Amplifying DREAMer Voices: The DACA Debate and Free Expression


“I am the seed that was planted beneath the earthy Mexican soil. I was plucked from the pregnant tree by the hands of a shoe saleswoman and a woodsmith. Both of their hardworking hands dug beneath the earth to plant me for shelter, to water me when I yearned for thirst, and to give me light when I needed warmth.”

In the essay “The Controversy of the Avocado,” from which these lines are taken, an avocado fears the hands that carried it across the border. It contemplates its identity—is it a vegetable, or a fruit?—and rejects the idea that it is nothing more than a millennial trend that will soon fade from the public eye.

The essay, written by a New York City-based DREAMer, is the product of a young writer whose immigration status has also become a topic of public discussion. The work—which can be viewed in video form alongside other writings from New York City DREAMers—arose from PEN America’s DREAMing Out Loud writing workshop series, led by the writers Álvaro Enrigue and Valeria Luiselli, which aims to elevate the voices of young aspiring writers who struggle with the realities of their undocumented status and with other obstacles. For these young poets, essayists, and storytellers, the political debate over DACA and the DREAM Act is not an abstract political conversation; it is a debate over whether their voices—and existence—are welcome in the United States.

Some background: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, is a program initiated by President Obama to protect undocumented people in the United States who arrived here as children. DACA allows qualifying individuals to remain in the United States and to acquire work permits. Some states also allow DACA recipients to access grants and loans for colleges, health care, and drivers’ licenses. DACA does not create a pathway to citizenship. However, proposed legislation, initially introduced in 2001, called the DREAM Act would have created a path to citizenship for the people who qualify under DACA, leading some to adopt the term “DREAMers” when referring to this group.

President Trump has used the fate of the DREAMers as a political bargaining chip and a base-pleasing talking point, alternately claiming he wants Congress to work out a long-term solution for them while, at other times, taking to Twitter to declare the DACA program dead. His musings on DACA are woven in with his administration’s other anti-immigrant and xenophobic messages and actions, in which immigrants are routinely denigrated and ruthlessly seized for deportation—sometimes in front of their children; sometimes at a routine check-in with an immigration officer; sometimes after Border Patrol officers board a bus and start asking passengers for identification; sometimes after calling the police to report a trespasser. The willful, almost gleeful cruelty of the Trump Administration’s policies toward immigrants is apparently limitless.

DREAMing Out Loud was created by PEN America in an effort to counter the anti-immigrant sentiment on the rise in the United States and to amplify the voices of many living in this country who are marginalized because of their immigration status. It is also a potent and beautiful example of our dual mission to celebrate literature and love of writing in defense of free expression. In these powerful videos, the DREAMers’ faces remain hidden, but their voices are heard.

Defending the principles of free expression requires action far beyond ensuring that the First Amendment is respected. It requires us to actively create the kind of broad, inclusive, dynamic conversation that these principles are intended to enable. Those who champion free speech values should be working not only to uphold the strong legal protections for speech in the United States, but also to fulfill the vision of robust participation in political debate that these protections are meant to facilitate: a world in which everyone has a voice when issues of public interest and political importance are under discussion. The Trump Administration’s treatment of DREAMers—one day suggesting a deal with Congress is on the horizon and the next dashing those hopes again—leaves these young people dangling in a precarious and unpredictable position.

The uncertainty surrounding their status has driven many DREAMers into the shadows, like many of this country’s other undocumented residents. As a result, the current debate about their future is taking place largely without their own stories being heard: without the voices of the vast majority of the approximately 800,000 people in the DACA program and without the voices of other undocumented people, many of whom have lived here in the United States—working, raising families, and contributing to this country’s welfare—for years. PEN America’s DREAMing Out Loud program is one small effort to bring more of those voices into the conversation.

“This is his plan,” reads the narrator of “The Controversy of the Avocado.” “This is what he wants everyone to believe. That we are a trend that will soon die out.” With DREAM to Tell, viewers are asked to witness the stories of New York City DREAMers and to ensure that their words are lasting and that their voices remain heard.

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