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October 8, 2015

Book Review on "Dream Chasers: Immigration and the American Backlash by John Tirman"

Cross-posted from Immigration Prof Blog.

Dream Chasers: Immigration and the American Backlash
by John Tirman, The MIT Press 2015, 230 pages

In eight tight chapters, John Tirman's Dream Chasers sparks a fresh look at an issue that continues to dominate the airwaves and print media. Anyone struggling to come to grips with immigration reform will gain insight from this thoughtful book, which sheds light on the nuances about immigration that hide behind the headlines.

The title of the book plays on what John Tirman sees as the competing "dreams" of America: immigrant dreams of opportunity and freedom; and the vision of many Americans who demand immigrant linguistic, cultural, and other assimilation. As the contrasting dreams suggest, the book views the immigration debate as part of "an epic culture clash.": "The rejectionists who are particularly vociferous about the cultural wounds they think illegal immigration visits upon the United States, are the same rejectionists on health-care reform, measures to deal with climate change, financial sector reform, economic stimulus, and so on."

Ably capturing the national divide over immigration in the modern United States, Dream Chasers demonstrates that the issue goes well beyond law and race. Over the course of eight concise chapters, Tirman, executive director of MIT's Center for International Studies, summarizes the economic, cultural, legal, and political considerations implicated in the modern debate over immigration.

The book opens by comparing the "Great Migration" (1910 to 1970) of African Americans from the South to the Northeast, Midwest, and West to today's "Second Great Migration" of Mexican and Central American immigrants to the United States. A later chapter provides an overview of the history that has shaped outmigration from Mexico and Guatemala. Economic opportunity in the United States (combined with limited avenues for lawful immigration), poverty in their homelands, and violence (especially brutal and widespread for decades in Guatemala) have fueled migration from those countries. In addition, U.S. foreign policy, from political support for anti-communist leaders to the promotion of global capitalism (and the United Fruit Company), played an important role in creating the political, economic, and social circumstances contributing to the pressures for migration from Latin America.

Dream Chasers also looks at Arizona's toxic political climate surrounding immigration, with the state starting a national trend with its extreme immigration enforcement law known as SB 1070. Tirman views the battle over ethnic studies in the Tucson public schools as a "culture clash ..., at root, about the enormous flow of immigrants across the US-Mexico border." Put simply, the ethnic studies controversy is a minor skirmish in the war over Latino immigration.

Tirman then reviews immigration enforcement through the examination of the U.S. government's immigration raid of a textile factory in New Bedford, Massachusetts, "a struggling ... city of immigrants." (p. 68). In the raid, federal authorities arrested hundreds of workers-the majority who were women from Guatemala-and created a humanitarian crisis when many of their children who were U.S.-born citizens, returned from school or day care to find homes without a parent. Activists, lawyers, a Catholic Church (Our Lady of Guadalupe), and state and local governments responded to the aftermath of the raid, which was followed with the detention of those arrested out of state where many had no access to lawyers.

After describing the excesses of contemporary immigration enforcement, Dream Chasers considers the possibilities for reform. Chapter 4 offers fresh analysis of the coming of age of the DREAMers, college students brought to this country by their parents, and their creation of a cohesive, independent, and powerful political movement. They became the "poster children ... high school valedictorians, star athletes, and soldiers" for immigration reform, pushing for passage of the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act. They "make visible the hidden, make appeals for justice, plead that the raids and deportations stop, advocate for plausible solutions." They have become nothing less than the nation's immigration conscience. The DREAMers' political movement helped bring about a major reform measure implemented by President Obama, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012 (as well as its proposed expansion in 2014).

In analyzing the contemporary politics of immigration reform, Tirman observes that "reform has focused resolutely on the racial characteristics of those seeking entry." Most reform proposals call for increased immigration enforcement (despite record numbers of removals), expanded legal immigration, and a path to legalization (and perhaps citizenship) for undocumented immigrants. The last component of most comprehensive reform proposals-the much-maligned "amnesty"-is the most contested.

Tirman also examines legal terminology (including "alien" and "illegal alien"), and the English language as "cultural weapons" in the immigration debate. He critically analyzes Samuel P. Huntington's 2004 book Who Are We?, which identifies Hispanic immigration as a cultural threat to the United States and avoids the expressly race-based claims recently voiced by, among others, Ann Coulter and Donald Trump.

The concluding chapter is refreshingly optimistic, mentioning hopeful signs for immigration reform. Immigrants today are a part of popular culture in the United States, featured in music, books, and television shows. Public opinion at times appears to be open to possible reforms sympathetic to immigrants. In fact, some major cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City have embraced pro-immigrant policies.  However, as the United States has seen in recent months, major events, such as the controversy last summer over the release of an undocumented immigrant by the San Francisco Sheriff's Office who later allegedly killed a woman, the public at various historical moments supports vigorous immigration enforcement measures.   

Lawyers might want to see more discussion of the law, justice, and fairness in Dream Chasers, all which are important to the debates over immigration reform. Although I might quibble some with parts of the analysis, such as the parallel drawn between Spanish use among Latinos and Ebonics among African Amercans, Tirman generally thoughtfully analyzes in a sober, balanced fashion the contemporary debates over immigration reform.