It took exactly 22 minutes and five votes to shatter the dream of hundreds of thousands of undocumented young people living in the United States — including Greisa Martínez Rosas.
She, along with dozens of other immigrant rights activists, were sitting in the US Senate’s visitor gallery back in December 2010. Below them, senators called out their votes on ending debate on the DREAM Act, a bill that would have created a path to citizenship for certain young undocumented immigrants who were brought to or came to the US as children.
They entered the balcony seats with hope. President Barack Obama was on their side; a small army of cabinet secretaries had been lobbying members of Congress ahead of the vote; and they had organized demonstrations around the country and in Washington to convince skeptics that the bill was not just morally right, but good for the military and the economy.
Their crying began before they got to the Capitol Rotunda. “I just remember feeling this knot in my stomach when we fell five votes short and I was enraged. I was baffled. We did all this work and we didn’t win — and it wasn’t at all how I thought democracy worked,” Martínez Rosas told me.
In the wake of that loss, Martínez Rosas and other activists began to lobby for an executive solution. Less than two years later, Obama would issue an executive branch memo creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an order that would shield certain young undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children from deportation. More than 800,000 people gained protection and access to work permits in the following years, including Martínez Rosas.
A decade of advocacy and organizing later, immigrant rights activists are in a painful limbo. The progress made during the Obama administration was paired with record deportations. The Trump administration actively attacked immigrants and rolled back Obama’s executive branch protections. And though somewhat friendlier than Trump, the Biden administration has been hamstrung by the courts and Congress in its lukewarm efforts to protect immigrants — all while trying to appear tough on immigration going into midterm elections.
Now, there’s a real chance that the courts could kill an already weakened DACA (In July 2021, a federal judge blocked the program from reviewing new applications), but Martínez Rosas says she and other activists don’t have time to despair.
To understand why, and what lessons progressive social movements can take from the immigration rights struggle, I spoke to Martínez Rosas, who is now the executive director of United We Dream, the country’s largest immigrant youth-led organization, on Tuesday. Our conversation, below, has been edited for length and clarity.
We’re at 10 years of DACA being in effect. How have you seen the landscape for the advocacy that led to its creation change in these years?
Greisa Martínez Rosas
I came into this work as a high school senior, and I felt so intimidated by the prospect or the idea of coming to DC and advocating for myself. I felt like a kid and this was a big new world that I never thought existed, never mind that I would have a role in helping shape it. Now at this moment, I feel a lot of pride that this movement in the last 10 years has shifted toward really following and embodying the leadership of those that are most impacted, those that have the lived experience of being immigrants, and undocumented, and women, in particular.
And it also has come with a lot of heartbreak, being an undocumented woman — still being undocumented in the US — it takes stamina to be in this work, and remind yourself that it’s not just about an issue, and that you can’t just drop it like any other thing. I’m fighting for my life and the lives of people that I love. So I think in the last 10 years, it’s been both a shift towards a strategy of building political power, and one of building spiritual resilience in the face of what might seem impossible.
You bring up this word that embodies a lot of what the core of progressive movements is: stamina — remembering that this is the kind of work that takes many, many years to do. How do you make sure to keep that stamina in your own life and among your colleagues?
Greisa Martínez Rosas
I try to be a student of history, and especially of social movements, and one of the big lessons that I have taken away is I’ve learned the power of endurance as a compounding political force. We have the most valuable thing in politics, besides having a lot of money and votes: We have time. We’ve led a youth movement. Young people every day are coming into United We Dream. And they share the same vision, the same values. We have different, compounding generations that are coming together and tackling those problems. It’s our superpower to have time and to have what I call a discipline of hope.
That discipline [helped] LGBTQ leaders and queer people that were fighting for their rights to have a fighting chance to survive the AIDS epidemic. It took them a long time, and this vision of having something bigger than themselves, to make some headway. Now we’re celebrating Pride Month and I’m able to be an out, queer woman in this moment, and the same is true for our movement.
There was a moment where I was really deeply ashamed and terrified of telling any person that I was undocumented. And this moment finds me not only saying that I’m queer and unashamed, but undocumented and unafraid, and feeling like time is on my side. And even if I’m older in this moment, and no longer in my teens, there are many people that are coming after me that have this stamina, this staying power.
Were there any moments from your youth or early adulthood that were foundational moments in cultivating that discipline of hope?
Greisa Martínez Rosas
I remember two. One, I learned from my mom. I was in elementary school, and my family — we were very poor and there was no way that we could pay any extra school fees. And I got invited to come to Washington, DC, as a sixth grader and I was so afraid because I was undocumented, and I didn’t even know if I could fly, and the price to come was like $5,000.
I do remember my mom, rolled up her sleeves and she and I sat down one night at home and we brainstormed the different ways we could round up the money. One of them was to sell snow cones outside of school, and every day for five months my mom would come and she would take me out of class a little early, and we would set up our snow cone stand.
Eventually we were able to raise enough money … my mom’s commitment to making something that I thought was impossible possible, I think it’s the thing that stayed with me: if she can do that, if she can dream beyond what she was able to do for me, then I can do that for someone else and for myself.
The second one is I was in DC, now as a sophomore in college, and we were fighting for the DREAM Act in 2010. And we were marching all around the place. And we thought that we had it. It was the lame-duck session in 2010, we were in the gallery when the votes were coming in for the DREAM Act at that point.
I just remember feeling like this knot in my stomach when we fell five votes short. And I was enraged. I was baffled because we did all this work and we didn’t win? It wasn’t at all how I thought democracy worked.
I just remember coming out of that balcony. And it felt like there was 200 of us, probably not that many of us, but all of us rounded up in the Rotunda in the Capitol. And we were crying and we were devastated, and then all of a sudden someone started singing.
In that moment you could just hear the reverberation of our voices in the Capitol Rotunda. When we thought that everybody would be mad or angry or devastated — which we were all those things — but people decided to sing and change the rules of that moment. And that energy is what led to the development of the DACA strategy. It’s what led to the development of United We Dream.
Like you said, that vote preceded DACA. What was it like to work with the Obama administration at that time?
Greisa Martínez Rosas
After the failure of the DREAM Act, the conversation with the admin was like “No se puede” — we can’t, we tried. The big bill failed, we kind of have to get out more people to vote, and then it’ll happen. It was a “you can’t take shortcuts,” “you have to elect more Democrats” response.
I think our relationship with the [Obama] admin at that point was No, this cannot be the pathway forward, your solution doesn’t get us to making real moves until much, much later. And the urgency is now. We were seeing the deportations of our classmates. We were being denied even the opportunity to be affirmed that what was happening was actually happening.
I remember there was this meeting of advocates and the Obama administration, and we had been after the 2010 vote, we were saying “you’re deporting Dreamers, you’re deporting immigrant young people.” They were like, “No, not really. It’s not really happening.” And we put together these case files of all of the people that had been currently in detention, or were being deported, and took them to the administration in the meeting with them. They couldn’t deny that there was actually something — that they were actually being held in detention and deported.
I think it set the tone for our role as seeing ourselves as exposers of the truth, of what was happening to our people, and leveraging our resources and our energy to be able to see government as a thing that had the structure to give us what we wanted, but really needing an outside force to push it to actually happen.
So we did what was our role, which is to tell the truth and to use our voice as a tool to be able to create political pressure for action. It wasn’t a fluke. We were very strategic to make sure that we were creating the tension points as we saw it, specifically as the midterms were coming along.
We got DACA in 2012, midterms in 2014 where Republicans took the Senate, in addition to having the House. President Obama was a lame duck but he did take some efforts to expand protections through executive orders. What do you remember from that time?
Greisa Martínez Rosas
That time was right at the end of the big citizenship campaign that the movement had undertaken in 2013, which we lost [Obama had renewed a push for comprehensive immigration reform that got bipartisan traction and passed the Senate, only for it to die in the House]. One of my first campaigns that I led at UWD was the “We Can’t Wait” campaign and it happened in 2014 after the loss of citizenship because of the House.
I just remember the attitude in that moment was “Well, at least we have DACA, and that’s something that we should be grateful for.” The message was, Let’s keep doing the work to get [protection for the] rest of the folks. We have to prove that DACA is a good thing. And still, the strategy of showing Republicans that Democrats could also deport was still active.
And then we lost. Republicans learned from the DACA fight and were prepared to enjoin [Obama’s expansion of DACA through the Deferred Action for Parents of American, or DAPA, initiative, that like DACA would have protected undocumented parents of US citizens] in the courts. For me it felt like a super rapid expansion of the many levers that are necessary to advance a goal and the ways in which our opposition was really using all of them.
I remember being outside the Supreme Court when we lost the DAPA case, and how devastated not only I was as a leader of the campaign, but also a daughter of Elia: my mom had been making so many plans to go back and see her family and to start a business. And my mom was one of millions of people that were already doing that, and feeling that deep sorrow and disappointment, and also clocking that we had to change the tactics, and it wasn’t just about marches or rallies or even votes. It was also about the way we would use communications, administrative advocacy, and litigation to move forward a new strategy. It was an expansion of our movement in the right direction.
It was a costly lesson.
Then the Trump administration comes in a few years later. How did you see the relationship between United We Dream and other progressive organizations change with the White House?
Greisa Martínez Rosas
What was clear [after Trump won] was that we could not bipartisan ourselves out of the situation. We had seen the ways in which Trump pulled the conversation, the issue of immigration, from a policy framework, or even a Hill or administrative advocacy, to a purely political one. He jumpstarted his campaign talking about immigrants.
What changed for us was we had to be super clear about who Donald Trump was. I remember being one of the first organizations that called Donald Trump a white nationalist, and feeling the trepidation in the movement and other folks that thought, “No, maybe he’ll change his mind, and maybe the other Republicans, the adults in the room, will be able to control him and he’d just be puppet.” But we needed to tell the truth about what was happening because people were counting on us to make meaning of the moment.
Obviously those four chaotic years saw rollbacks of protections, from the formal rescission of DAPA, efforts to weaken DACA, deportations and raids, immigration bans, and more. What did you learn from the volatility of his term that informs your work now?
Greisa Martínez Rosas
Especially after he made his comment about “shithole countries” in relation to some of the provisions in the immigration bill we had been negotiating, we were reminded at the end of the day, this issue is about race and it’s about class. It’s not only about whether someone is given a work permit or a Social Security number, it’s that the majority of us are people of color.
This gets me to a question about the future. What do you see in mind for the immigrant rights movement, at the 10-year anniversary of DACA? And what challenges do you see for progressive groups and movements in general?
Greisa Martínez Rosas
Our gaze remains fixed on the future. And that future includes being honest with ourselves that we know too well that the DACA program could be rescinded by the Supreme Court in the next two years. And the program itself wasn’t enough and does not protect everyone, particularly Black immigrants who are more likely to be deported because of disproportionate policing and incarceration in our communities.
We have made the commitment to join efforts of young Black people across the country who are demanding an end to systemic racism. Knowing that when people closest to the pain are the ones pushing the solution, the boldest innovations and the biggest breakthroughs are achieved.
We have a lot of hard work ahead and that means building and expanding a political coalition that will deliver protection for undocumented immigrants in the states and in our communities. It means building new ways of living in the United States as an undocumented person. Seeding campaigns like the one that was just won in New York where non-citizen voters are able to partake in democracy, and seeding on victories, like in New Mexico where anyone, regardless of citizenship status, are able to have access to education.
We see glimpses of the world that we deserve, not only undocumented people, but young, black and brown people. And we want to make that happen in every single part of the country.
As a movement leader, I ask myself the question of how we make sense and build power on this global phenomenon of migration. There are many other people in this country and countries all across the globe, that have similar experiences to me of feeling alone and feeling ashamed of being an immigrant, who have not been welcomed by this country where we thought we would find solace and support in, and are ready to change the course of history. So I’m thinking about the ways in which we can bring migrants across the globe together and find a shared identity and build a movement that has space for all of us.
What can people realistically look forward to? There’s still time for Democrats to push something through Congress. Some members are working on reforms to work visas, or a new Dreamer bill, but is there a real chance for policy change or new executive action?
Greisa Martínez Rosas
Democrats still hold the power to deliver protections for the people. They are in control of the Senate, the House, and the White House. I acknowledge that things seem difficult now as we’ve seen the continued failure of things like bills, that’s where the responsibility lies, and that’s what the responsibility will stay. The White House and the administration have many tools at their disposal to take action.
There are still many people languishing away in detention centers and there’s still detention centers that are being operated in abusive, toxic, and traumatic ways that they need to be held accountable. … There’s still work that the administration can do to reel in border agents, to hold people accountable.
On the horizon, at the federal level, is to continue to put the pressure on and demand action. We know that the DACA decision at the Supreme Court is coming. In the next year, year and a half. Democrats and Republicans must have an answer to what happens to this community. And we must continue to defund the agencies that harm our people.