We the Dreamers

Josefina Vázquez Mota




The book by Josefina Vázquez Mota, We the DREAMers: Life Stories of Visionary Young Undocumented Immigrants, is a love letter to some of the most inspired leaders and activists of our time. Significantly, more than a decade ago, former President Vicente Fox referred to Mexicans residing abroad as “national heroes.” Then president of the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, Dr. Jorge Santibáñez, corrected him by saying they were instead, “actors in a national tragedy.” The massive migration of Mexicans to the United States in the 1990s serves as a backdrop to the story told in We the DREAMers, the moment when many Mexicans decided to try their luck on the other side of the border, fleeing the economic crisis at home. Those Mexicans are, in the words of one of the mothers quoted in this book, “the original dreamers.”

Lacking the channels to legally migrate, they took their chances in the most dangerous crossing: by land. Many carried their belongings with them in precious bundles tied up in cloth, led by a “trustworthy” coyote or taken across the border with a passport belonging to a cousin or neighbor. Most of them found work and began to invest in a life in the United States. The years went by. Without the opportunity to legalize their status, they stayed on, paradoxically trapped by a borderline designed to exclude them. No one imagined that thirty years would pass after the 1986 amnesty (Immigration Reform and Control Act) and there would still be no place to wait in line, or any way to get “papers.” For heads of family, this prolonged limbo lasted more than they expected, but it was not completely surprising. When they migrated, they knew the risks they were taking and the precariousness of working “under the table” or “off the books.” Generally their employers didn’t care about their status, because there was plenty of work for everyone. They raised their children, however, with different and new expectations, aspirations that could never have been imagined in the towns and villages they came from: “work hard and you’ll be able to go to college; you can become a professional; you’ll be able to get ahead.” They instilled in their children an ethos based on a meritocracy of hard work, perseverance, and diligence. Their children, for the most part, began to excel. Studies such as the brilliant book by Angela Valenzuela, Subtractive Schooling, tell us that those who migrate as children often surpass their contemporaries born in the United States. This is what Dr. Robert Smith, professor at the City University of New York, calls “the immigrant family deal”; when parents say to their kids: “I’ve sacrificed everything for you to get ahead, so you don’t have to do the work that I do; I work for you to study.”

However, the deal is not always honored. Despite hard work, desire, and dedication, many young people, an entire generation born in Mexico and raised in the United States, realized they did not have papers and that without them, they were not going to be able to go to university, to receive financial aid, or to work in their field of study. Faced with this obstacle, some graduated from high school and went on to college, and continued, still without options, to master’s degrees, medical or law school, doctorates … Others, discouraged, dropped out and took on the same jobs as their parents, washing dishes or making pizzas. Some, given their bilingual ability, found work as managers or supervisors in the same factories or restaurants where their parents worked. The United States did not fulfill its part of the bargain: the emphasis on hard work was twisted and used as a tool against immigrants. Anti-immigrant sentiment in the country grew to shocking and offensive levels. Frustrated, many young people began to devote their energies to collective action, to activism, and a nationwide movement was born.

The proposal for the DREAM Act bill (Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act) was presented to Congress every year from 2000 to 2010. Designed as a path to legalization, specifically for young students, it would protect them from deportation and give them a path to citizenship. Unfortunately, it was never passed. Wearing T-shirts with the words “undocumented, unafraid and blameless,” the young people came out from the shadows in Chicago in 2010, openly declaring their status and promoting action on a national level. They wagered they would be safer out in the open than hidden in the shadows. Many proudly wore their graduation robes, to draw attention to their good grades and academic qualifications as another reason to give them a path to legalize their status. But the merit-based discourse began to work against them. The same legislators who backed the DREAM Act sought to deport the parents of these students, saying the young people did not break the law because they were brought as children, but the adults had violated it. And so, the dreamers were characterized as innocents, but their parents were criminals. Some young people began to reject the merit-based discourse and the DREAM Act itself, making a call for a legalization of all undocumented individuals and promoting the end of arrests and deportation under the Ni uno Más (Not1More) campaign. They refused to criminalize their parents. They rejected the idea that their parents had broken the law, whereas they were innocent. They chanted: “No human being is illegal!”

Their tactics became bolder: crossing the border into Mexico and going back over it, asking for permission to “go home.” They even infiltrated detention centers and held sit-ins in the street interlocking their arms to block buses taking immigrants to these centers. They also occupied President Obama’s campaign offices and it seems he listened to them. After making a veiled call for activism, when his spokesperson Cecilia Muñoz, former director of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), explained the president executes the law and only the legislature can change it, Obama began to explore the option of an executive action. On a national level, activists demanded he use his authority, insisting the president could halt the deportations and detentions with the flourish of his pen. Finally, in 2012 President Obama announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA: protection from deportation, permission to work and to have access to driver’s licenses for immigrants who crossed the border before the age of sixteen and who had not yet turned thirty-one.

Despite the fact this meant a victory for activists, many responded with caution. Many were excluded: those who were not in school or had left it, those who were older or younger than the ages mentioned, those who had fallen into the criminal justice system, and more importantly, their parents. Many were afraid to apply, wrongly thinking it was a trap, that they would be deported, or that whoever succeeded Obama would use the DACA registry as a list of deportable individuals. Nevertheless, many trusted it and requested entry into the program, and for the first time many of those documented in DACA could work “on the books” and in the professions they studied; they could drive and stop fearing the threa

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