Last Saturday, the United States Senate took key votes on two social issues—Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the seventeen-year ban on gays serving openly in the military, and the DREAM Act, a vital piece of immigration reform that would have allowed thousands of undocumented young people a chance to go to college, serve in the military and earn legal status. Both bills had passed the House of Representatives, had the backing of the White House and the support of a majority of the public, but by a vote of 55 to 41, the Senate failed to invoke cloture and proceed to debate on the DREAM Act. While the Senate failed, however, the movement did not. Now, more than ever, the administration needs to capitalize on the momentum of the DREAM Act, continuing to push for both legislative and administrative reform.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson, in urging Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1965, clearly saw the consequences of inaction:

And we ought not, and we cannot, and we must not wait another eight months before we get a bill. We have already waited 100 years and more and the time for waiting is gone. So I ask you to join me in working long hours and nights and weekends, if necessary, to pass this bill. And I don’t make that request lightly, for, from the window where I sit, with the problems of our country, I recognize that from outside this chamber is the outraged conscience of a nation, the grave concern of many nations and the harsh judgment of history on our acts.

Congress and the President would be remiss to ignore this exhortation from the past. While there is time in the grand scheme of things for change, every day of waiting worsens the situation for immigrants without legal status. The continued degradation of our immigration system isn’t measured in procedural near misses in the House or Senate. It’s measured in lives short-changed, families separated, and dreams shattered. In the three years since DREAM last came to a vote in the Senate, we have witnessed more deportations annually than ever before, more criminal prosecutions of immigration violations, and more resources thrown at the border. We have seen anti-immigrant sentiment grow, seen Arizona and other state legislatures spin out of control with SB 1070 and other enforcement measures, and have seen former immigration champions lose the courage of their own convictions and fail to stand up against the anger and vitriol of a small but vocal minority of the population.

Those very disappointments and dangers, of course, have given birth to the new generation of activists who so brilliantly and bravely led the DREAM movement. Many of them are undocumented and risked deportation to fight for justice. Many more are immigrants or the children of immigrants who can’t fathom that their country would ever deport their friends and classmates, let alone view immigrants as some kind of enemy. And many more who came out in the last few weeks or months to support DREAM were not immigrants, but native born citizens who understand that DREAM offered a solution to better the lives of us all.

The evidence remains overwhelming that DREAMers would contribute to the economy, expand the tax base, and make use of their talents to serve the country’s military. Every year, more evidence emerges that the failure to reform our immigration system is a blow to our country and to the individuals are who are swallowed up in Congress’ political failure.

The battle for DREAM isn’t over, of course. We should expect to see its sponsors introduced DREAM 2012 in the next Congress. We should expect to see those in power who oppose the bill, particularly in the House, do all they can to block its passage. And we can definitely expect to see even more advocacy, reaching into every corner of the country.

But the urgency of the situation—with an estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduating annually from high school—cannot wait for the slow and plodding ways of Congress. Staving off disaster will require the Obama administration to take bolder and more affirmative steps than it has thus far been willing to do to mitigate the impact of this broken immigration system.

Over the next year, the Obama administration must take a page from its predecessors and use the numerous tools available to it—executive orders, administrative rule-making, prosecutorial discretion, policy directives, and good old common sense—to craft immigration policies that extract every last bit of justice and fairness out of the laws we currently have. The administration must also acknowledge that its increased enforcement efforts have not resulted in any bipartisan support for comprehensive immigration reform, but it has contributed to a drive towards deportation as the default immigration policy of this country and all of the harmful consequences that come with it.

No one should abandon the legislative process. If anything, there should be more legislation. The administration and those who support smart immigration reform should bombard Congress with new ideas—for comprehensive reform, for targeted employment reforms, for asylum and refugee reforms, for elimination of backlogs—you name it—on the theory that we must turn public support for immigration reform into concrete statements of action.

Layering on the legislation has another advantage, too. The more votes that people must take, the more they can be held accountable. Right now, too many members of Congress are afraid that the votes they take in favor of immigration are the ones that are hurting them. Given the reaction to Saturday’s DREAM vote, continued legislative campaigns will help ensure that this calculation changes. After all, ask the people who worked to abolish slavery, to gain women the vote, to create the civil rights laws of the 60s, or to end the ban on gays serving in the military—change is inevitable. The challenge for each of us in the New Year and the New Congress is to be part of the change we hope to see.

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