Youth action for the rights of migrants - from the US Dreamers to the Glasgow Girls

Meeting Carlos Saavedra, of the United We Dream movement last week, and then catching the musical production 'Glasgow Girls' at the Theatre Royale last week was bound to spark off thoughts on what happens when young people get involved in the issue of the rights of migrants. Here are a bunch of reasons why we should feel pretty hopeful as to what the potential is...

We were very pleased to play a small role in supporting the visit of Carlos Saavedra to the UK last week.  Carlos is one of the key organisers of the United We Dream movement in the United States – known as the ‘Dreamers’. 

Carlos has been in the UK for around ten days, travelling to meetings across the country, talking to groups working with refugees and migrants about the way in which the Dreamers emerged on the scene in 2007 and have built themselves up into the significant social movement which is leading the pressure on the White House to come up with meaningful immigration reform. 

He visited MRN’s office on Thursday last week to speak to a group of London migrant activists, explaining how the US movement got its act together during a period which, at the time, must have looked pretty bleak to the groups calling for a change in policy.

Glasgow Girls

The Dreamers began to assemble as a nationwide campaign in the wake of the failure of the Obama administration to get its DREAM Act passed by Washington legislators. This had sought to provide a route for the regularisation of residency status for the children of undocumented migrant families. The procedure would have benefited young people who had graduated from high school and who had been living in the US for at least five years prior to the bill’s enactment.

Youth action

The story is essentially one of the young people themselves acting out of frustration with the failures of the mainstream immigrant establishment and looking to inject some new forms of energy and imagination into the task of getting the message across to public opinion as to what living without legal status meant to a rising generation which was achieving things at school and wanted to move onto the next stages of life in terms of college and careers.

The Dreamers plugged themselves into the networks of young bloggers who were telling their own stories on the internet and began to work out ways to amplify the messages that were coming across in these accounts. They coordinated their activities with regional and city-wide migrant community organisations, linking them together across the US into a new movement. Constructive relations were worked out with long-standing immigration law reform organisations, like the National Immigration Law Center and the Fair Immigration Reform Movement.

The injection of youth culture into the work of these projects re-energised the movement. Undocumented young people might public declarations of their statuses at public events on university campuses. They grabbed hold of public occasions when appeals were being made to the civic conscience of citizens, such as blood donation drives, to bring attention to the fact that people without residence papers were participating in these events, and that the state and its public services could make as much use of their ‘illegal blood’ as it anyone else’s.

National impact

The Dreamers have got to the point where they are big players in the national conversation about immigration reform. Their activities have forced open cracks even on the Republican side of the political spectrum, with prominent politicians agreeing that simple-minded policies proclaiming the possibility of ‘self-deportation’, which had got presidential candidate Mitt Romney into so much trouble, were not likely to constitute sensible politics in the years ahead.

Yet with a draft of President Obama’s Immigration Reform Bill now circulating in leaked form it is clear that the Dreamers are still only at the beginning of their work, rather than its conclusion. The legislation appears to build on the reputation that Obama built for himself during his first term in his drives to deport more people than any other president in history. Though regularisation is available for some at the end of long qualifying periods, the quid pro quo is more border security and tougher measures against those outside the favoured regularisation schemes.

It seems unlikely that the youth who have been mobilised by the Dreamer campaign will be willing to count measures such as these as an unalloyed victory.  As long as the wider system for immigration management and control generates obvious injustice across the board Carlos and his colleagues expect that they will be returning to their street campaigns and campus events time and time again to maintain the momentum for a far more sweeping and radical approach to reform.

Glasgow Girls

Could we ever hope for such youth movement campaigning for the rights of migrants in the UK.  A trip to the Theatre Royale in Stratford, East London, on Friday night reminded me that we already head one – in early form at least.

The show on that night was one of the best musicals I have seen in a long time – the National Theatre of Scotland’s storming production of Glasgow Girls. It tells the real life story of the response of a group of teenagers who discover that some of their friends from asylum-seeking families are being lines up for deportation by the Home Office. The girls swung into action, petitioning the city, deluging radio stations, and chasing after Scottish politicians demanding reconsideration of their cases and an end to the detention of young people whilst they were awaiting the outcome of appeals.

The story of the Glasgow Girls dances, sings and generally rages across the stage with show tunes that leave anything offered up in Les Mis seeming, well, frankly miserable. My favourite was Noreen’s song, which set out the viewpoint of the council tower block matriarch with the ever watchful eye on the welfare of the ‘the wains’ who pestered round the neighbourhood. The working class conscience of the ‘coal not dole’ generation is belted out at life-affirming volume, letting everyone know why the social duty to look out for each other doesn’t require a certificate of approval from the UKBA.

If we every have a Dreamer movement in the UK, let’s hope it will drawn on the energy and zeal of the wonderful Glasgow Girls. As the show cast tell us at the ringing finale of the show, ‘Who are the Glasgow Girls? We are, and you too, if you want to be.’

Glasgow Girls continues at the Theatre Royale, Stratford until Saturday 2nd March.  

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