Students in San Antonio are fasting in support of the DREAM Act, which would provide a path toward citizenship for young people who came to the United States (illegally) as children, and have attended college or served in the military (Thanks to Ambreen Ali at Congress.org for posting the link to this story.) They assembled in the hallway outside Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison’s district office, and pledged to stay until she met with them. Senator Hutchison declined a meeting, urged the students to eat, and went back to Washington. Sixteen students were arrested.
Senator Harry Reid (and others) are trying to put the DREAM Act back on the Congressional agenda during the lame duck session. They know that chances of passage will be much worse in the next two years, once Republicans control the House and enjoy a larger minority in the Senate. For activists, it’s even more urgent. The hunger strike reflects this urgency–as does the participation of two students who are themselves undocumented immigrants. (Putting yourself in the hands of the police can be a quick route to deportation, while also putting family members who may also be undocumented at similar risk.)
We’ve discussed the moral certainty that activists express when they take on terror tactics. Willingness to kill, and/or to risk one’s own life and safety for a cause reflects an intense commitment, borne of moral certainty or desperation.
The hunger strike is a tactic in which the activists take on almost all of the suffering. There is, of course, a coercive element to it–demanding that a target accede to some thing (even a meeting) to save your health. But there’s more: Gandhi saw a hunger strike as a commitment to dialogue. He believed that activists had to take on suffering to demonstrate their concerns and commitment, and that in doing so, they were asking for evidence that they might be wrong. (In his terms, this meant that violence, which didn’t recognize the possibility of error, was absolutely wrong.) Like civil rights civil disobedience in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, suffering violence (or personal harm) demonstrated both your own commitments and the inhumanity of your opponents.
The sixteen students in San Antonio got our attention because of their commitments. It’s hard to think that they have something to say to Senator Hutchison that she hasn’t heard already; indeed, as they note, she supported a version of the DREAM Act in 2007. That was, of course, before she ran (unsuccessfully) for the Republican nomination for governor, and before anti-immigration sentiment captured the national Republican party.
Now, activists in support of the DREAM Act face deteriorating political prospects. And young people who saw a realistic hope of some path to citizenship when the DREAM was first proposed–a decade ago–see their personal prospects deteriorating along with their political goals. They have to do more, and a hunger strike is one next step.