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Changing tactics, not their dreams

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Esther Cepeda
March 7, 2012
— The weariness first started showing as provocative comments popped up here and there on social media sites and news story feedback sections: “Just as dehumanizing as using the i-word is calling an immigrant youth a ‘DREAMAct kid’” and “i hate being called dream kid, dream student, dream youth and dreamer.”

Another matter-of-factly stated, “Didn’t you get the memo? Not all undocumented youth want to be called DREAMers.”


Blog posts expressing frustration about being seen as a stereotype of a young person who would benefit from the DREAM Act, pushed in Congress as a pathway to legalization, soon followed. Today the immigrant youth community is struggling to define itself in hopes that communicating its plight differently—by throwing off their goody two-shoes and asking to be accepted warts and all—will help their chances to finally, after more than 10 years of trying, see a DREAM Act pass.


It started during the run-up to the 2010 Senate vote on the DREAM Act, when immigrant youth activists stopped highlighting only the very best and brightest—straight-A student emblems of perfection—and began featuring the fearless, who they called “undocumented and unafraid.” Students dressed in graduation robes and mortarboards started showing up at the field offices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement or at political headquarters to rail against government’s failure to address their threat of deportation.


In early 2011, many in the movement went a step further and added on “unapologetic,” meaning that they would no longer stand behind the idea that they needed to be sorry for their own existence or for their parents’ role in their illegal immigrant status. Many felt that the common descriptor—“brought here through no fault of their own”—implied victimization by parents.


Today the movement is blossoming into a “post-DREAMer,” don’t-box-us-into-any-stereotype phase of a struggle with no end in sight.


“It’s just a natural evolution. It’s been 10 years, so of course people are becoming self-aware, learning about their identity, growing older and re-defining old labels,” said Erick Huerta, a 27-year-old college student and DREAM Act activist living in East Los Angeles. He writes the “Just a Random Hero” blog about his experiences with immigrant youth on the cusp of being too old for any future DREAM Act legislation or dealing with under-education or past run-ins with the law that could disqualify them for the “good moral character” restriction should the law ever pass.


“The movement is not just high school students anymore,” Huerta added. “People are getting married, settling down, their lives are changing and some are leaving the movement, but then for every one person who leaves, two or more come in. People are really being forced to see things from a wider perspective than just the DREAM Act.”


Though changing the face of DREAM Act-eligible youth may be more honest and inclusive, the risky progression isn’t without its drawbacks, not the least of which is that not everyone wants to trade the charm offensive for the grittier reality of the illegal-immigrant-youth population’s diversity.


According to Juan Escalante, the communications director for dreamactivist.org, an online resource network for those working on pushing for the DREAM Act, the tension about overall strategy has loomed large.


“There’s been a lot of splintering, a lot of fragmentation,” Escalante told me, “but the fact is that not everybody is a perfect poster child for the DREAM Act. We encourage the portrayal of nonconventional DREAMers because all those who are undocumented are human and fall into this void. I’ve seen huge debates when you start talking about who will and won’t be covered by the DREAM Act, but it’s not a black and white issue. Whether you got a DUI, stopped for speeding or for possession of nonauthorized drugs, or are the class valedictorian, when people think of undocumented students, we shouldn’t be automatically correlated with someone else’s misconception. We’re trying to change the discourse.”


That’s an honorable aim—someone has to be the voice for the people who won’t gain a legal foothold here even if a DREAM Act ever manages to pass—but it smacks of a losing political strategy. Though it may not be fair, Americans are increasingly seeing immigration in terms of “good immigrant, bad immigrant” archetypes. Given the flimsy arguments that occasionally come up for national debate, who can blame them?


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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