Teaching Us To Be Americans Again: The DREAMers On Their Long March To Immigration Reform

On June 15, 2012, President Barack Obama stunned even the most optimistic of a generation of young immigrants with his words, “it makes no sense to expel talented young people who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans.” Just about this time, a near audible cacophony of “Si, Se Puede!”s echoed from east to west coast.

Much reaction to this announcement of a two-year reprieve of deportation proceedings for children of undocumented parents has–perhaps cynically–centered on the political strategizing behind the president’s decision. But the back story is about the DREAMers. The name derives from the proposed legislation, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which has been introduced in Congress for more than a decade, but never passed. How were these young activists able to move a campaign over a single issue (the right for those who were brought into the country without official papers as children to regularize their status) to become the linchpin of a larger debate, that of immigration reform, in a presidential election year?

When I ran across these activists while conducting research with immigrant women over the past several years, they were not yet on the radar of national media or politics, but were already taking dramatic actions on behalf of their cause: marching, picketing, petitioning, video-documenting their stories. If the late sociologist Charles Tilly were still with us, he would most certainly recognize strategies that he had documented across effective social movements. For example, such movements use credible displays of worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment. How much more worthy than the image of an activist in a graduation mortar board? Than petition signatures from hundreds of respected professors? Than endorsement by leaders of conservative religious denominations? Than echoes of our own American rhetoric: “dreaming”? And how much more commitment than hunger strikes and coming-out parties, at the risk of deportation? Across the past two years, these activists gradually became bolder, staging acts of civic disobedience and public events nationwide.

Immediately after the president’s announcement, their dream went global. As I was sitting in the offices of the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants in Brussels, Belgium on June 27, staff leaders beamed over their Time magazine copy with the “We are Americans” cover story about the DREAMers–which they planned to frame. In the U.K., an activist announced to a House of Lords delegation, “We need our own DREAM Act,” sparking visible curiosity in the room: (“What is the DREAM Act?”). An estimated 120,000 young people in the U.K. face the same problem.

History was made once again in September of 2012, when DREAMer Benita Veliz, from San Antonio, addressed the Democratic National Convention in a short speech to introduce an Obama endorser, becoming the first undocumented immigrant ever to address a national political party convention. When Latinos voiced their preference in the polls for Barack Obama and the Democrats in November, the most cynical virtually accused the president of buying their votes with his announcement.

Although DREAMers celebrate the hurdle that they have now overcome, the battle for full rights continues. An estimated 1.8 million individuals are now eligible for “deferred action,” which means that, under several conditions, young people who arrived in the United States before age 16 and under age 31 are not targets for removal proceedings for 2 years. The DREAM Act still has yet to pass, and nothing in the current situation opens any legal doors to other demands of the DREAMers, including access to in-state tuition in colleges and universities in their home states. There is talk of incorporating the activist proposals into a comprehensive immigration reform platform currently being crafted by Congress.

According to The Immigration Policy Center, most beneficiaries of the DREAM Act would be Mexican, and my current state of North Carolina is among the top 10 states that will benefit—given this state’s large higher education sector combined with the rapidly growing foreign-born population settling here. This past week, North Carolina agreed to issue driver licenses and identification cards to those who qualify for deferred action under this reprieve.

That a group of individuals without voting rights or political representation, across disparate nationalities, could demonstrate the power of American-style civic engagement calls for reflection, given much hand-wringing over the question of whether native-born Americans have become disengaged. Here’s where DREAMers may have something to teach us. While critics charge that the undocumented flout our legal system and thus are unworthy of becoming Americans, these youth respond that they sample the proudest of our own civil rights movement traditions: civil disobedience of unjust laws. Perhaps these DREAMers can finally get the DREAM Act through our Congress. Perhaps they can persuade our journalists to drop the label “illegal” from their stories. And perhaps they can even teach us to be Americans again.