As we enter a new year, 800,000 Dreamers await news of their fate in this country. Thwarted by a president who will soon terminate the only program giving them temporary reprieve from harassment or deportation, stood up by a Congress that couldn’t muster the will last year to grant them a pathway to permanent residency, they wait.
But not all are simply standing by. On New Year’s Day I scan the internet, seeking photos and stories of Dreamers willing to share something of their lives and their contributions to America. On a USA Today site, I read about Ellie, whose DACA status enabled her to attend community college fulltime, earn an associate’s degree, and eventually become the first person in her family to attend a four-year university. I learn about Julio, for whom DACA meant the opportunity to become a mortgage loan officer and a tax-paying, contributing member of his community. There is Carla, who started a digital marketing business, and there, too, is Reyna, who founded an organization that advocates for migrant youth.
These are only a few of the many Dreamers who have not been deterred from speaking out and sharing their stories. When Donald Trump announced last September that he would terminate the Obama-era DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) Program by March, 2018, many Dreamers began protesting in Washington and other cities for a just resolution of the crisis, seeking to galvanize public support. They have persisted in telling their truths in an era of official distortions and betrayals.
In her 2008 study of immigration policy, Illegal, Alien, or Immigrant: The Politics of Immigration Reform, political scientist Lina Newton showed how changing images of immigrants colored debates and influenced legislation in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Though many Americans expressed concerns in the 1980’s about job security when they discussed immigration, they nevertheless acknowledged the contributions that immigrants were making to American society; 61 percent of Americans surveyed in a 1984 Newsweek/Gallup poll agreed with the assertion that “immigrants help improve our culture with their different cultures and talents.” In the political climate of the time, Congress passed, and President Ronald Reagan signed, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, opening a pathway on which 2.7 million undocumented immigrants would eventually advance to permanent residency.
By contrast, the 1990s, the era of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” saw a shift in congressional debates about both government and immigration. Playing on Americans’ growing economic insecurities, lawmakers, particularly Republicans, increasingly characterized government as an engine of redistribution that shifted citizens’ tax dollars to the undeserving, and they lumped into that “undeserving” category both welfare recipients and immigrants. They not only characterized legal and undocumented immigrants as freeloaders; they also played up a more ominous image of the “criminal alien” who constituted a threat to law and order. In that era, the most significant piece of immigration-related legislation, the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, unsurprisingly introduced stiffer new enforcement measures while offering no new avenues to permanent residency or citizenship.
In the ensuing decades, negative images of immigrants as freeloaders and as threats, played up by politicians and nativist think tanks, have continued to predominate in public debates about immigration, whether those debates have concerned policies dealing with legal immigration or with the presence of undocumented individuals in the country. This situation has persisted despite countervailing developments, such as President Obama’s executive order creating DACA in 2012 or the publication in 2016 of a National Academy of Sciences report affirming immigration’s “overall positive impact on long-run economic growth in the U.S.”
With the candidacy and presidency of Donald Trump, the negative and threatening discourse about immigrants has been taken to unprecedented levels, spurring an uptick in hate crimes and bias incidents and creating an atmosphere of fear that many public officials have described as corrosive to public trust in local law enforcement. It has been in this fearful atmosphere that many Dreamers have been speaking out and even engaging in civil disobedience, often at great risk to themselves. They know that it is possible for a Dream Act still to be passed in this Congress, and the coming weeks will be revelatory about the nation’s capacity to resist falsehood. In the meantime, the Dreamers continue to remind us of the talents and the promise they offer to this nation. They bear witness to Americans’ potential for recognizing a shared humanity and for acknowledging an inclusive America that is home to us all.