We Need to Fight for All Undocumented Migrants, Not Just Dreamers

We Need to Fight for All Undocumented Migrants, Not Just Dreamers

We Need to Fight for All Undocumented Migrants, Not Just Dreamers

Distinctions about who is more “deserving” or “patriotic” are invidious—all migrants are rights-bearing human beings.


The announcement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that the Trump administration will end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy is a devastating blow to those who are currently protected by it. (For more on how the rollback and six-month deadline works, see this piece by Julianne Hing.) We need to defend DACA while also pushing for permanent and legal protections for all migrants.

Anticipating the DACA rollback, Senators Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin had reintroduced the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act back in July, which seeks legal status for undocumented minors who either have a GED or are obtaining higher education. Bipartisan DREAM Act bills, first introduced in 2001, have been unable to get through Congress, which was what prompted youth activists to embark on a campaign to pressure Barack Obama to grant administrative relief to young undocumented people in 2011. With legal and infrastructural support from groups like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), and a campaign of direct actions, sit-ins, and solidarity activities in swing states, the Dreamers won: On June 15, 2012, Obama announced the DACA policy.

Now the fate of DACA recipients hangs in the balance. This reversal is part of the broader white-supremacist and anti-immigrant agenda of the Trump administration, which has included proposals to build a wall along the US-Mexican border, stepped-up deportations and ICE raids on undocumented migrants, and anti-sanctuary laws like SB 4 in Texas, which allow police to ask those arrested about their immigration status. Following protests and a legal challenge to SB 4, it was blocked last week by a federal judge. Migrant-rights and Dreamer organizations across the country have also been mobilizing to defend DACA and calling on Congress to support the program.

In the past few days, a range of voices from across the political spectrum have risen in support of DACA, from religious clergy to members of Congress to academics, corporations, and activists. Hopefully this rising tide will create the momentum to overturn Trump’s decision, just as grassroots action has achieved with SB 4, the Muslim travel ban, and other Trump policies. But it is important that this defense of migrant youth does not replicate the hierarchies present in the early Dream campaign that distinguished Dreamers as more desirable migrants because of their willingness to assimilate, their contributions to the economy, and their innocence.

In my book Curated Stories, I explore how in the early years of the Dream Act campaign, undocumented youth were hand-picked by advocacy organizations to tell their stories to members of Congress and the media. Certain themes were emphasized by legislators and echoed in the stories of the youth: The students were always high-achieving, usually valedictorians of their classes, and shown as being “of good moral character” and “hard working.” They were presented as fully assimilated into US culture and society, with few ties to their birth countries; as innocent of the crime of illegally entering the United States, for which their parents were blamed; as seeking meritocratic success, in line with American values and ideals; and as patriots, who were willing to defend the United States (often in the military). Although the aim of these narratives was to mark out some immigrants as deserving and worthy of citizenship, the effect was to draw a class distinction between those upwardly mobile, assimilated, and self-reliant immigrants whose stories could humanize them, and the anonymous, foreign, and lower-class undocumented laborers who fill the ranks of an informal and exploited labor force.

Narratives of deserving and undeserving immigrants have a long history in the United States. The scholar Susan Coutin has described how Central American asylum applicants in the 1990s were classified by suspension hearings as either deserving or undeserving subjects. Judges and attorneys posed specific questions to witnesses that were designed to determine the prototype of an applicant. To be classified as deserving, applicants had to demonstrate that they were being singled out for political persecution or were uniquely needy. They could not simply claim economic hardship.

Advocates revived these prototypes in the case of the Dreamers, who had to perform their deserving-ness and exceptionalism by focusing on their assimilation, high achievements, and roots in US culture. Such an approach was understandable, given the negative representations of undocumented migrants crafted by the nativist right. Advocates sought to counter the portrayal of migrants as freeloaders, acting as a drain on public services and taking the jobs of native-born Americans. They were responding to the charge that migrants were lawbreakers who engage in criminal activity, and that they were irreducibly foreign to American values and society. Immigrant-rights advocates focused on fashioning representations that could appeal to mainstream society and repudiate the claims of the nativists.

Although in later years, migrant youth challenged these representations and sought to ally their interests with the majority of undocumented migrants, the representations of Dreamers as a class apart from other migrants have continued into the present day. In the current Twitter-storm created in the wake of the decision to rescind DACA, policymakers have lamented the loss in GDP that would be caused by its retraction: Illinois could lose as much as $2.3 billion in revenue, and Texas would lose $6.2 billion. DACA recipients are valued for their contributions to tax revenue—at least $140 million, in the case of New York City. And overall, it is claimed, ending DACA would mean the loss of $460.3 billion from GDP over 10 years and the loss of some 685,000 workers. Social media have highlighted pictures of DACA recipients as paramedics saving victims of flooding in Tropical Storm Harvey, as small-business owners, as homeowners, as “true Americans,” working hard to save lives and contribute to the economy.

While this may all be true, and repealing DACA will certainly damage a national economy that relies so heavily on migrant labor, such claims serve yet again to reinforce the view that some migrants are more worthy of saving because they benefit the United States. Other migrants, those who do not or cannot work, who do not identify as American, who are not upwardly mobile, are not seen to deserve the same compassion. But migrants are more than their labor power; they must also be valued as rights-bearing human beings.

This moment is a watershed. Migrant youth have been fighting on the streets to defend their rights, they have been gathering in community spaces to organize and support one another, and there has been a tremendous outpouring of solidarity in response to Trump’s assault. Direct actions are being led by grassroots organizations like Cosecha, whose slogan is #SinDACASinMiedo! (Without DACA Without Fear). Now, with the critical mass of attention and street mobilization that has been brought to the issue, we should not only defend DACA but also demand amnesty for all of the 11 million undocumented migrants who live here.

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