11/16/2014 12:54 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2015

Challenging the "DREAMer" Narrative

When I first heard the word "DREAMer" I didn't think it was a prob­lem­atic term, nor did I think it would have a neg­a­tive impact on our move­ment. The lan­guage came from leg­is­la­tion in Wash­ing­ton and it referred to undoc­u­mented youth under 31, who came to the US under the age of 16, and had com­pleted high school with a "col­lege ready" GPA. I remem­ber being in con­ver­sa­tions with other com­mu­nity orga­niz­ers and debat­ing whether this term was appro­pri­ate for us to iden­tify with. Back in 2010 I did not know its his­tory; I just knew that it was catchy and it got us atten­tion. As I learned more about the move­ment and affil­i­ated myself with grass­roots groups doing this work across the coun­try, I learned that DREAMer was actu­ally a really prob­lem­atic term. It was coined by a white leg­is­la­tor in an attempt to cre­ate sym­pa­thy for some undoc­u­mented youth. In turn, the time the only peo­ple who were allowed to be media spokes­peo­ple were youth either in col­lege or on track to be. They were the ones cho­sen to rep­re­sent us in Congress.

If at first the DREAMer nar­ra­tive was strate­gic, then it quickly became annoy­ing. As our move­ment picked up steam, the word DREAMer became exactly what leg­is­la­tors wanted it to be - an exclu­sive term for those who are model res­i­dents and future "amer­i­cans." We began to see how quickly peo­ple were ready to throw our par­ents and "crim­i­nals" under the bus. For peo­ple who live in low income com­mu­ni­ties of color the real­ity was that most youth do not fit into the DREAMer iden­tity. And nei­ther did we.

Non­prof­its pushed a nar­ra­tive in which we had no agency in com­ing to this coun­try. So who was to blame? Our par­ents. The dreamer nar­ra­tive served as a wedge between youth who qual­ify for the DREAM Act and the rest of the com­mu­nity who didn't. This exclu­sion extended to peo­ple with crim­i­nal records, prior depor­ta­tions, and peo­ple who did not fit the age require­ment to name a few. It became more and more appar­ent that if left in the hands of "advo­cates," our human­ity would be defined by a piece of leg­is­la­tion, one that they could use for their own agenda while also doing what "advo­cates" do best: make con­ces­sions to the state.

As our move­ment evolved so too did the DREAMer. DREAMer became syn­ony­mous for "non-threatening" and "cute" in the eyes of the system.

We soon real­ized that DREAMer, instead of being some­thing empow­er­ing, set a stan­dard for undoc­u­mented youth. The expec­ta­tion was to com­plete a four year degree in com­mu­ni­ties where the sys­tem his­tor­i­cally has been set up for just a few to suc­ceed. It makes it so that in order to be con­sid­ered a DREAMer, one must pur­sue edu­ca­tion and only through demon­strat­ing an abil­ity to endure and sur­vive the insti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing can some­one become desir­able in this soci­ety. The DREAMer term adds stress to immi­grant youth who face a myr­iad of issues when attend­ing school in the United States. The pres­sure to assim­i­late, the need to learn the lan­guage, bul­ly­ing, crim­i­nal­iza­tion and achieve­ment in school, all lead many undoc­u­mented youth to fall into depres­sion and other health issues. Dur­ing our "com­ing out" of the shad­ows events I heard high school age youth express­ing a lack of moti­va­tion to share their sto­ries, feel­ing unwor­thy of recog­ni­tion because they did not have good grades.

Orga­ni­za­tions such as United We Dream and other DREAM advo­cacy orga­ni­za­tions were con­ser­v­a­tive com­pared to undoc­u­mented grass­roots strug­gle. We learned that some of those grass­roots orga­ni­za­tions push­ing the DREAMer nar­ra­tive were actu­ally led and taken over by peo­ple with papers. So it was easy to con­nect the dots, asso­ci­at­ing the DREAMer nar­ra­tive with con­ser­v­a­tive view on immigration.

Dur­ing a col­lab­o­ra­tion with one of these orga­ni­za­tions, I was shar­ing infor­ma­tion on how the Immi­grant Youth Coali­tion takes on, or selects, depor­ta­tion cam­paigns. I told them I believed that we should never turn any­one away. But I was quickly inter­rupted by an "advo­cate" who said, "What about child moles­ters and rapists? They should be deported." I was not sur­prised, but I told them that as orga­niz­ers, you orga­nize the peo­ple. You can't pick and choose who you fight for, and they can't stay in the DREAMer men­tal­ity and start pick­ing and choos­ing which group of oppressed peo­ple you fight for. When we said "Not One More Depor­ta­tion," we actu­ally meant it. If peo­ple com­mit an offense, vio­lent or not, they should face jus­tice and be held account­able by the com­mu­nity that was affected. Obvi­ously, we under­stand our crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem is unjust, but for many peo­ple, it's a bet­ter option than being deported to a place they fled to sur­vive. Chal­leng­ing the DREAMer nar­ra­tive is essen­tial to dis­man­tling the crim­i­nal­iza­tion and elit­ism found in the immi­grant rights move­ment. Many youth have seen the prob­lems with DREAMer and have actively chal­lenged it, while oth­ers like myself take offense since it shows a lack of under­stand­ing of how we live every­day as undoc­u­mented people.

In order to cre­ate a space in the move­ment for undoc­u­mented youth, we need to accept all that an undoc­u­mented per­son was, is, and could be. This means fight­ing for every­one, regard­less of their past, regard­less of their mis­takes or misfortunes.