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Topics / Immigration

Dream On

A new civil rights movement calls on America to live up to its ideals

The Making of a Dream: How a Group of Young Undocumented Immigrants Helped Change What It Means to Be American
Laura Wides-Muñoz
J HarperCollins. 384 pp. 2018

For many Americans, today’s immigration debate has been a rude awakening to the controversies surrounding the country’s borders and core identity. Those who live in so-called “welcoming cities” know immigrants as their neighbors and community members. Outside such places, immigrants may promise new cultures and other ways of life. In the United States today, 11 million undocumented immigrants live in the shadows as a result of lawmakers’ failure to reform an antiquated immigration system. These immigrants rent and own homes in small towns and in big cities. They work blue- and white-collar jobs. They have families. Contrary to some reports, undocumented immigrants also pay taxes, even though they do not expect to benefit from federal programs such as Medicare and Social Security. Instead, they await a day when they can live without fear of being torn from their communities, their homes, and their families.

On June 15, 2012, President Barack Obama established Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that provided nearly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants work authorization and protection from deportation. These young people are known as Dreamers — immigrants who arrived in the United States as young children and were raised as Americans in schools and communities throughout the country. Many people viewed DACA as a broad amnesty initiative, but the truth is far more complex and significant. DACA is a legacy, a victory won by young Dreamers who ignited a movement and challenged Americans to deconstruct their understanding of themselves as a people.

The Making of a Dream: How a Group of Young Undocumented Immigrants Helped Change What It Means to Be American, by journalist and former Univision vice president Laura Wides-Muñoz, charts a cogent timeline of the movement. Beginning with high school sophomore Marie Gonzalez’s advocacy for the bipartisan DREAM act in 2004, Wides-Muñoz follows the years of organizing by young immigrants that compelled President Obama to take action in 2012. Much like the movement itself, the book is grounded in the lives and stories of Dreamers, including the Trail of Dreams activists who famously walked the 1,500 miles between Miami and the White House in 2010.

The Dreamers’ stories do not begin with politics or activism, but with the weight of their parents’ sacrifices. Hareth Andrade-Ayala’s parents forfeited a government job and a promising future in architecture in Bolivia; Dario Guerrero’s parents abandoned their small businesses in Mexico; and Gonzalez’s parents sold their restaurant in Costa Rica — all in exchange for a dream of peace and prosperity in a country that boldly celebrates its own freedom.

Instead, they were met with an unfeeling, broken immigration system that often separates undocumented immigrants from incapacitated family members and underage children. Gonzalez, for example, was only 16 years old when a judge told her father, a valued employee of the Missouri governor’s office, that after 12 years of contributing to their community, his family had no right to live in the United States:

unI’ve worked hard to become the person I am, with good grades, athletics, Christian service, and other community involvement.... What makes me angry is that our nation’s immigration laws don’t take any of that into account. — Marie Gonzalez, Untitled speech, April 20, 2004

In the mid-2000s, young immigrants, despite their own vulnerable status, began to emerge as outspoken critics of the country’s immigration policies. They found themselves unable to work or pursue higher education, while witnessing the forced disappearance of their families, friends, and neighbors. The few undocumented activists who were students protested the government’s deportation of their peers and separation of families. The Dreamers thus shed light on the impact outdated policy prerogatives and aggressive enforcement were having on real people:

The Trail of DREAMs is a loud cry for justice, but on a more personal level, it’s been an affirmation of my identity. I am a man who dreams of one day being considered equal in the eyes of society next to my partner...the wonderful man I fear being separated from at any moment when all I wish is to spend the rest of my life with him. — Felipe Matos, “Thoughts Running Through My Mind,” Trail of Dreams, April 27, 2010

The activists organized marches, rallies, sit-ins, even hunger strikes, placing pressure on policymakers to act. The Dreamers demanded and earned seats at strategy tables on immigration policy, as well as in conversations with congressional leaders. Although much of the activism appeared disorganized — even reckless, in the eyes of veteran policy advocates — the Dreamers and their grassroots appeal were an electric force that could not be contained. “We are tired of waiting,” one Dreamer said, “we have people [who’ve been undocumented] here for ten years, for nineteen years, since they were one year old.”

Following years of relentless advocacy by Dreamers and immigrants’ rights groups, President Obama’s launch of the DACA program was a powerful testament to their activism:

It makes no sense to expel talented young people, who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans — they’ve been raised as Americans; understand themselves to be part of this country — to expel these young people who want to staff our labs, or start new businesses, or defend our country simply because of the actions of their parents — or because of the inaction of politicians. — President Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on Immigration,” June 15, 2012

DACA gave Dreamers legal clearance to participate in civil society without the looming threat of deportation. Yet this achievement did not halt their activism or reduce its intensity. DACA had excluded protections for parents and minors, serving only a fraction of the undocumented population Dreamers were fighting for. The executive order received fierce criticism from immigration hawks and moderate policymakers alike, and the Obama administration oversaw the deportation of nearly three million people — more than the sum of all past administrations’ in the twentieth century, according to a report by ABC News.

On September 5, 2017, the Trump administration officially rescinded the DACA program. This action was met with heavy resistance from advocates and policymakers. Two federal courts imposed national injunctions on the grounds that the directive was “arbitrary and capricious” and would cause “irreparable harm to DACA recipients.” Failed discussions around DACA even resulted in a shutdown of the federal government in January 2018.

Since then, policymakers have been at a standstill, unable to pass legislation protecting Dreamers from deportation as President Trump calls for radical immigration policy changes without the support of the Republican majority in Congress. Lorella Praeli, director of immigration policy and campaigns at the American Civil Liberties Union, issued the following statement in January 2018:

President Trump created the crisis facing Dreamers by ending the DACA program in September. Now, his administration is seeking to undermine efforts to reach a legislative resolution for Dreamers by adding unrelated and nativist poison pills to a potential bipartisan breakthrough. More than 16,000 DACA recipients already have lost their DACA status. It’s up to members of Congress to stand up for Dreamers and a vision of America that seeks to embrace, rather than expel, young immigrants.

Due in no small part to the continued advocacy of invigorated Dreamers and immigrant rights activists, a vast majority of Americans (74 percent according to the Pew Research Center; 80 percent according to Quinnipiac University) support legal status for Dreamers today. Nevertheless, several bipartisan immigration proposals have failed to garner sufficient Republican support in Congress. Democrats have blamed the failure of the bills on a lack of compassion on the part of the majority party. However, an increasing number of Republicans in Congress are demanding an end to the months of gridlock. In May 2018 a group of 18 House Republicans filed a discharge petition in hopes of forcing debates and votes on immigration bills that have been thus far been blocked. There may be hope for Dreamers on the horizon.

At the heart of all of these developments are the Dreamers across the country who continue to organize and tell their stories.

The Making of a Dream is a comprehensive chronicle of the roots and history of the DREAM movement. By focusing on the individual stories of numerous undocumented youth and leaders, Wides-Muñoz reminds us that immigration reform is not only a matter of policy, but also of human lives. As the author writes, “Although many Americans might still distinguish the DACA-protected immigrants from their parents and even their peers, the very recognition of their claim to the American dream, the recognition of their humanity, has changed the broader conversation.”

Laura Wides-Muñoz HarperCollins. 384 pp. 2018
Candidates for U.S. citizenship were in for a delightful surprise when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — affectionately dubbed “Notorious RBG” by her legions of admirers — took her seat on stage at a naturalization ceremony at the New-York Historical Society on April 10, 2018. Justice Ginsburg delivered the Oath of Allegiance to the more than 200 candidates, hailing from 59 countries, who participated in the morning ceremony. “My fellow Americans,” she began, “it is my great privilege to welcome you to citizenship in the democracy that is the U.S.A.” It is true that at the start, Ginsburg said, the union was “very much in need of perfection.” But stressing America’s constant state of change, she quoted Alexis de Tocqueville: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” PHOTO: SPENCER PLATT/GETTY IMAGES