Undocumented youth divided over how to fight back against Trump immigration clampdown

Ala Sirriyeh, Keele University

Young immigrants from across the US participated in the first act of civil disobedience by undocumented youth under the Trump administration on July 26 in Texas. After protesters sat in the street outside the state capitol building in Austin, blocking traffic, 15 undocumented young people and their allies were arrested. They were eventually released.

These protests were sparked by increased immigration enforcement against the undocumented population since the election of Donald Trump, including his pledge to end a temporary form of relief from deportation that has been available to many undocumented youth since 2012.

The protesters pledged their “renewed commitment to winning permanent protection, dignity and respect for all 11m undocumented immigrants”. They have called on other undocumented youth to follow their lead and engage in civil disobedience to defend their communities.

In response to threats faced by undocumented young people, a bipartisan DREAM Act bill was introduced to the Senate on July 20 by senators Lindsay Graham and Dick Durbin to provide eligible undocumented young people with a pathway to citizenship. To be eligible, they must have arrived in the US before the age of 18, have been in the country for at least four years, and not have criminal convictions. A version of the bill has also been introduced in the House of Representatives.

For over a decade, the US legislatures have been trying to pass a version of this DREAM Act but to no avail. When it was last introduced as a standalone bill in 2010 it passed in the House but fell five votes short of the 60 needed to be considered for final passage in the Senate.

Announcing the 2017 bill, Graham praised Donald Trump’s focus on “bad hombres” and asserted that young undocumented people were brought here “by their parents illegally”. But this perpetuates the idea that there are “good immigrants” – the Dreamers – and “bad” immigrants, their parents and those with a criminal record.

Activists divided

While several immigrant rights organisations have come out in support of the 2017 bill, the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance described it as “a huge step back for immigrant justice”, expressing concerns about “the lack of solidarity with those who continue to be scapegoated ‘criminals’”.

Some undocumented youth have voiced their intention to resist attempts to divide the undocumented population, stating they “will not throw our parents under the bus to make ourselves more deserving.” This resistance is part of a wider rejection by undocumented young immigrants of being labelled as “Dreamers” – the brightest and best who are innocent because they were “brought” to the US by their parents. Dreamers are often presented as culturally assimilated “all American” students.

Despite concerns over the label, there are still undocumented young people across the US who continue to identify as “Dreamers”. This has led to disagreements within the movement about how to respond to immigration clampdowns by the Trump administration.

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump promised to increase enforcement measures against undocumented immigrants. This included a pledge to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme, an executive order signed by Barack Obama in 2012. Since its introduction, DACA has provided nearly 800,000 undocumented young people who entered the US as children with a two-year renewable reprieve from deportation and the right to work legally.

DACA came about because of the mobilisation and civil disobedience of undocumented youth, frustrated at the lack of progress on the DREAM Act. In 2011 and 2012, they engaged in a programme of direct actions and civil disobedience, including occupying Obama’s campaign offices during the 2012 election campaign.

Rejecting the ‘Dreamer’ label

In my ongoing research on this youth movement, I have interviewed young activists in southern California about their activism and their responses to Trump’s election. Many activists have critiqued the narrative about young “Dreamers” which is exclusionary to those who have not attended college, who arrived at an older age, or who have criminal convictions. One 21-year-old “DACAmented” student who I interviewed told me that she hates the “Dreamer” label. It presents children as having no agency:

So, in other words, your parents brought you along in a criminal act, so we were criminalising our parents in the process of being a Dreamer.

A focus on students also excluded people who had not attended college. As an undocumented young activist from Los Angeles explained: “There is layers even within the undocumented people. There will be those who have bachelor degrees … and then you have the ones who don’t.”

Following critiques about the use of the term Dreamer and the sentiment behind it, the movement started to become more inclusive from 2010 onwards. Many undocumented youth organisations, especially in California, have shed the term from their organisation names, often replacing it with “immigrant youth”. Many have also refocused their efforts to organise and defend the wider undocumented community against criminalisation, detention and deportation, rather than prioritising a pathway to citizenship for those who have the best chance of being granted it.

But under Trump the shift away from the Dreamer narrative seems to have faltered.

DACA under threat

Arrests of suspected undocumented immigrants have risen by 35% nationally under the Trump administration – although they have remained relatively unchanged in southern California. In recent months, some DACA recipients have been detained or even deported.

In May, a young activist, Claudia Rueda, was detained by border patrol in Los Angeles. She was released following a campaign against her detention led by her friends.

A protest to free Claudia Rueda, an activist for immigrant youth.
Author provided., Author provided

Although DACA is still in place, the White House has not confirmed whether it will remain in the long-term. Officials from ten states have demanded Trump ends it by September 5 or they will take legal action. They argue that DACA is unlawful because it does not have statutory authorisation from the legislatures.

In response to these threats against DACA, there has been a resurgence of the Dreamer narrative, including among some undocumented young people. This can be seen in the emphasis on young people’s economic contributions, educational success and innocence in social media posts, media commentary and in proclamations by politicians.

The ConversationBut by embracing the term “Dreamer” again, differences are emerging within the movement regarding messaging and priorities in the battle ahead. As the DREAM Act comes before lawmakers, these tensions are likely to rise to the fore.

Ala Sirriyeh, Lecturer in Sociology, Keele University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


X-Men in LA


I don’t know if you saw that original movie, X-Men, in the early 2000s? There is a scene where the character Rogue makes out with her boyfriend then, all of a sudden, her boyfriend passes out because she realises when she touches people they literally all die and that’s her mutant power. And Rogue felt so alone when she had this feature about her. She didn’t know there were other mutants until she met this other person who ran away, named Logan. Then Logan and her end up being at Professor X’s University for the Gifted or something like that. They realise there are all these other freaks, mutants, me. I feel like that was my journey and being part of the immigrant rights, or like human rights, organising in Los Angeles. I first thought I was the only undocumented person.’ (Set, LA)

Last month, I arrived in Southern California to begin fieldwork for my Leverhulme project on undocumented young activism and citizenship. Since then I’ve been interviewing activists, attending rallies, workshops and other events and generally getting to know the activist and academic communities here. One of my first interviews was with Set, who has been an activist in the undocumented youth movement for several years and who I first met two years ago.

Southern California, and especially LA, is at the epicentre of the undocumented youth movement and has a rich history of immigrant rights activism. The undocumented youth movement began in the early 2000s as a campaign for a pathway to citizenship for young people through lobbying for the DREAM Act. The DREAM Act was never passed, but in 2012, President Obama introduced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) following further lobbying and direct action protests from undocumented young people. DACA provides a 2-year renewable deferral of deportation for eligible young people, and many young activists now have this status. In the early days of the movement, these young people – who had strong academic records, who had come to the United States at an early age and did not have criminal records – became commonly referred to as ‘the DREAMers’. This term has since been critiqued, and subsequently shed, by many young activists who became uncomfortable with its exclusionary elements (although it is still often used in the media, by politicians, and, also, some young activists who still find it to be an empowering term).

The activists I have spoken with so far have had different early experiences with regard to their undocumented status and their awareness of, and early engagements in, activism. Some knew they were undocumented when they were children, while others did not find out until they tried to apply to college. Some knew of the presence of undocumented people in their communities, while others, like Set, did not. Some, had grown up in communities where immigrant activism had a strong presence, indeed some had parents who had been activists. Others have told me that, for their families, activism was a ‘dirty word’ (Patty, Orange County) with families often fearing what would happen to them if they brought this kind of attention to their immigration status. Whatever their background, what is clear in all the narratives I’ve heard so far, is the sense of belonging and community that they have found in their activist networks, as Set begins to describe in the quote above. These are networks where they have been able to explore their identities, develop friendships with other young people facing similar challenges to them, and where they have gained emotional comfort and various forms of guidance, support and mentorship from each other. Through their engagement in support groups and, through these into more outwardly facing activism and organising, these young people have been able to confront frequently held feelings of shame, fear or hopelessness that they have experienced in relation to their undocumented status.

In the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, being able to draw on these communities of support has been vital. Some young people have spoken of their feelings of shock and disbelief when they heard that Trump had won. One of the first things they did was telephone other young people in their activist networks, usually those who they identified as mentors. They spoke of the comfort and reassurance they drew from these conversations. Others were not surprised at Trump’s victory and thought that many people in more privileged positions in the United States had had their eyes open to the racism that they were already all too well aware existed. They also pointed out that Obama had been the ‘Deporter in Chief’, since his administration deported more immigrants than any previous president. Therefore, Hilary Clinton had never been a popular alternative, since under her rule the deportations of their families and communities would likely have continued as they had done under Obama’s rule. However, while Set held this view, they recognised the growing fear they, their family and friends were now feeling four months into the Trump administration.

For DACA recipients, Trump’s election had also led to a more direct threat to their own individual welfare, since on his election trail Trump had vowed to end Obama’s executive orders, including DACA. To date DACA remains. However, since Trump’s election, several DACA recipients have been detained. On the 10th of February Daniel Ramirez Medina became the first DACA recipient to be taken into immigration detention. A few days after I spoke with Set, the story emerged of a young man who became the first known case of a DACA recipient to be deported. USA Today broke the story that 23-year-old Juan Manuel Montes, was deported from the Southern California town of Calexico on the 17th of February. He had been walking to get a taxi when a Customs and Border Patrol officer stopped him and asked to see his ID. Juan had left his ID in his friend’s car and so could not prove his DACA status. He was taken into custody, from where CBP officers walked him across the border into Mexico later that night. On February 19th, he was arrested and deported again after he was caught crossing the border wall back into the United States. The Department of Homeland Security stated that Juan had DACA, but that he had violated that status when he left the country, since DACA recipients must be approved by the federal government (receive Advance Parole) before traveling outside the country. Juan’s attorneys countered that the only reason he had left the country was because he was deported!

Despite these threats, many undocumented activists continue to speak out. At the LA May Day rally some activists marched wearing t-shirts which declared, ‘I am undocumented’. Last Thursday, at a rally for trans womxn detainees being held in Santa Ana detention centre (Orange County), undocumented young activists marched through the city’s downtown district to the detention centre and police station, bringing traffic to a halt and chanting ‘undocumented, unafraid, queer and unashamed!’

However, some people I have spoken with, while still actively involved in organising, have sought to keep a lower public profile, expressing anxiety about what a Trump administration will bring. Meanwhile, as Set observed, many people in the wider undocumented people are feeling afraid. They said,

My mum actually had a dream. She actually started taking Uber and Lyft more because she had a dream that ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] was on the bus and I feel like that impact in her psyche is so visceral that she changed her commute pattern to go to work. Even when I take the train there is law enforcement and ICE in Union station Downtown in LA so I feel like under the Trump administration that fear is really, that reality is posing a lot of challenges.

In my next post, I’ll reflect on how people have been organising in the face of the Trump administration and in the context of the fears and uncertainties that are being felt in undocumented communities.

Broken families: what happens to couples torn apart by immigration rules

Couples that I’ve spoken to who have been split apart by Britain’s immigration system are facing a huge legal, financial and emotional burden that is putting real stress on their family lives.

Irene Clennell, a woman who has lived in the UK for nearly 30 years and is married to a British man, was deported to Singapore on February 26 after falling foul of strict income requirements for a spousal visa. Her case has caused widespread anger and a crowdfunding effort to pay for her appeal has raised over £24,000.

In July 2012, new entry requirements were introduced making it much harder for UK citizens and residents to get their partner from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) to join them in the UK. These included the raising of the minimum income requirement that the UK-based partner, also known as a sponsor, had to meet from £5,500 to £18,600 per year.

On February 22, after a number of families challenged this through the courts, the Supreme Court ruled that the minimum income requirement was not against the law. However, the court also found that neither the “best interests” of the child, nor alternative assets beyond the sponsoring partner’s income, were being duly considered. From now on, this means that the Home Office will need to address the lack of protection currently given to children’s welfare and may need to consider including third party sources of funding, such as financial assistance from relatives and savings, in addition to the sponsor’s income.

The Home Office’s own impact assessment projected the £18,600 minimum income requirement would impact between 13,600 and 17,800 people a year. But the number of those affected to date is unknown. Analysis in 2016 by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants indicated that 41% of the British population would not qualify under the new income requirement.

Although the ruling brings hope for families with children, many people have experienced considerable hardship as a result of the rules and are likely to continue to do so. In 2015, I interviewed people affected by the minimum income requirement as part of an ongoing study about the experiences of people in relationships with a partner living overseas. They explained how these rules had affected their emotional and financial well-being. One man observed that they were “being targeted for being working class or lower working class because if you are a millionaire another law applies.”

Big financial burden

Ironically, despite being affected because of their low incomes, one consequence of the rules was to increase the financial burden placed on couples. Couples had to maintain two residences – one in the UK and one abroad – and UK partners spent significant sums on travel overseas to visit partners not allowed entry to the UK (although not all could afford to do this). There were also legal bills from applications to reunite with partners. Altogether the financial burden was considerable, as another interviewee explained:

We had had enough, enough of trying to do this, of lawyers charging us all the money we had. All the credit cards maxed out. There was just nothing we could … we were backed into a corner.

Everyone had suffered mental or physical health difficulties. Another man I interviewed, who has a serious long-term health conditions, reunited with this wife and step-children in her country of origin, Uganda. But he had been unable to access the medication he needed there affordably and had to return to the UK in poor health.


Others spoke of the mental health impact of being separated from their partners. One man said that mentally, he was a “broken man” and that he didn’t see “where the future is leading me”. One woman said that she had become “highly strung” as a result of the rules. “Any little thing makes me stressed, makes me panic, makes me overthink things.”

Everyone I spoke to had used video-calling services to stay in contact. However, this was not a substitute for face-to-face contact and there were challenges in communicating this way. One man told me that Skype calls were not always of good quality and there could be concerns about discussing the finer points of something over a dodgy internet connection.

The Surinder Singh route

Faced with pressures of living apart, some families opted to reunite in another EU country before making an attempt to return to the UK at a later date through what’s called the Surinder Singh route.

In the 1992 Surinder Singh case, the EU Court of Justice ruled that under EU law Singh – an Indian national – was entitled to live in the UK with his wife, a British national. This was because she had previously exercised her right to free movement by working in Germany with her husband. The court ruled that an EU citizen who has travelled to another member state to work and returns to their home country has the right to be accompanied by their partner and children, whatever their nationality.

One man I interviewed, who is self-employed, decided to reunite with his partner in Ireland in 2015, even though this lost him business clients. His wife was able to obtain a visa to join him there. They have to reside there for at least three months before they can come back to the UK.

Others I spoke to also followed the Singh route and moved to another EU country as a way for their partner to eventually join them in Britain. One person I followed up has since been able to move back to the UK with their partner. But it’s not possible for everyone affected by the rules to follow this route, because they may not have the jobs, language skills and other resources that enable them to relocate to another EU member country. In light of the 2016 Brexit vote, this route to family reunification is now in jeopardy.

Transformations in labour markets and migration patterns, and complex residency and citizenship rules, mean families are increasingly being formed across nationality, immigration and citizenship boundaries. In both the UK and now in the US, immigration policies are leading to family separation. In order to protect people’s rights to family life, immigration policies must take account of the needs of mixed status families.

This article was originally published on The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/broken-families-what-happens-to-couples-torn-apart-by-immigration-rules-73546

Leverhulme project launch – Undocumented Young People in the USA, Political Activism and Citizenship

In September 2015 I visited Los Angeles to conduct some research about the undocumented youth movement for a book I have been writing about emotions and immigration policy. While I was there I began working on a bid for a Leverhulme Research Fellowship to develop some of this work further. Through meeting with activists and academics I learned more about the inspiring work that had been taking place over the last decade within the undocumented youth movement. It was also while I was in LA that I watched Donald Trump set out his anti-immigration platform in televised debates with other Republican presidential hopefuls. This month I began work on the 13 month Leverhulme Research Fellowship that was a result of that bid developed in LA. Meanwhile, as I write this post, I reflect on the fact that in a few hours  Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States after fighting a campaign that was centred on a virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric. More than ever I’m thinking about how people can and do resist the hostile and exclusionary immigration policies that seem to be such a central and enduring feature of contemporary politics. In this post I’ll briefly set out what I’m going to be working on over the next few months during the project.

In this project I will be exploring undocumented young people’s pathways through political activism and how this has shaped and been shaped by their understandings and experiences of ‘citizenship. In the early 2000s the undocumented youth movement emerged through a campaign for the DREAM Act, which, if passed, would have provided a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented young people who had arrived in the USA as children. Despite considerable political support for the DREAM Act, the legislation has failed to be passed several times, most recently in 2010. However, facing ongoing pressures to do something for these young people, in 2012 President Obama issued an executive order called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). This has given 714, 546 undocumented young people a temporary 2-year renewable deferral on deportation (Zong and Baracova 2016). As documented recently in the Twitter hashtag #WithDaca, DACA has enabled recipients to attend college, work and build their careers, get driving licences and have considerably more freedom to go about their everyday life in many other ways. This is now in jeopardy as during his presidential campaign Trump  vowed that he would end Obama’s executive orders, including DACA.

Over the years since the undocumented youth movement began it has become increasingly more autonomous and youth-led (Nicholls 2013). Meanwhile, following critiques of exclusionary aspects of the ‘Dreamer’ messaging (based on the innocent, contributing, ‘all American kid’ narrative), there has been an evolution in campaign messaging and a shift in some of the movement’s key priorities and goals. There is now greater recognition of heterogenous identities within the undocumented population and the particular experiences of, for example, queer and black undocumented people (Terriquez 2015). There is also increased focus on defending communities against detention and deportation (Patler and Gonzales 2015) and critiquing the criminal justice system, rather than prioritising a campaign for citizenship for those who are most able to enact the conditionalities required for this.

Through a southern California case study (interviewing undocumented young activists), I will be examining young activists’ narratives of entry into, and pathways through, political activism. I will explore how their understandings and experiences of citizenship shape, and are shaped by, political activism in the movement. This study looks beyond formal, legal and nation-state notions of citizenship and, instead, is informed by the ‘acts of citizenship’ theoretical approach (Isin2008). This approach examines how citizenship is mediated between lived experiences and formal entitlements by focussing on moments when, regardless of status, people constitute themselves as citizens. This enables us to consider how people define citizenship and how people enact citizenship and ‘become claimants of rights and responsibilities, under surprising conditions’ (Isin 2008: 17).

More specifically these are the objectives of the study: To explore how and why young people became involved in the undocumented youth movement and pathways through the movement, including groups/streams of the movement they became active in (e.g. undocuqueer, undocublack, campus or community based groups). 2) To examine young activists’ normative understandings of the concept of ‘citizenship’ and what it means to act and be recognised as a ‘citizen’. 3) To explore how identities and experiences they bring into the movement and their understandings of ‘citizenship’ have shaped their pathway of political activism within the movement. 4) To assess how their experiences within the movement have shaped their understandings of citizenship and the extent to which they regard themselves as acting as, and being, citizens….and now….5) To examine how the election of Donald Trump is shaping young people’s current engagement with political activism.

Restrictive immigration and citizenship policies across the Global North mean that young people who arrived in the 90s and 2000s during a growth in international migration have grown up into adulthood in these nation states yet legally remain ‘noncitizens’. This study will, I hope, produce insights on how and why undocumented young people became, and could become, politically mobilised in the USA. However potential insights for other Global North countries, such as the UK, which share some similar contexts (restrictive immigration policies, populations of young people with precarious immigration statuses). I would like to develop knowledge about facilitators and barriers to political participation and what opportunities and impacts such inclusion has on young people’s sense of citizenship and belonging. The grant also incorporates a workshop which will be held towards the end of the fellowship and will be organised for academic and non-academic stakeholders, focussing on race, migration, young people’s contemporary political activism in the USA and UK. (Please do get in touch if you like to be involved and have ideas about what you would like this to include!) This will be used to share the study findings and enable participants to explore the relationship between citizenship and political action and both existing and potential transnational links between young activists across these two states.

I will be blogging about the project and more broadly on the topics of immigration, refugees and young people. You will also be able to find publications and other outputs from this and other projects on my new website (please bear with me as I add some more content to this over the next few weeks). Please do get in touch if you would like to find out more and have a chat. Contact: a.sirriyeh@keele.ac.uk Twitter: @AlaSirriyeh.

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?