From ‘Dreamer’ to ‘Undocuqueer’: ‘acts of citizenship’ in the undocumented youth movement in the USA

‘I’m in America because disco died. It took until 1989 for disco to finally die in the Philippines. My dad’s job was installing and maintaining the sounds systems for all the discos in Manilla. He said I can’t like support us. We’re going to try to move and we’re going to find work’. (Stephanie Suarez in Lost and Found: Story of a DREAM Act Student)

Lost and Found tells the story of a young woman called Stephanie Suarez, who is one of the 11 million undocumented migrants living in the USA (863,000 are under the age of 16 and 1,815,000 are aged 16-24) (Migration Policy Institute 2015). Undocumented people are not US citizens or legal permanent residents and lack the documentation authorising them to be present in the USA. It is not a crime to be undocumented in the USA and deportation is a civil rather than criminal penalty (Golash-Boza 2012). People can become undocumented for a number of reasons. While many undocumented young people entered the USA as children with their parents through irregular routes, others initially arrived in the USA on temporary visas and became undocumented when these visas expired. Due to the 1982 Plyer vs Doe Supreme Court ruling (Zatz and Rodriguez 2015) undocumented children are eligible to attend elementary and high school in the USA despite their undocumented status. This means that undocumented young people who arrive in the USA as children have been educated in a U.S. education curriculum alongside ‘citizen’ peers (Gleeson and Gonzales 2012). However, (prior to 2012) on graduation from high school the pathways for undocumented young people diverged from their U.S. citizen peers as they were ineligible for a social security number and other forms of ID. This meant that they could not work legally or apply for driving licences or the other forms of ID and documentation that are often needed in order to go about daily life in the USA. They were also ineligible for most student financial aid and loans and in many states were not recognised for in-state tuition fees even if they had grown up in that state. Finally, as undocumented people they were still deportable despite having lived for much of their life in the USA. The undocumented youth-led civil rights movement emerged in the early 2000s to draw attention to these exclusions and to campaign for a pathway to legalisation and citizenship for undocumented young people.

This summer I was fortunate enough to receive a Santander Research Scholarship which enabled me to travel to Los Angeles to find out about the undocumented youth movement in the USA which has strong roots in Los Angeles where there is a long history of migrant rights activism. I spent two weeks in September in Los Angeles meeting with activists from organisations aligned to the movement and staff from organisations working with undocumented young people. In this post I will outline the emergence of the undocumented youth movement and the evolution of their campaign organisation and messaging leading up to and beyond 2012 when President Obama introduced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Programme (DACA). In what are generally hostile times for immigrants, the undocumented youth movement stands out as having made some headway in successfully campaigning for some more progressive policies for undocumented young people in a context of wider immigration restrictions. I will conclude with some observations about how the movement and its achievements might be evaluated through the lens of citizenship

The Undocumented Immigrant Youth Movement in the USA

The undocumented immigrant youth movement emerged on to the political scene in the early 2000s. In tracing the movement’s history, Nicholls (2013: 47) states that, ‘Before 2001, ‘DREAMers’ did not exist as a political group’. The movement has commonly been referred to as the ‘Dream movement’ or the ‘Dreamers’ because it began as a campaign to pass the Dream Act and the campaign linked the dreams of these young people with the ‘American Dream’. The Dreamer narrative told the story of young people who were in the USA through no fault of their own and brought by their parents. They had grown up in the USA and were culturally assimilated with little memory or connection to their countries of origin. They were the brightest and best who excelled in education and simply wanted the chance to pursue the American Dream.  This narrative while proving to be successful in winning support among politicians and the media, has been critiqued for its exclusionary tone which humanises these young people through reinforcing the stigmatisation of other migrants who do not fit this narrative.

 

The campaign for the Dream Act (which would provide a pathway to legalisation and citizenship for these undocumented young people following completion of higher education or service in the US military) began in the wider context of a campaign for comprehensive immigration reform. It had been a long time since the last comprehensive federal immigration law, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which had provided an amnesty for some undocumented migrants (UCLA Centre for Labor Research and Education 2008). Over the next decade, the Dream Act bill was introduced several times initially as a stand along bill then as part of a Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act in the mid-2000s and later as a stand-alone bill in 2010 (Nicholls 2013).

 

The undocumented youth movement has a strong base in California, and Los Angeles in particular. The state’s AB 540 legislation meant that undocumented students who had attended school in California were able to register to pay in-state tuition fees, as opposed to the considerably higher out of state tuition fees faced by undocumented students living in many other states in the USA. These young people began organising in campus based groups which eventually become part of a coalition called California Dream Network. Gonzales (2008) documents how many of these young people participated in the famous 2006 migrant rights May Day demonstrations, putting student concerns on the migrant rights agenda.

 

The campaign for the Dream Act was led at a national level by a network of activists and immigrant rights associations organised into the United We Dream coalition and by state level coalitions such California Dream Network. These coalitions helped to organise and train groups of young activists. Initially leading migrant rights activist organisations played a significant role in representing the needs of undocumented young people to politicians and the media and in training and advising young activists (Nicholls 2013). However, from 2010 the youth movement became more autonomous and young activists took a leading role in guiding the direction and tactics of the movement. At this point, undocumented young activists began to push for the Dream Act as a stand-alone bill which they thought had more chance of success if it was not tied into a wider immigration reform bill that had proved difficult to pass. They also began to engage in more radical and visible protest acts including the occupation of Senate offices in Washington, hunger strikes, mock graduations and ‘coming out’ events where they told their stories in public and declared themselves ‘undocumented and unafraid’ (Swertz 2015). However, although garnering significant support from many in Congress and the Senate, in December 2010 the Dream Act bill yet again failed to be passed due to Republican filibustering. Young people continued to protest and stage actions including a wave of civil disobedience across the country in 2011 at Department for Homeland Security and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices. In Los Angeles four young activists were arrested after occupying the ICE office in downtown Los Angeles (Nicholls 2013). In 2012 (facing an upcoming election and needing the support of Latino voters) President Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA gives certain eligible young people the right to apply for a two-year renewable deferral from deportation To be eligible for DACA young people have to be under the age of 31; have arrived in the USA before the age of 16; have no felonies, serious misdemeanours or multiple misdemeanours; and be attending or have successfully graduated from high school.

 

By March 2014 533,197 young people had been approved for DACA. A recent study evaluating DACA (Teranishi et al. 2015) found that DACA has been ‘beneficial to some undocumented students relative to their financial stability and well-being, access to resources and opportunities, and participating more fully in college and society’. However, some students still face barriers to accessing higher education in states where they are required to pay out of state tuition. DACA also does not eliminate uncertainties and insecurities about the future as it is a temporary legal status which must be renewed every two years, offers no pathway to citizenship and, as an executive order rather than legislation, can be revoked by any future U.S president. Meanwhile, the strict eligibility requirements for applying for DACA mean that, as found in a recent study from the Dream Resource Centre (UCLA) called Police in My Head, many young people experience anxiety and practice self-surveillance. Eighty three per cent of young people in the survey for this study reported self-monitoring. Finally, if they are not at risk of losing DACA status or being deported, many young people are in mixed status families and fear the deportation of family and friends. Teranishi et al (2015) found that 55.9% of undocumented young people in their study knew someone who had been deported including a parent (5.7%) or a sibling (3.2%). Since DACA there has been a continuing focus at state level on improving access to education. However, both at state and national level the undocumented youth movement is now campaigning on issues beyond the previous focus on a pathway to formal citizenship. In particular, there have been actions against the in the detention and deportation of immigrants in the USA. In recognition of the exclusionary discourse of the exceptional all American young ‘Dreamer’, activists I spoke with commented that there has also been critical reflection within the movement about intersectionality and the silencing and marginalisation of voices that did not meet the strict and very controlled Dreamer messaging criteria. This has seen the rise recently, for example, of the ‘Undocuqueer’ stream of the movement. While activists also explained that expansion beyond the narrow focus on higher education and a discourse of ‘innocence’ has led to greater attention to the criminalisation and oppressive policing of young people of colour in the USA and has led to dialogue with activists in the Black Lives Matter movement and in alliances such as Freedom Side.

Acts of Citizenship

The Dream Act bills that formed the focus of the ‘Dreamer’ movement in the first decade sought a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrant young people. How successful has the undocumented youth movement been in achieving this goal? If we look at this question through the lens of formal legal citizenship then it could be said that the movement failed because the Dream Act was not passed. Although DACA has improved the opportunities available for many eligible ‘DACAmented’ young people, this is a temporary status and does not provide a pathway to citizenship. Meanwhile, the conditionalities in the terms of DACA, including the focus on productive citizenship combined with the temporary but potentially renewable status mean that young people remain under pressure to be well-behaved guests; recipients of hospitality and compassion, held in a humanitarian rather than political subject relationship with the state.

However, if we address the question of citizenship through attention to the process of political action taken by these young people rather than simply limiting analysis to the formal state of legislation on citizenship, a more optimistic picture can be presented. ‘Acts of citizenship’ theory (Isin 2008) examines how citizenship is mediated between lived experiences and formal entitlements by focusing on moments when, regardless of status, people constitute themselves as citizens. This enables us to consider how subjects, like undocumented young people ‘become claimants of rights and responsibilities, under surprising conditions’ (Isin 2008:17). Insights about citizenship can be gained from observing moments when non-citizens (Nyers 2008) or those on the edges of citizenship assert themselves politically to claim rights. This critical citizenship lens is helpful for understanding the achievements of these young activists as it enables us to recognise the ways in which they have asserted themselves as political subjects rather than passive victims. An ‘acts of citizenship’ approach enables us to see and recognise how these young people, although not citizens, have been able to enact themselves as political subjects and make claims on the state. However, have their actions pushed and challenged the boundaries of citizenship any further or do they still fit within the citizenship claims-making approach seen in amnesty campaigns for migrants previously in the USA and elsewhere which is limited to requesting the extension of rights of inclusion to more people without really confronting the exclusionary foundations of citizenship itself?  Initially it appears that the movement did simply speak to an exclusionary and neoliberal form of citizenship. In a sense the Dreamer is the perfect immigrant because they were not an immigrant at all, but rather an all American young person in all but name and the epitome of the deserving and productive citizen or ‘would be’ citizen. However, developments in the undocumented youth movement in recent years point to an interesting turn and a more challenging engagement with the concept of citizenship.

Rygiel (2011) has used the term ‘bordering solidarities’ to refer to the ways in which restrictive immigration policies have also provided a context for solidarity and community building between migrants and citizen allies in the fight for migrant rights in a number of settings across the world. I would argue that a form of ‘bordering solidarities’ can be seen in the increasing recognition of heterogeneous identities in the undocumented youth movement and the dialogue being established between undocumented young activists and citizen activists (e.g. LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter) from communities in the USA who continue to face oppression and marginalisation despite holding full legal citizenship. Solidarity here differs from some descriptions of migrant/citizen solidarity based on an alliance between the dichotomous figures of the supposed privileged citizen and marginalised migrant. In a recent interview for Movements, Kim Rygiel (2015) comments on the importance of unpacking the unearned privileges of citizenship. However, citizens are not homogenous and despite legal inclusion not all citizens experience such privileges. As Rygiel observes during this interview, citizenship has been as much about a history of exclusion as it is a story of inclusion. Many ‘citizens’ have been prevented from completing this journey to full and equal inclusion and indeed increasingly face the stripping back and loss of rights. The undocumented youth movement has moved beyond a focus on a pathway to full citizenship and a number of activists have turned their attention to the limitations of such citizenship in achieving equality. Activists I spoke with talked about the criminalisation of young people of colour and the limits of what can be attained through acquiring formal citizenship. They questioned whether formal legal citizenship can be seen as the sole or even primary barrier preventing people from full inclusion in citizenship. This leads to questions about the very nature of contemporary citizenship under racial neoliberalism (Goldberg 2008). Solidarity and claims of migrant belonging in migrant and citizen alliances have often been based on showing how migrants are productive and contributing members of the community, with the potential to perform, or already performing, model citizenship qualities. While laudable in many ways, they still focus on the ‘deserving’ and productive citizen while neglecting to address the responsibilities and failures of the state which limit opportunities for both migrants and marginalised ‘citizens’ who may struggle or are actively prevented from fitting this model of citizenship.

Finally, in exploring undocumented young activists’ engagements with citizen activists I was also interested in the chronological narrative of struggle told in the undocumented youth movement, with their movement as the latest iteration in a long history of civil rights movements and protest movements in the USA including, for example, the Civil Rights movement, the Black Panthers, Chicano movement and the gay rights movement which had both U.S. territorial and transnational connections. It made me wonder about what is lost when we dismiss nation-state based citizenship due to its exclusionary qualities. How might such a story of ‘contribution’ and nation-state citizenship be rearticulated to an extent through a history of the nation-state told as a story of domination and as a history of struggle that is attuned to the ties migrants may have to the ‘nation’ and its peoples through colonial histories, contribution through exploitation and struggles against this?

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