Monday, June 25, 2007

The Dreams Train: Beyond the station

I guess I knew that the Dreams Across America experience was likely to be grueling, but I evidently underestimated the effect it would have on my 50-year-old body; I've spent the past couple of days, since arriving home from D.C., mostly resting and reconnecting with my family. Sorry for the absence, but it gave me some time to reflect on my experience and offer some closing thoughts.

It was, as you perhaps can tell from the posts I wrote along the way, an amazing human experience, most of all because it gave me a chance to meet and get to know a little about a genuinely inspiring collection of people from all walks of life. There were, however, a few disquieting moments toward the end of it all that, I believe, may give us some clues as to why we are still spinning our wheels somewhat in working toward sensible and effective immigration reform -- and also point our way to a solution.

We arrived in D.C. on Monday afternoon at around 2:30 and spent the next hour or so participating in the "Dreams" rally outside Union Station in the plaza in front of it. It might have been an unremarkable rally, if you've seen these things before, but for the presence of an 11-year-old girl, an American citizen who showed off her athletic medals, who described to the crowd her living nightmare after ICE agents descended on her home, with her parents narrowly escaping arrest -- but now the family is in chaos because the mother and father are in forced hiding.

This was a story that really resonated with those I had been hearing from those aboard the train: stories of a broken immigration system almost designed to break families apart and create a whole subclass of workers forced to live in terror that they might be ripped away from their loved ones at whim of that broken system.

And it seemed to be a current running through the speeches and marches that followed. The next day, after a breakfast at the station, the Dreamers all piled onto school buses to head up a march from the Metropolitan AMC Church in Washington down to the White House. Out in front of the church, organizers had prepared a phalanx of child strollers with signs pleading not to break up families [above]. One of the lead banners demanded: "Stop Breaking Families Apart!"

The size of the march was impressive; it appeared to have attracted somewhere between two and three thousand people. It wound in a continuous mass down 16th Street; when we reached Lafayette Park, I could see marchers nearly all the way back to where we started.

It was a remarkably diverse crowd, as had been the demographics of those aboard the Dreams Train. There were Latinos, Caucasians, African Americans, Asians, Indians -- you name it, they were in the march. And the spirit of cross-ethnic cooperation was both remarkable and quite visible.

When it reached the White House, much of the crowd dispersed around the lawn in front (park police wouldn't allow the marchers onto the sidewalk or driveway in front). Once most of the marchers had gathered around, the speeches began anew.

It should have been at this point, perhaps, that the Dreamers' achievement should have been celebrated, and their message made clear: We're all in this together, and we need to resolve this in a way that unites us all. But that message, it seemed, was being drowned out in chants and speeches.

I'd had an interesting encounter just as the crowd approached Lafayette Park. I was climbing up the back of a delivery truck that had crates of bottled water on board in (as it turned out, vain) hope of finding a decent vantage point to photograph the whole march. An elderly African-American man was below me off to my left a little, and he was watching the march.

As I hopped down off the truck next to him, the marchers broke out in a chant: "Si se puede! Si se puede!" The old man looked at me and said, "Si se puede? Who they talking to?" And he stalked off in apparent disgust.

I thought: "Well, there's one person they just lost." Not that movements like this need to appeal to everyone, but I couldn't help wonder, as I listened to the speakers carry on about their own agendas, how many more there were like him.

It's kind of a political reality that coalitions like the one that brought together the Dreams Train will be somewhat fractious -- in this case, ranging from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to the unions to immigration-reform groups -- and that when push comes to shove, the more powerful factions will take over. It was clear, in D.C. at least, that the unions were running the show, and in the process were shutting out some of the very elements of the coalition that had made the Dreamers' achievement remarkable. They also, in the process, managed to turn the Dreamers themselves almost into props.

Seeing this reminded me of one of the undercurrents that rode aboard the Dreams Train itself: Shortly after we first boarded in Los Angeles, the Dreamers began settling into their seats on board the train and forming their own social groups, as is normal in such situations. And unsurprisingly, many of the Latinos formed their own group, while non-Latinos tended to interact more with each other; this is probably only natural, since many of the Latinos spoke mostly Spanish, and some no English at all.

But over the course of the trip, I really saw these artificial barriers break down, especially as we ate and slept together and found ways to pass the time together. Sometimes translators helped break the language barriers; sometimes merely sharing a meal or watching the scenery together would work. By the time we reached D.C., it seemed that among most of the Dreamers, there was a mutual respect and camaraderie that can only come through being pushed and tested.

If there was an abiding lesson in all that we endured, it was this: The American Dream itself rests on a just, equitable, effective, and realistic immigration policy that reflects the best of our values -- family, hard work, human decency -- and enables us to share them. And that this isn't something we can achieve by promoting our own narrow interests; it's something we can only achieve by coming together, recognizing our mutual interests and needs, and building something from them that benefits us all. Not just Latinos, not just immigrants, but all Americans.

Yet all this seemed to be drowned by what followed the next few days. Symbolic of the outcome, I think, was what happened to the Dreamers the day they arrived in D.C. Instead of being transported immediately to their hotel accommodations (out in the suburbs) after the rally at the station, organizers inexplicably kept them around Union Station for the next six hours. They finally got to depart for their hotels around 8:30 -- dog tired, needing showers (Washington was a steam bath outside that day), and ready for some real rest, the kind you can't get on a rollicking train.

I'd left by cab around 5 p.m. so I could get some work done, so I at least was able to get cleaned up and refreshed in a reasonable time. If I'd been forced to wait until 9:30 p.m. (the time most of them got to their rooms) I'd have been furious.

It was, frankly, an awful way to treat a group of people who'd just made a tremendously difficult journey on their behalf. There was a feeling, at least among some of them, that they were just being used as props.

And when, after the Tuesday march, all of the Dreamers were left out of meetings with congressional leaders that followed, I can't help but figure that some of those feelings just hardened.

It's all small potatoes, really, but it's emblematic of the larger problems at play in terms of an effective approach to immigration reform. So far, most progressives are content to criticize right-wing policy, but the hard work of coming together for a just and humane solution is being evaded. We're ceding the field to a fairly narrow spectrum of powerful players.

I'm observing all this, of course, not with the intent of raining on the Dreamers' parade, but to point out that what they actually achieved hasn't been properly understood by even their own handlers. Going forward, it's clear that obtaining real immigration reform is going to require a broad-based effort that is inclusive, a real grass-roots movement drawing together Americans from all walks of life, instead of a product of power politics and the pursuit of our narrow self-interests.

The Dreamers demonstrated that it could be done, at least on a small scale. With their example in hand, we need to find a way to make it happen on a national scale.

It would be sad, after all, if everything the Dreamers worked to achieve were frittered away by the politics of the moment.

[A closing note of thanks: I'm really grateful for having had the chance to make as many friends on the train as I did; most of them are people whose names you'll find in my posts. A special thanks to the media crew I worked with on the train: Arthur Rhodes, Shaun Kadlec, and Visperd Mada-Doust. And a big big thanks to Rick Jacobs, who was the guy who made it happen.]

No comments: