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

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.