Issue 13.2 | Spring 2016 / Guest edited by Soniya Munshi and Craig Willse

Dreaming, Telling, Occupying, and Destroying: Interest Convergence between Militarism and Social Justice in the DREAM Act and the Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”


During the fall of 2010, one immigrant rights bill and one Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Queer (LGBQ) rights bill became an unlikely pair of potential candidates for passage under the National Defense Authorization Act: The American Development Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT).[1] The DREAM Act, which did not pass, would have given young undocumented immigrants the opportunity to gain legal status by either attending college or joining the military.[2] “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which was successfully repealed, was a federal statutory provision that prohibited LGBQ people from disclosing their sexual orientation, from having sex with people of the “same biological sex,” or from speaking about any “homosexual relationships, including marriages or other familial attributes, while serving in the United States armed forces.”

The efforts to pass the DREAM Act and repeal DADT were key points of focus and momentum within immigrant rights and LGBQ advocacy for a number of years. They involved different players, interests, and funding streams and resulted in different outcomes. Both, however, presented complications and contradictions for proponents of social justice because both could have built a stronger military-industrial complex (MIC).

Progressive social-justice frameworks understand the US military and the wars it fights as inextricably tied to imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, sexism, racism, nativism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and transphobia. Legislation that permits or encourages more people to join the US military therefore can undermine goals of social-justice movements. Furthermore, it can endanger those marginalized people living in poverty who have no other options for economic survival but to join the military or to engage in criminalized economies that subject them to the prison-industrial complex (PIC).[3] Rachel Herzing from Critical Resistance defines the “Prison Industrial Complex” (PIC) as “a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to what are, in actuality, economic, social, and political ‘problems.’”[4]

The non-profit industrial complex (NPIC) further complicated each effort. Dylan Rodríguez has defined the NPIC as “a set of symbiotic relationships that link political and financial technologies of state and owning class control with surveillance over public political ideology, including and especially emergent progressive and leftist movements.”[5] While individuals and some grassroots organizations spoke out against the support of the military in the DREAM Act and the repeal of DADT, for the most part the mainstream non-profit sector embraced each effort without serious dialogue about why increased militarization might be problematic.

It’s complicated to critique the DREAM Act or the repeal of DADT, because each offered the prospect of new rights for marginalized communities. For some undocumented immigrant youth, the DREAM Act would have offered legal status and education opportunities rather than deportation. For LGBQ people, the repeal of DADT has offered employment opportunities with the largest employer in the country without requiring them to sacrifice their relationships or sexual identities.[6] These aspects of the bills, as well as the fact that the United States has waged several wars for the past decade, caused each measure to become ripe for the Democratic Party to push forward in the late 2000s. As the wars continued, and the Democratic Party demonstrated more and more interest in both the DREAM Act and DADT repeal, it became easier to secure funding and create a national backing for each effort within the NPIC.

The concept of “interest convergence” helps to explain this phenomenon. As Derrick Bell explains, legal reform occurs on behalf of Black people (or other marginalized groups) only when their interests converge with those of White people (or of the dominant group). Thus, seeming advances in “equality” and “rights” struggles fail to fundamentally alter hierarchical social power relations. The need to cater to interest convergence with these two efforts led to the conservatization of two social movements, the repeal of DADT, and the defeat of the DREAM Act.[7] The efforts to pass the DREAM Act and to repeal DADT became movement-based efforts that were coopted (although very differently) by everyone from the Department of Defense to the liberal non-profit sector.

Although only a few years have passed since Congress rejected the DREAM Act and passed the repeal of DADT, we have seen related movements take very different trajectories. Immigrant justice movements have shifted demands, targets, and tactics, focusing on direct action and civil disobedience to push President Obama to end deportation. Along the way, they have won deferred action for some immigrant youth who would have been eligible for the DREAM Act, exposed injustices in immigration detention, and built stronger and more unified grassroots alliances against xenophobia and racism.[8] Some LGB organizations celebrated the military victory and moved on, while others decided that the next most exciting horizon is trans inclusion in the military.[9] Of course no movements are singular; many of the leaders in immigrant-justice work are out queer and trans youth, and some queer and trans people and grassroots organizations have continued to resist militarism with vigor since the repeal of DADT.[10]

We take inspiration and hope from much of the work and leadership of people who sought passage of the DREAM Act and repeal of DADT, as well as much of the work questioning and critiquing those efforts. However, we want to critically examine the operation of capitalism, electoral politics, the MIC, the PIC, and the NPIC and the ways in which each have created division among those of us who dream of social justice.

We begin with a brief overview of the history of both the DREAM Act and DADT to help understand their trajectories in context. Next, we look in more detail at how the MIC, NPIC, and politicians coopted efforts to gain legal status for immigrants and end discrimination against LGBQ people in ways that have 1) furthered war and thus the destruction of lives and homes of people of color—particularly Arabs and South Asians—in other parts of the world; 2) secured some approval for some politicians, some funding and publicity for some non-profits, and some limited gains to certain LGBQ people, particularly US citizen, cisgender, non-disabled LGBQ people who wish to serve in the military; 3) sown division among marginalized groups with rhetoric identifying some as “deserving” and others as “undeserving”; and 4) distracted attention and resources away from efforts to fundamentally alter relations of power and distribution of wealth and life chances among marginalized and dominant groups. We conclude our analysis with some of our dreams, sharing strategies that queer immigrants, straight immigrants, queer US citizens, and allies are using to make more fundamental change and ideas for resisting future cooptation.

We write this article from our perspectives as a radical lawyer and a law professor who work together on the collective of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which is also a not-for-profit organization. Pooja Gehi is a queer, South Asian, non-trans US citizen woman; Gabriel Arkles is a queer, White, Muslim, transgender US citizen man. We both have extensive experience working for accountable and transformative social change within intersectional LGBT movements. Ms. Gehi also has a background in immigrant-justice work and worked on the DREAM Act in its early years while interning at the National Immigration Law Center in Washington, DC. We also both bring our analysis of the role of lawyers in social-justice movements to this article.[11]

Throughout this article, we seek a balance where we neither dismiss the meaningful differences between these two bills and the communities they have most impacted nor pretend that they do not relate and overlap. Queer undocumented youth live at an often overlooked intersection of oppression. Their resistance and opinions are often erased or tokenized in media, NPIC, and electoral politics, and we do not wish to repeat that here.


The history of the US military’s relationship with immigrants, LGBQ people, people of color, women, trans people, and other marginalized groups is long and complex. Three broad trends have included: 1) exclusion of these groups from joining the armed forces; 2) targeting of these groups for recruitment or the draft to fight in the armed forces; and 3) targeting of these groups by the armed forces for violence and death. The prominence of these trends changes over time and among groups.[12] We will first discuss history particularly relevant to the DREAM Act and then history particularly relevant to DADT.

Immigrants and other non-US citizens have been encouraged and actively recruited to join the US armed forces at a number of key moments in history. For example, according to historian Nancy Ford, “[d]uring the First World War, the United States government drafted nearly a half million immigrants … into the American Army.”[13] After World War I, “[r]enewed anti-immigrant hysteria fueled by postwar uncertainty and the turbulence of the 1920s Red Scare pushed Congress into enacting the 1924 National Origins Act.”[14] That act pushed immigrants out of the armed forces at a time when they no longer seemed necessary.

Numerous times, the US government has promised immigration status or citizenship as a reward for service.[15] In fact, recruiters today make false promises to immigrant youth of color that they will receive citizenship for their service in the military. Instead, after military service some of them face deportation.[16] In fact, one group entitled “Banished Veterans” exists solely to challenge the deportation of military veterans from the United States. Many immigrants and non-US citizens have complex relationships with the US military, which have evolved from military colonial violence inflicted on many people in their communities and families of origin, as well as inconsistently rewarded participation in the US military on the part of many people in their communities and families of origin.

A brief outline of the history of the US military in the Philippines may be helpful to demonstrate these trends and complex relationships. In 1898 the US fought Spain for control over colonies, including the Philippines. The Philippines declared independence and rejected colonial rule from both imperial powers. A bitter, protracted, and controversial war followed (1899–1902), during which the US military engaged in atrocities including massacre, water boarding, and internment of Filipinos in concentration camps. The US annexed the Philippines as a “protectorate” and the US military suppressed subsequent uprisings and revolutions.[17] When Japanese armies invaded the Philippines during World War II, President Roosevelt ordered that Filipino soldiers who fought against the Japanese would acquire US citizenship and the same benefits that soldiers from the rest of the US would receive. Around 250,000 Filipino people joined the fight. After Japan surrendered, Congress passed the Rescission Act, which denied Filipino soldiers the benefits Roosevelt had promised. It was only in the early 1990s, after many had already passed away, that President George H.W. Bush granted Filipino World War II veterans US citizenship. It was only in 2009 that the surviving veterans received the benefits that they had been awaiting for over fifty years.

Large national immigration not-for-profits, community-based organizations, and many undocumented immigrant youth supported the DREAM Act. Initially, the DREAM Act was put forward by several large not-for-profit organizations, including the National Immigration Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Immigration Coalition, and a number of national Latinx organizations, including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHS), League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAK), and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR). Other organizational support quickly followed, including many heavy-hitting labor unions: The AFL-CIO, SEIU, and UNITEHERE! among others.

Republican Senator Orrin Hatch first introduced the bill in Congress in 2001, just one month before 9/11. It would have granted conditional permanent residency to certain young people already residing in the United States, which could become unconditional if they completed a BA (within six years) or an associate’s degree (within four years).

By the time the DREAM Act was introduced again in 2003, major events had changed the political landscape. Thousands had died in the 9/11 attacks; massive immigration raids and Special Registration had targeted Muslim immigrants; the US had begun invading Afghanistan; and the US had begun waging another war on Iraq. This time, the DREAM Act contained two alternate provisions for granting permanent residency—completing two years of military service or completing 910 hours of community service. This version for the first time included criminal penalties of up to five years in prison for false statements made in applications under the DREAM Act. Thus, direct tie-ins to the MIC and PIC first emerged in the bill at this time.

In subsequent versions of the bill, the option of community service disappeared, but the options for military service or educational accomplishment remained. The 2004 bill first explicitly excluded immigrant students from financial aid eligibility under the DREAM Act; this exclusion persisted in future versions of the bill. Meanwhile, a number of other major pieces of legislation introduced in Congress proposed “comprehensive immigration reform.” Some, such as the infamous 2005 Sensenbrenner bill, proposed massive criminalization of immigrants and their allies as well as increased border militarization. Mass demonstrations of immigrants and allies swept the country, pushing instead for a vision of comprehensive immigration reform that would extend legal immigration status and citizenship to many more people. While the major immigration reform bills did not pass, bills funding building a wall between the US and Mexico did. State laws targeting immigrants also passed, including SB1070 in Arizona in 2009, which promoted racial profiling by local law enforcement in order to increase deportation of Latinx immigrants. This law prompted a great deal of outrage, protest, and litigation, as well as some copycat laws in other states.

2010 offered what many people perceived as the best chance of the DREAM Act passing since its original introduction. The act was attached to a Defense appropriations bill, along with the proposed repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” However, in December 2010 Senate Republicans filibustered and ultimately prevented passage of the DREAM Act.[18]

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  1. We would like to thank research assistants Shiva Prakash, Lauren Pennix, Amanda Montel, and Molli Freeman-Lynde for their assistance with this piece. [Return to text]
  2. American Dream Act, H.R. 1751, 111th Cong. (2009). Earlier versions of this bill also failed to pass in 2001 (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, S.1291, 107th Cong.), 2003 (DREAM Act, S.1545, 108th Cong.), 2005 (DREAM Act of 2005, S.2075, 109th Cong.), and 2007 (DREAM Act of 2007, S.774, 110th Cong.). [Return to text]
  3. Friends Committee on National Legislation, “Is an Economic Draft Already Here?,” Washington Newsletter, February 2005. [Return to text]
  4. Rachel Herzing, “What Is the Prison Industrial Complex?,” Defending Justice: An Activist Resource Kit (Political Research Associates, 2005). [Return to text]
  5. Dylan Rodríguez, qtd. in Andrea Smith, “Introduction,” The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, ed. INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2007), 8. [Return to text]
  6. United States Department of Defense, “DOD 101: An Introductory Overview of the Department of Defense.” [Return to text]
  7. Bell Jr., Derrick A. “Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma.” Harvard Law Review 93.1 (1980): 518-33. Westlaw. Web. 10 October 2015. [Return to text]
  8. Immigration Equality, “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA),” Immigration Equality website (last modified 2015). [Return to text]
  9. Palm Center, “Transgender Military Service Initiative: Call for Proposals,” Palm Center: Blueprints for Sound Public Policy website, 2013. [Return to text]
  10. Chris Geidner, “Meet the Trans Scholar Fighting against the Campaign for Out Trans Military Service,” BuzzFeed, September 9, 2013. [Return to text]
  11. Gabriel Arkles, Pooja Gehi, and E. Redfield, “The Role of Lawyers in Trans Liberation: Building a Transformative Movement for Social Change,” Seattle Journal for Social Justice 8 (2010): 579–627. [Return to text]
  12. Dena Al-Adeeb, “Reflection in a Time of War: A Letter to My Sisters,” in The Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology, ed. INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2006), 116; Yo Soy el Army: America’s New Military Caste, Vimeo video, Producciones Cimarrón and Big Noise, 2011. [Return to text]
  13. Nancy Gentile Ford, Americans All!: Foreign-born Soldiers in World War I (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2001), 137. [Return to text]
  14. Ibid., 145. [Return to text]
  15. Deborah Davis, “Illegal Immigrants: Uncle Sam Wants You,” In These Times: With Liberty and Justice for All, July 25, 2007. [Return to text]
  16. Yo Soy el Army: America’s New Military Caste. [Return to text]
  17. Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki, and Paul Buhle. A People’s History of American Empire. (New York: Metropolitan Holt, Henry & Company, Inc., 2008). [Return to text]
  18. Burnham, Mike. “Senate Filibuster defeats DREAM act.” The Utah Statesman. 18 Feb. 2011. Web. 12 Oct. 2015. [Return to text]