Ruben Navarrette Against the DREAMers

Where to even begin? Ruben Navarrette’s latest, a screed attacking “DREAMers,” is confused, condescending, and wrong on almost every account.

There is a real and substantive debate to be had about immigration reform and activists’ role in pushing for its enactment. But the dismissive and insulting language Navarrette uses throughout his column makes it clear he’s not ready or willing to be a part of this discussion. He opens the piece by asserting, “I know just what a lot of those so-called DREAMers deserve to get for Christmas: a scolding.” And then goes on to refer to them as “spoiled brats,” “kids,” and “illegal immigrants”/”undocumented youth” who throw “public tantrums,” “think they’re special,” and are “drunk on entitlement.” Such condescending language is based on long-propagated right-wing restrictionist stereotypes and false binaries of the “legal” and “illegal,” “deserving” and “undeserving.”

Throughout the piece Navarrette speciously argues that yet another binary exists between “good” and “bad” actors within the movement for immigration reform. “There are good and bad actors in every movement, and the bad ones — if not kept in check — can drag the good ones down with them.”

If, according to Navarrette, the DREAMers are the “bad” actors, then the “good” actors are citizens and non-citizens alike who largely abide by the status quo, work within the established system, and above all, don’t ruffle any feathers. Some are a group Navarrette refers to as “run-of-the-mill illegal immigrants,” who he describes as “[y]ou know, like the hardworking and humble folks who cut your lawn, clean your house or care for your kids.” This group, he leads us to believe, consists of people who — in contrast to DREAMers and other immigration activists — keep quiet and work hard to earn their keep regardless of their political, social, and economic condition. If the DREAMers are “not realistic, or respectful,” then “run-of-the-mill illegal immigrants” are both. If DREAMers make demands, then “run-of-the-mill illegal immigrants” respectfully ask.

Other “good” actors within the movement are people like Navarrette’s “friend and business partner” Arnold Torres, “a Mexican-American political strategist in California.” We can assume that Torres and other “US-born Latinos [including Navarrette?] who were raised to believe that, in this life, you get what you earn” are of an older generation and have pushed for change from within more traditional channels, including centrist immigration advocacy organizations. Torres, who Navarrette has elsewhere described as “an aging veterano,” is the former national director of the League of United Latin American Citizens and helped to pass the Immigration Reform and Control Act more than twenty-five years ago.

Torres seemingly stands in for all US-born Latinos who, according to Navarrette, have become increasingly uncomfortable with DREAMers, “particularly their tone and tactics.” (Despite the fact that more than 80 percent support the Dream Act.) He is the only person quoted in the column.

It appears that the agenda was all about getting attention, believing that this would solve their issue” he said. “They seem to be saying, ‘If you pay attention to me, I become powerful. So we may be undocumented, but we are powerful now. You mistreated us. You’re denying us our dream. Now we demand that you do this for us.’ Attention is necessary, but demands are not. We want solutions, but not only for one segment of a much larger community in need.

Instead of also including the voices of DREAMers, Navarrette lets the “aging veterano” speak for them. Unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly, Torres (and as a result, Navarrette) mischaracterizes DREAMers and their cause. Using the collective “we” and “us” to seemingly speak on behalf of all DREAMers, Torres paints a broad-brush picture of a selfish, attention-grabbing, and power-hungry group only interested in its own well-being. The problem with this depiction, of course, is that it’s not true.

As I wrote about for Salon in March, after the Senate failed to pass the Dream Act in 2010, DREAMers embraced confrontational tactics and made broader claims on behalf of all undocumented immigrants. Moreover, the recently adopted platform of United We Dream, one of the largest and most prominent youth-led immigrant advocacy organizations, explicitly calls for the “fair treatment” not only of DREAMers, but of their families and communities as well, in addition to “a road map to citizenship for 11 million Americans without papers and an end to senseless deportations and abuses.” Three other planks use similarly inclusive language.

  • “The ability to travel without fear, ensuring all immigrants have access to driver’s licenses and the ability to visit family in other countries”;
  • “An end to excessive and costly immigration enforcement policies which separate families and divide communities, such as ‘Secure Communities,’ E-Verify, 287G, and roadside checkpoints”;
  • “Access to health care and safe, fair working conditions and equal protection under the law for all.

Based on these planks — which Navarrette quotes in his column! — it certainly doesn’t seem like DREAMers are out for themselves and only themselves. He would have come to the same conclusion if he had actually talked with DREAMers or simply done a little bit of research.

But describing them as such fits Navarrette’s narrative of entitlement and the seemingly natural divisions between the “deserving” and the “undeserving,” the “good” and the “bad.” After listing the planks in United We Dreams platform, Navarrette sarcastically asks, “Gee, kids, can we get you anything else? Maybe free massages the next time you stage a sit-in? These kids want it all.”

Later, he asserts, “A lot of DREAMers are drunk on entitlement,” and continues:

But why should this surprise us? Feeling entitled is the American way. And these kids are as American as they come. They may have been born in another country, but — unlike their parents — they were raised in this one. They bleed red, white and blue, use English as their primary language and tweet up a storm before breakfast. And in a country whose motto has gone from “E Pluribus Unum” to “Gimme, gimme. Where’s mine?,” they’re not about to be left behind.

For Navarrette, part of what makes DREAMers “as American as they come” is because, in his mind, they’re looking for handouts. And, God forbid, “[b]ut what some seem to really want is the golden ticket: US citizenship. And they want it yesterday. They’re convinced that they deserve it, and they’ll settle for nothing less.” With good reason, I should add. Since the draconian changes to immigration law in 1996, an increasing number of legal permanent residents have been deported for minor offenses, some of which were committed decades ago. In addition to the political rights and future economic benefits it grants, citizenship is the only thing that can protect one against deportation today.

While Navarrette may have come up with a clever new way of phrasing it, he’s certainly not the first to assert that a sense of entitlement is an American trait. Scholars such as Michael B. Katz and more recently Cybelle Fox, among many others, have shown that the debate over entitlement programs (or, more accurately, social insurance) dates back more than a century and has often singled out blacks, Latinos, and immigrants. Most recently, it became a topic of discussion during the 2012 presidential election after Mitt Romney got into hot water when a video surfaced in which he told the following to a group of wealthy donors.

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what . . . who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims. . . . These are people who pay no income tax . . . and so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Just as Romney dismissed 47 percent of Americans, Navarrette doesn’t take DREAMers seriously. The condescending language he uses belittles them and the significant contributions they have made to the movement for immigration reform. And bringing to mind some critics of the civil rights movement, Navarrette paternalistically denounces DREAMers for making demands and advises them to “tread lightly.” According to Navarrette, although DREAMers “probably don’t realize it, their public tantrums are turning people against them and hurting the chances for a broader immigration reform package.”

In reality, the exact opposite is true. As Frederick Douglass observed in 1857, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” It is thanks to, rather than in spite of, DREAMers’ confrontational politics that comprehensive immigration reform is a possibility today. Their sit-ins, marches, rallies, and acts of civil disobedience kept immigration reform in the news, spurred executive action, and may soon result in legislative action.

In criticizing DREAMers and their politics, it’s almost as if Navarrette wants to return to a time “not long ago,” when “the conventional wisdom in Washington was that immigration reform wasn’t going to happen soon.”