Dream on, DREAMers

Taking inspiration from the US to change the debate in the UK.

Barack Obama delivering his State of the Union address. Photograph: Getty Images

When Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union speech in Washington on 12 February, five members of the audience on Capitol Hill were undocumented immigrants. As some right-wing commentators suggested that the five should be “rounded up and arrested”, Obama declared: “The time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform.”

The president was honouring an election promise he made to the young people known as the “DREAMers”, a group of Latino students fighting for citizenship after decades living in the shadows. In November, the DREAMers – named after the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act that they dream of becoming law – succeeded in making undocumented young people the single most important issue for the Latino electorate. When Obama signalled he was ready to act, 78 per cent of Hispanic voters chose the Democrats.

On the same day, one of the movement’s founders was in the Gladstone Room at the House of Commons, inspiring a first tentative meeting of British groups interested in immigration reform.

“What we achieved last year was the biggest moment in immigrant rights in 26 years,” Carlos Saavedra told a packed meeting. “We had spent years being on the defensive but this time we took action. We told Obama, ‘You need to deliver on past promises to the Latino community.’”

The DREAMers’ actions, like those of the civil rights movement their name echoes, are grounded in engaging personal stories, civil disobedience and carefully timed political pressure. Their leaders have shown great courage in “coming out” all over the country under the slogan “Undocumented and Unafraid”.

Saavedra’s own story is typical of the US’s 11 million undocumented people. His family arrived from Peru when he was a child and overstayed their tourist visas. He was able to go to school thanks to a 1987 legal ruling. But as he reached 16 he realised that a life in the shadows awaited him – unable to drive, vote, travel or work. Moreover, undocumented students are not entitled to in-state university tuition. Saavedra knew he would never be able to afford the $20,000 fees for out-of-state students.

Realising that change would come too late for him, he began to focus on altering the future for his little brother Rodrigo, eight years younger. He found that thousands of other young Latino people were doing exactly the same.

This month, Saavedra is on a tour of the UK as the guest of the anti-racism organisation Hope not Hate, which hopes to reshape the immigration debate. “In the UK the debate on immigration always moves inexorably to the right,” says Nick Lowles, Hope not Hate’s director. “What the DREAMers have shown is that there may be a different way to do things. They have done more than change the law – they have changed the political climate in the US.”

Half a million undocumented people are living in Britain and the meeting at the House of Commons painted a grim portrait of their lives. People talked, often from experience, of workhouse-like living conditions, sexual exploitation and physical violence. “Slave labour is alive and well in the UK,” one speaker said. “It has never been abolished.”

It is hard to imagine any political party speaking up for these people, in the current political dialogue. And yet, this past week, a Latino dreamer from Boston, Massachusetts, started to show how it may yet become possible to change the frame of the UK debate.