, and he reached into the backpack of his camera man, a tall, cleanly shaved white man in his 20’s, wearing a backwards baseball hat that read “USA,” and presented me with a card with his twitter handle. I looked it up then and there, and and saw he had pronounced his vigorous opposition to DACA. For some reason, maybe it was vanity, maybe the false hope I might sway a few Trump supporters, perhaps it was the challenge of a debate and a desire to engage with an oppositional audience, I agreed to the interview. I had a feeling my comments would be heavily edited and doctored to make me look foolish, but I agreed nonetheless.
As his camera man got to work, he asked me why I was there, and why I opposed Trump’s decision to end DACA unless Congress passed a new law during the next six months. Addressing the camera, I said that I understood the anxiety American workers felt, with a lack of stable good paying union jobs. His response was immediate: then why did I not support the deportation of 800,000 illegals who were taking so many American jobs. I retorted that rather than blame undocumented immigrants, we should look to the corporations who had been outsourcing millions of jobs for decades in a quest for the lowest wages and the most flexible labor force. I said we were all a nation of immigrants, and except for American-Indians, all of our ancestors were immigrants. Immigrants pursuing the American dream, that was what makes America great. I asked him who in his family had been an immigrant and he said that his grandfather came through Ellis Island, but legally. I said mine did too, on a student visa that he overstayed after being expelled from university in Nazi Germany.
I also mentioned that those benefiting from DACA grew up in the U.S. and went to public schools, and they just wanted to take out loans to go to college, pursue careers, and contribute back to society. In school, I mentioned, looking directly at the cameraman wearing the backwards USA baseball hat, these undocumented Dreamers recited the pledge of allegiance on a daily basis, “I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under god, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” He then asked if I thought Obama’s executive order on DACA was legal, or if only Congress had the right to grant amnesty. I said that it was “deferred action”, that while I wasn’t a constitutional lawyer, but American Presidents have often selectively enforced the law. . The real problem, I mentioned, was a focus on foreign wars, militarized policing, and spending on border security and prisons rather than investing in U.S. infrastructure and housing—I mentioned lead tainted water in Flint, and 100,000 homeless sleeping on the streets in Los Angeles. Then my interviewer interrupted, asserting that was a reason enough to deport illegals, who were a drain on our resources. We became testy. I said immigrants actually added enormous value to the economy, working hard and were often more entrepreneurial than the native born, forming businesses large and small. Look at the famous Gilded Age industrialist Andrew Carnage. He came to the U.S. as an impoverished child from Scotland, but then became a railroad executive and steel baron who employed tens of thousands, both native born and immigrant.
Instead of demonizing immigrants, why don’t native-born workers focus on the corporations that get tax breaks for eliminating good paying union jobs and outsourcing and offshoring to Mexico, China, or any other place where they can exploit a low-wage workforce. The immigration system was broken and inhumane; he let me continue. A special education aide I knew told me her friend had a job caring for autistic undocumented unaccompanied minors. She worked in a for-profit prison classroom, assisting a special education teacher where children were taught, and housed until being deported as soon as they turned eighteen. That cost a lot of money, he retorted, “Wouldn’t it be better spent on citizens?” I shook my head, thinking to myself; America is rich. Spending money to care for orphans is the price we pay to live in a civilized society. As we wrapped up the interview, he asked me if I supported single-payer, I said I did, that while Obamacare was a great first step—I was on it now having just moved to LA. – We should join the rest of the industrialized world and ensure the right to healthcare for all U.S. residents. He said, “Well what about the VA? It’s like single-payer, but veterans are treated horribly there.” I responded that the Veterans Administration used to work great, but Congress had let service deteriorate by not appropriating sufficient funds even as they spent lavishly on recent wars. The answer was to improve it, not privatize it. He was polite, he shook my hand, and he left with his camera man.
The next day I took a look at his twitter account again. The bearded man sporting the Canters ball cap had made a name of himself in right-wing circles by interviewing and making fun of individuals protesting against those participating in Alt-Right Neo-Nazi rallies. A few weeks before in Laguna Beach, a you-tube video he posted interviewed the craziest, most outrageously dressed protesters from an anti-fascist “Antifa” rally against Orange County white supremacists. It garnered a half million views. For poking fun at anti-fascists in the wake of Charlottesville, he was rewarded with an interview from Fox News political commentator Tucker Carlson.
The you-tube video he posted of the LA DACA rally, heavily edited, consisted of interviews with myself and two Latinos, one reading a wild-eyed leftist manifesto, the other explaining how demonizing and rounding up undocumented US residents reminded him of what had happened in Nazi Germany. My remarks had also been heavily edited. In his video, it seemed that my only argument against ending DACA was that we were all immigrants, a nation of immigrants, and that I had contradicted myself by calling attention to a lack of support for infrastructure and jobs, after which my interviewer quipped that that was why we should end DACA and deport illegals who were a drain on the economy. Six days later, his you-tube video had been seen by almost 75,000 viewers. There were over 1,500 comments, most making fun of the Latino leftist reading his revolutionary manifesto from a clipboard. A few anonymous commentators expressing outrage that I said we were all immigrants, and the United States was a nation of immigrants. “I was born here, I’m a citizen, so what if my grandfather immigrated,” one commentator wrote. “We are a nation of citizens, not immigrants,” typed another. Another popular comment with a thousand likes read, “..Nobody is against immigrants. We’re against illegal immigration. To have a strong country we need a strong borders….”
As I walked home from the rally that day, I returned to the park where we had gathered a few hours earlier. I was still holding the American flag and the sign I had picked up that read “DACA Yes: Racism and Bigotry No”. The homeless sat, reclined, milled about, and slept—their dusty tents, tarps, boxes, gallon jugs of water, and shopping carts strewn about within close reach. They sat on benches, curbs, milk-crates, and on pieces of cardboard on the sidewalk. As I walked down the street, breathing in the hot dusty air and car exhaust, a young man approached me in broken English with a thick Mexican accent- “un dolar,” he asked. Do you have un dolar? His face and arms were black with grime, dirt, and soot, his skin a dark brown. He was skinny and emaciated, with the bones of his collar almost poking through his skin, and arms long and thin, the man looked like he was in his mid-20’s. I looked at him and checked my pocket, realizing I had no change. Looking around, I decided against reaching for my wallet. I shrugged and said no, “Desculpe.” I didn’t have any change. He then asked me again, in Spanish pointing at the flag in my other hand, “Su Bandera,” pointing at my flag. I gave him the American flag, and walked away. As I looked back he waved and grinned, tightly gripping the flag’s small wooden stick, holding on to the promise of America even as he slept among thousands in the streets of a Los Angeles’ skid row.
Photo: (Andrew Harnik/AP)