DREAMers Played the 'Good Immigrant' Game. It Didn't Protect Them.


The announcement that the Trump administration would be rescinding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era executive action that extended temporary protection from deportation to 800,000 undocumented people brought to the United States as children, came a little after 11am on Tuesday. By 11:30am, Catalina Adorno, a 27-year-old DACA recipient from New Jersey, was blocking traffic in front of Trump Tower alongside 11 other protesters. By 11:45am, she was being led into a police van in the middle of Fifth Avenue, hands bound behind her back with plastic zip-ties.

The medley of chants around her and the other arrestees, a group that included eight other DACA recipients, continued apace: Sin DACA? Sin Miedo! (Without DACA? Without fear!) No justice, no peace.

An officer closed the van doors and hundreds of other protesters looked on as the vehicle disappeared into downtown, more than a dozen cameras trained in its direction. It would be another five hours before Adorno was released, without being fingerprinted, from the 7th Precinct in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The sun was still bright and hot when she came down the brick building’s front stairs.

“I don’t think I can talk right now,” Adorno said with a laugh while she addressed the 40 or so people who had been waiting outside the precinct, still chanting and singing. She took a sharp breath that turned into a sob, covered her face, and started again: “I think I’m mostly just angry…I am really angry that a lot of DACA recipients who are supporting their families, who are parents themselves, will now be losing something that they depend on.”

Now the program that was once a lifeline is a timebomb. What Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that morning was a “wind-down process” for DACA, which a statement later released by the administration specified would be six months. Now, a historically dysfunctional Congress with a flair for the malicious must either act to pass legislation to replace it, or nearly 1 million people, some as young as 15 or 16 and many others who have children themselves, will be thrown into crisis.

And Republican leadership is ready to exploit that. For recipients, the program is a tether to continued employment through DACA-granted work permits, a driver’s license, eligibility for student financial aid, and a limited balm against the threat of deportation. For Republican leadership, it’s leverage to further militarize our borders.

“The good immigrant, the bad immigrant, who is deserving, who is undeserving—we are way past that now.”

“[DACA] is a dilemma that in large part stems from the fact that it is a symptom of a larger problem, and the larger problem is that we do not have control of our borders,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters on Wednesday. “So it’s only reasonable and fitting that we also address the root cause of the problem—which is borders that are not sufficiently controlled—while we address this very real and very human problem that’s right in front of us.”

But Adorno, who is an organizer with a decentralized immigrant rights organization called Cosecha, won’t be a bargaining chip, she tells me over the phone the day after her arrest. “We know that more enforcement means more detention, more deportations, more family separations. And we are saying no,” she says. “We are beyond the point of agreeing with their requirements about the good immigrant, the bad immigrant, who is deserving, who is undeserving. We are way past that now.”

The signing of DACA in 2012 was always a form of political triage, but the DREAM Act, a piece of legislation first introduced in 2001 that offers a path to citizenship for immigrants who meet the same eligibility requirements, was never a full cure. As Splinter reporter Jorge Rivas wrote in a piece on why our site does not use the term “DREAMer” unless a person identifies themselves that way, the scope of the legislation was, and remains, exceptionally limited by design.

In order to be eligible for the 2017 version of the DREAM Act, a person must have entered the country before the age of 18. They must have the equivalent of a high school degree, attend college, or enlist in the military. They must have a a spotless criminal record. Previous versions of the bill included vague language about “good moral character.” Meeting all of these requirements would mean permanent resident status. The path to actual citizenship means even more hurdles.

There are no such options for immigrants who can’t check these boxes, and there are many of them; among undocumented immigrants ages 25-64, 47 percent have less than a high school education as opposed to 8 percent of their U.S.-born counterparts. The legislation leaves the parents of DACA recipients similarly vulnerable to deportation. For a growing movement of undocumented people across the country, submitting to those terms this time around is an unacceptable step backwards. A version of the DREAM Act may very well pass in the next six months, but partial reform to protect less than one-tenth of the undocumented population while further endangering the other 93 percent is not the basis of the mass movement Adorno is working to build with Cosecha, she says.

DACA recipients remain amorphously young, forever the same high-achieving kids.

Still, that rejection requires an unwinding of more than 16 years of narrative about youth, innocence, and exceptionalism. “I was one of those DREAMers. I know that we, in a way, had to throw our community under the bus to get DACA,” Adorno says. “It’s a challenge to change this narrative that has been created and, now, that the American public knows.”

Adorno acknowledges how much that narrative and the activists behind it “had a huge impact at the moment” and “got us to where we are today.” But “now we need to move,” she continues. “In a way, we can’t continue playing the young immigrants who didn’t know what they were doing.”

This idea—the blamelessness of DACA recipients and the associated guilt of their parents, whether it’s made implicit or explicit—is what happened when the stories being told by undocumented people were put through a political and media meat grinder built to cast villains and victims. It’s the space where the simple fact that no child chooses where they live became a kind of accusation, a tool to divide. Not only did DACA recipients need to be young and innocent, those qualities needed to be preserved in amber. That is one of the reasons DACA recipients don’t age in media and political rhetoric. They remain amorphously young, forever the same high-achieving kids.

Life is often messier than this, but rhetoric from politicians didn’t reflect it. DACA recipients are here “through no fault of their own,” according to former President Obama. They “didn’t choose to come here,” said Joe Biden. Arizona Senator John McCain, a Republican who was an early target of DREAM activists, called them “800,000 innocent young people” in a statement released this week. Even Trump himself has employed this narrative of blame and innocence. During an interview in February, he called DACA recipients “incredible kids.” (Compare that to the rapists and criminals he believes are their parents and neighbors.)

“This young, valedictorian student who deserves everything? I played that game. Personally.”

The language used by Obama as his administration justified its draconian immigration policies and record deportations—“felons, not families; criminals, not children”—is very much apiece with Trump’s own rhetoric around “bad hombres” and “some” immigrants that he assumes are “good people.” The lines are clear. In this frame, the felons couldn’t be in the families. The criminals as defined under a racist state couldn’t also be children. That a young immigrant who came here with his or her parents could commit a crime and still deserve to remain in his or her community is impossible. This is how we found ourselves where we are now, a political flattening of all immigrants into whether they are good or bad for the economy, sufficiently virtuous or deserving of the emotional and social paralysis that can come with the looming threat of deportation.

“This young, valedictorian student who deserves everything? I played that game. Personally,” Adorno tells me. “I was that high-achieving student. I went to an Ivy League school for my Masters. And guess what? I’m still undocumented. There are so many of us who played the game and we’re still deportable.”

Working a way out of that political trap and toward full rights for all 11 million undocumented people in this country will also mean forcing the country to witness the anger, visceral in the protests that swept across the country this week, that can come with decades of being made a pawn in a bipartisan cycle of exploitation. The white mainstream loves a good savior narrative, and openly disdains the kind of organizing that actually builds and holds power.

“People coming out to rallies, doing civil disobedience—that is what got us DACA,” Adorno says when I ask her about it. Even New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who supports DACA and routinely touts New York City’s sanctuary status, warned undocumented people against taking part in actions like the one that got Adorno arrested on Tuesday.

“In a way, to me, it feels shocking that they don’t remember this,” she says. “Because that’s how we won. If we want to win something else, that’s exactly what we have to do. To show we will take direct action and cause disruption, because people are disrupting our lives.”

In leaving the DREAM behind, there is an opportunity to confront the nightmare that decades of inhumane immigration policy has created for families across the country. That might alienate lawmakers who would try to politically discipline undocumented immigrants into a position of powerlessness, but they aren’t the audience Adorno and Cosecha are trying to reach. And with reports circulating that the Department of Homeland Security planned, then canceled, a series of sweeping raids, it’s clear that the same political machinery offering the relative safety of DACA is simultaneously escalating efforts to destroy the communities that sustain its recipients.

“We know politicians are not going to save us,” Adorno tells me toward the end of our call. “We want to rely on our own community. This country really runs on immigrants. If we were able to take action together, I mean, this country would just collapse. It doesn’t work without us.”

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