The Dreamer social movement

Stepping out of the shadows, youth campaign for change

In 2001, the first federal Dream Act ("Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act") was introduced in Congress, and if passed, would have provided legal status and a path to citizenship (See "Federal and state laws expand opportunities for Dreamers") for many undocumented young people who arrived in the U.S. as children and grew up here.

This was the first time the plight of these young people was recognized and met with serious political action, according to William Perez, Claremont Graduate University education professor and author of "Americans by Heart: Undocumented Latino Students and the Promise of Higher Education."

The undocumented youth became known as "Dreamers," deriving their name from the proposed Dream Act.

Also in 2001, another milestone occurred in California and Texas, when those states passed legislation to allow resident undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges.

According to Perez, these federal and state measures became powerful symbols that fueled student activism and helped reduce fear and stigma around those advocating for the rights of undocumented immigrants.

From this beginning, Perez traces the development of what he and others call "a new civil rights movement" that gathered steam in 2010 when frustration peaked over yet-another failed Congressional effort to pass the Dream Act.

As Perez wrote: "Risking deportation from the only country they have ever known, four undocumented students embarked on a journey from Miami to Washington, D.C., to advocate for the passage of the Dream Act. Walking 18 miles per day, they arrived at the nation's capital in May 2010, having walked more than 1,800 miles on a journey they called the 'Trail of Dreams.'"

Media coverage and support of these four students and their message began to build. United We Dream, a youth-led immigrant activist umbrella organization, was formed in response to this and attracted many young immigrant groups across the country. Together they coordinated a series of events to push for the Dream Act's passage.

Since then, United We Dream has become the largest youth-led immigrant activist organization in the nation, with a network of more than 100,000 immigrant youth and allies and 55 affiliate organizations in 26 states, according to its website.

Starting in March 2010, these Dreamer activists engaged in multiple "coming out" events, inspired by successful strategies used by the gay rights movement. The first was held at the Federal Plaza in Chicago, where eight undocumented students called a press conference to publicly announce their undocumented status. Their rallying cry became: "Undocumented & Unafraid."

Perez quoted one activist student, Mary: "It's about finding a just and humane way for people that are in an untenable situation. It's amazing what the students have been able to achieve even with this obstacle; imagine what they can do without that drawback. These are very passionate, involved, devoted, active, intelligent individuals, and it would be a great loss to the country to give up on them."

Along with their decision to "come out," according to Perez and scholars, Dreamers began to discover that their personal stories could be translated into powerful politics. This realization turned the much-feared risk of disclosure on its head for many young people, who began to re-frame silence as the riskier course. To speak out, they were finding, allowed the public to hear their stories, to better understand their situations, attract supporters and promote change. To remain silent guaranteed powerlessness and the status quo.

In May 2010, in one of the first acts of Dreamer civil disobedience, five young immigrants dressed in caps and gowns held a sit-in at the Tucson, Arizona, offices of Sen. John McCain, calling on him to co-sponsor the federal Dream Act.

Four of the protesters, including three who were undocumented, were arrested on misdemeanor trespassing. Deportation proceedings were triggered but later dropped for the three undocumented youth.

One of the three Dreamers arrested was Lizbeth Mateo, a California State University, Northridge graduate and currently a law student at Santa Clara University.

In an interview about the sit-in strategy with University of San Francisco education professor Negron-Gonzales, Mateo said: "We wanted to take ownership of our lives and our future. We decided to do it inside his office, because outside -- they would close the office, lock us out. We need to be in their space. It's a direct thing; that's the purpose of direct action. You need to be completely unafraid and face your biggest fear. ... Doing it face to face. Going to his office."

In June 2011, another pivotal event occurred to spur the Dreamer movement forward. Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington Post journalist who was born in the Philippines and raised in Mountain View, "came out" as an undocumented immigrant in a cover essay in the New York Times Magazine.

"On the surface," he wrote, "I've created a good life. I've lived the American Dream.

"But I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living a different kind of reality. It means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. ... It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful. And it has meant relying on a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me."

Vargas decided to come out of hiding when he read about the four students walking from Miami to Washington, risking deportation to speak out.

"Their courage inspired me," he wrote.

With this essay, Vargas turned from mainstream journalist to immigrant advocate, founding an organization called "Define American" (See "Organizations, resources supporting undocumented youth") and expanding his leadership role in the Dreamer movement. He began writing, speaking, making films and lobbying Congress in an effort to influence the national conversation around immigration reform for Dreamers and all undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. He in turn inspired other Dreamers across the nation to come out.

In June 2012, Time magazine's cover featured a photo of Vargas standing with a crowd of ethnically diverse fellow Dreamers, with the headline "We Are Americans: Just not legally" and this subhead: "We're some of the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Why we're done hiding. By Jose Antonio Vargas."

Also in June 2012, President Barack Obama announced his ground-breaking executive action program, "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" (or DACA), which provided temporary deportation relief and work authorization to many Dreamers across the country.

Among its benefits, DACA provided the Dreamer movement with even greater recognition and legitimacy and caused many scholarships, educational and community programs, previously closed to Dreamers, to begin welcoming the applications and participation of DACA recipients.

According to many immigration experts, it was largely the efforts of United We Dream activists, including Vargas, who persuaded Obama to create the DACA program.

Increasingly, as noted by Negron-Gonzales: "The political terrain is shifting ... attributed to the growing grassroots movement led by undocumented young people across the nation, who refuse to accept a life in the shadows and demand recognition."

One hallmark of Dreamer activists, according to Negron-Gonzales, is the willingness to risk deportation: "(This) political strategy was unimaginable a decade ago; today it is a cornerstone of this movement.

"The process of coming to challenge dominant societal norms and beliefs is both personal and political, and it is a fundamental component of social movements. Little is known about how and why this happens, but what we do know is that somehow, despite the prevalence of these hegemonic ideas, some marginalized people develop an oppositional consciousness."

Arriving at a decision to break through isolation is common to many engaged in activist work, according to Negron-Gonzales. These decisions can lead to community building, overcoming fear and shame, and political engagement that is powerfully and personally transformative.

Ironically, it is the "lived contradictions," she wrote, that can "empower marginalized people to make sense of, and claim agency within, their socio-historical conditions."

In 2014 article reflecting 18 months of fieldwork with undocumented Latino youth activists in California, Negron-Gonzales described "a generation of young people who, despite disenfranchisement from the formal political realm, are changing the face of California politics" -- a reference to the passage of the California Dream Act in 2011 and several other recent California laws that have created new opportunities for undocumented immigrants (See "Federal and state laws expand opportunities for Dreamers").

While the future legal landscape remains uncertain, Negron-Gonzales wrote: "Whatever emerges will have been born of a generation of politically active young people who made a decision to abandon life on the margins and fight for a seat at the table. These young people ... reveal the political possibilities embedded in the contradictory space of undocumented 'America.'"


Read more:

Growing up undocumented

College adviser to Dreamers: Leverage strengths, get creative

Undocumented immigrants: key statistics

Pursuing the rocky path to college

Organizations, resources supporting undocumented youth

Undocumented youth describe migration to U.S.

Federal and state laws expand opportunities for Dreamers

Educators discuss undocumented youths' challenges, resilience

A safe haven to dream


Also find these and other stories on our Storify page

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