On Wednesday, six undocumented youth staged an all-day sit-in in Arizona Sen. John McCain's D.C. office to try to force the senator to give a statement of support for the DREAM Act, which he'd cosponsored in the past. Late in the day, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he plans to introduce the DREAM Act as a stand alone bill.
The day ended with four arrests and no such statement from McCain, but McCain heard their message loud and clear.
So loudly and so clearly, in fact, that he attempted to make a side-door exit to avoid confrontation with the students. Matias Ramos, a DREAM activist and founding member of United We DREAM, a group that's organizing to win passage of the bill, said the group of young people only managed to snag a quick exchange with McCain because they chased him down a hallway as he tried to exit one of his office's five doors.
"We'd like to serve the country. Will you support the DREAM Act and allow us to serve?" Ramos said Gaby Pacheco, one of the activists asked him. "Good, good, go serve the country then," Ramos said McCain replied, before sliding into a senators' elevator and being whisked away.
DREAM activists have targeted McCain three separate times in recent years with sit-ins in his Phoenix and D.C. offices, but Wednesday marked the first time activists were able to see him face to face.
McCain was not always so afraid to face DREAMers. In fact, he cosponsored the 2003, 2005 and 2007 versions of the DREAM Act. It wasn't until after his failed 2008 presidential bid, and then his bruising primary against J.D. Hayworth this summer, that McCain started turning in on himself and becoming the very embodiment of anti-immigrant demagoguery that he'd so consistently fought to restrain in the past.
In September when Reid attempted to attach the DREAM Act and a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal as amendments to the defense authorization bill, McCain led the Republican blockade against the proposed amendments, which eventually helped derail the entire DOD bill. On the Senate floor McCain called Reid's move "a blatant message of disrespect to our men and women in uniform," despite the fact that military officials have signed off on a DADT repeal, and the Department of Defense included the DREAM Act in its strategic plan for 2011.
The bill would allow undocumented youth with clean criminal records who commit to two years in the military or higher education the chance to become citizens.
Margaret Stock, a retired Lt. Col in the Army Reserve, has said: "In a time when qualified recruits--particularly ones with foreign language skills and foreign cultural awareness -- are in short supply, enforcing deportation laws against these young people makes no sense. Americans who care about our national security should encourage Congress to pass the DREAM Act."
Among the six people who staged the sit-in and risked arrest--and deportation--with their civil disobedience, two have hopes of joining the military, Ramos said. Others want to become teachers and professors someday, but cannot legally work because of their immigration status even though they all grew up in the country. DREAM Act-eligible youth are unapologetic about the bill's military service provision, esspecially those who want to serve in the military, like 21-year-old Ivan Rosales, a fourth-year biology student from San Bernardino County in Southern California who hopes to become a military doctor. Rosales took part in the sit-in to try to tell McCain just that.
"I want that opportunity to be able to put my expertise, which is practicing medicine, to become a military doctor to help people who are risking their lives every day for us," Rosales said by phone. "And McCain ended up leaving us."
As the day wound down and the rest of the Senate offices closed for the evening, Rosales and Gaby Pacheco, an organizer with Presente.org who walked the Trail of Dreams earlier this year, decided not to take part in the arrest portion of the action. Instead, they addressed a crowd of supporters and fellow activists who waited outside after police gave a final warning at about 7pm that anyone remaining in the Senate hallways would be arrested.
"Every single DREAMer needs to stand up and take action," Rosales said he and Pacheco told the crowd. "It should not have to come to this. With so many of us in the country, we all have the power to do this if we stand up and declare that we're not going to be oppressed any longer."
While they spoke, police were arresting four undocumented youth inside.
"[Rosales and Pacheco] said: Let this be the last time that we have to resort to this to have an honest conversation," Ramos said. "The truth is that five, six years ago, these Republicans used to say, "I stand behind these kids." We were a bargaining chip. Now these kids are adults and they want to have a real face-to-face and John McCain, along with the other Republicans, are running away from us."
Ramos said that the afternoon announcement from Reid and the daylong sit-in did not change their demands. They must convince at least five to seven Republicans to support the bill when it comes up for a vote after the Thanksgiving break.
During the defense authorization bill filibuster, several moderate Republicans said they would consider voting for the DREAM Act if it were a stand alone bill, that their only objection was Reid's attaching it to the DOD bill. "Reid's announcement that we're going to have an up and down stand alone bill means that we're going to get everybody on record about where they stand about giving opportunities for DREAMers," Ramos said.
Reid said on Wednesday that he hoped that with the midterms behind everyone, both parties could focus on governing now. "Last time we sought to bring up this bill, all Republicans blocked our effort, even though many have been supporters of the DREAM Act in the past. I hope that our Republican colleagues will join me, Sen. [Dick] Durbin and Democrats in passing this important piece of legislation, now that we have a stand-alone version and that political season is over," Reid said in a statement.