The picture was classic fan meets superstar backstage. Lady Gaga in hot-pink lipstick, dark shades and a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, “Pass the Dream Act,” stood flanked by two men. One had a serious grip on the singer’s waist.
But for those fighting for immigration relief and against state-level attempts to vigorously enforce immigration law, the photo taken at an August 2010 Lady Gaga concert in Arizona and widely shared online was a sign that young undocumented students and their core cause had scored a major victory, maybe even entered the mainstream.
Young people advocating the Dream Act, like the men pictured with Lady Gaga, are at the center of one of the most effective and dynamic social movements in recent history, sociologists and political analysts said. Young, undocumented immigrants steeped in the language and culture of American protest were the gas in the activist machine that pushed the Obama administration to create an administrative path for temporary immigration relief, known as deferred action, in June.
“I think lots of people want to take credit for that victory, but it really belongs to the students themselves,” said Roberto G. Gonzales, a University of Chicago sociologist who has spent the last 10 years tracking the lives of young, undocumented children as they grow into adulthood. “Most of what we witnessed last week would not have happened if it were not for this impressive movement of young people.”
The Dream Act, introduced as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, by Utah Republican Sen. Orin Hatch in 2001, has bumped around both houses of Congress, but several times has failed to become law. Versions have changed and Democrats have become the primary supporters, but most versions would create a path to either legal immigrant status or citizenship and eligibility for in-state college tuition rates for young, undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
The deferred action directive announced by President Barack Obama in June gave many members of this same group -- the 1.7 million young, undocumented immigrants called Dreamers -- the chance to apply for temporary, renewable two-year deportation relief and work permits.
In the years since the Dream Act was first introduced in 2001, student activists have filled the leadership ranks of organizations staging sit-ins and hunger strikes, rallies and marches aiming to push elected officials to pass the Dream Act, open state colleges and universities to undocumented immigrants, and expand eligibility for in-state tuition rates and driver’s licenses.
“I think its fair to say, that in a lot of cases, they see themselves as part of the circle of membership in the United States,” said Gonzales. “They’ve had these American experiences and relationships and attachments in ways that give them, I think really, really strong claims to belonging in this country. But the broad question -- do they have the right to have rights. Well that’s highly contested and it remains.”
Some have come to focus on political lobbying and building connections. Others populate the cornucopia of Twitter feeds, YouTube channels, websites and Facebook walls, where calls for the Dream Act and related measures are a persistent theme. And still more are engage in civil disobedience that they said they see as essential for the movement's next chapter.
“I would most definitely consider myself a student of civil rights history,” said Marco Saavedra, a Dream Act activist, leader and college student who helped to stage a sit-in inside an Obama campaign office in June and has spent time in an immigrant detention facility.
Saavedra has actively encouraged other young, undocumented people to “out” themselves and their immigration status at public events. And he is connected to a growing effort to stage protests that intentionally lead to arrest and time in an immigrant detention facility. While there, activists gather the stories of people who, based on the administration’s stated policies, should not be detained or deported.
“We’re not trying to be quiet,” said Saavedra. “Silence and good behavior in the face of injustice never changed anything. We’re trying to be use non-violent protest to say we can’t continue with the daily fear of deportation. We wouldn’t allow public officials to keep operating as if there was nothing wrong.”
Saavedra said he has studied closely the writings and life of Martin Luther King Jr. Malcolm X and civil rights organizations including the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality. He rarely shies from an opportunity to talk about the Dream movement online.
Tactics such as those embraced by Saavedra helped connect one of the country’s best-known undocumented immigrants to the Dreamer movement.
In 2009, Jose Antonio Vargas, Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked as a senior contributing editor for The Huffington Post and has written for magazines that include The New Yorker, was enjoying what he described the best professional year of his life. But Vargas had a secret. He was an undocumented immigrant. One day, sitting as his New York office computer, headphones on, Vargas watched a video of Pacheco and other Dreamers talking about the rising tide of deportations.
These young people were trying to change the situation, he thought. They had given the slogan, “undocumented and unafraid,” meaning. Dreamers often talked about the date that they “came out,” and pulled hard on the space between emotions, values and laws by telling stories about their lives as undocumented immigrants and about their struggles that made them and their humanity hard to ignore.
After considerable thought, Vargas wrote a 4,000-word New York Times Magazine story about how he discovered his own legal status as a teenager, then built a life and career under the shadow of his secret immigration status. He also set up an organization committed to changing the national conversation around immigration.
The story was one of the most-shared on Google for two weeks, said Vargas, though Google could not confirm the story's history. A New York Times spokeswoman said Vargas' story was the most-viewed story on the news organization's website for two days.
In June, Time magazine published a cover story about Vargas with an image of 35 undocumented immigrants situated between the words “We are American” and “… just not legally.”
Days after the president announced the deferred action directive and its relief for young, undocumented immigrants, a series of polls found broad public support for the move.