Movements don’t disappear after a legislative verdict. Victories and defeats change calculations about what’s possible and how to go about getting it, but they virtually never–at least in the United States–provide a decisive resolution to the sorts of issues that animate movements.
This weekend’s Senate session handed a major victory to the groups working to repeal the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy in the American military. The same Senate dealt advocates of the DREAM Act a staggering defeat. The weekend drama was heightened by the sure knowledge that the Congress that will take office in January will be less sympathetic to either cause.
[The Senate drama included the first sighting of the new bullet-proof Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), the only Republican to vote for the DREAM and for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Having defeated a strong Tea Party challenge in winning reelection, she’s brought herself the space to be the sensible patronage-oriented Republican she’s always wanted to be. She can work to bring federal dollars back to Alaska and vote for policies she deems practical.)
Both movements have spent many years working to get to these historic votes, and neither will disappear any time soon. The GLBT movement now faces a different field, as do champions of immigration reform.
Gay and lesbian activists have been working to provide for open service in the military since, at least, the 1980s. Bill Clinton touted the crazy Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, early in his administration, as a response to the movement, and as a step forward; after all, the military was enjoined from investigating the sexual orientation of soldiers, sailors, and marines. More than 14,000 discharges later, no one was happy with the policy. More importantly, both multi-issue gay rights organizations, and specialist groups like Servicemembers Legal Defense Network had been working the issue–and others–winning judicial victories and pushing massive changes in public opinion.
When the policy finally disappears, activists will shift their targets. I’m sure a few people will savor the victory and go home. Most, however, saw open service as part of a larger social and political agenda. Some, no doubt, will work to protect military personnel who come out or seek to rejoin the military. (They should be aided in this quest by the leadership of the services!) Others will shift their attention to other key issues for gays and lesbians. The battles across the country for same sex marriage will surely take a lot of their efforts. Over time, the military policy will give activists seeking social and political equality a stronger foundation for their claims.
The DREAM Act was also a narrow slice of a broader policy agenda which includes comprehensive immigration reform. DREAMers saw this small step as the most politically viable path toward larger policy reforms and, perhaps more importantly, a practical and humane approach to a slice of the undocumented immigrant population.
This path shut down, activists can’t really go home. (The students and servicemembers affected really are home.) Instead, they will shift their attention to other venues, and play defense against the growing nativist movement. Much of this, like the gay marriage debates, will be at the state level. Activists will challenge harsh anti-immigrant policies like that adopted by Arizona. They will also work for more modest accommodations in the states, including access to state university systems or driving licenses, which will make undocumented lives marginally more livable–and building support for larger reforms.
It’s important to remember that the DREAMers’ defeat was a victory for an anti-immigration movement now poised to push harder for policies that will make life more difficult for workers, students, and families in the United States without documentation.