EXCERPT:The DREAMers: How The Undocumented Youth Movement Transformed The Immigrant Rights Debate

EXCERPT:<i>The DREAMers: How The Undocumented Youth Movement Transformed The Immigrant Rights Debate</i>

Following the government shutdown debacle, Congress and the White House are planning to push forward on the president’s next agenda item: comprehensive immigration reform. After a bipartisan immigration reform bill passed the Senate in June, the House will certainly be the biggest obstacle. DREAMers — a movement of young, undocumented immigrants brought to the United States at a young age — have re-energized the immigration reform debate. They’ve forced Americans to put a face to the term “undocumented” or “illegal,” and are aggressively advocating for the right to stay in the only home they know. 

Certain Tea Party Republican leaders have made numerous derogatory comments aimed at a particular group in the very core of this immigration debate. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), a central voice in the debate, said in an interview that he would be opposed to a path to citizenship for DREAMers. And who could forget Congressman Steve King (R-IA) accusing DREAMers of smuggling marijuana across the border, saying, “they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes”?

The following excerpt from The DREAMers: How The Undocumented Youth Movement Transformed The Immigrant Rights Debate by Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam Walter J. Nicholls details not only the importance and prominence of the DREAMer movement, but why it is so critical that Americans stop stigmatizing this group and support its efforts. 

You can purchase the book here.

“We Are All Human!” This prominent slogan captures the essence of the immigrant rights movement. At its core, this is a struggle over who should be considered fully “human” and how those deemed “less-than-humans” should be treated by the government and members of the national community.

Anti-immigrant forces justify stripping undocumented immigrants of basic rights on the grounds that they are less than truly human beings. They produce discourses and arguments that deprive immigrants of the “humanity” needed to be considered eligible for basic rights in the country. For example, Hector Tobar of the Los Angeles Times highlighted some of the comments made by readers of his op-ed columns on immigration. One reader argues, “‘Illegals are like fleas on a dog. . . . By definition they are a class of criminals and you [Tobar] romanticize them. Perhaps we can starve them out with no benefits.’” This rhetoric reveals a logic common of anti-immigrant reasoning: undocumented immigrants are a criminal and parasitic population, and because of this, they need to be denied basic rights and starved out of the country. Failure to do this because of “romantic” feelings places the national host at risk of being devoured by this outside force. Reducing immigrants to this less-than-human threat makes them ineligible for rights and subject to inhuman and despotic forms of repression (“starve them out”). If weak and romantic immigrant sympathizers reject these arguments, the default response of anti-immigrant advocates is some variation on “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” This retort denies recognition of basic human rights to undocumented immigrants because of their status. They cannot speak, make claims, or argue for rights in public because of their “illegality.”

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These sentiments have helped shape government polices over the last twenty years. The federal government has introduced countless measures to militarize borders, monitor “illegals,” restrict access to basic rights and fundamental services, roll out infrastructure to deport hundreds and thousands of people on a yearly basis, and recruit frontline service providers to assist in enforcement measures. National and local restrictions have been designed for the purposes of creating an uninhabitable environment that would “starve” undocumented immigrants out of the country (that is, “attrition through enforcement”). As rights are systematically stripped away, undocumented immigrants in certain parts of the country are left with no protections from the arbitrary powers of the state and the tyrannical will of the majority. In states like Arizona, Georgia, and Alabama, they are reduced to “bare life,” with most legal protections suspended for this population. These outsiders are forced to rely on the “civility and ethical sense” of individuals to provide protection from a majoritarian and a revanchist state.
When undocumented immigrants face this level of hostility, they do not necessarily accept their fate as less-than-human subjects. We have learned, through the case of the DREAMers, how they struggle against remarkable odds to reconquer basic rights that have been stripped away over the years. As dehumanizing discourses (“flees on a dog,” “illegal”) have provided a pretext to justify the rollback of rights,  immigrant rights activists have needed to demonstrate their humanity as the basis to assert their claims for fundamental rights. If stripping rights from immigrants is made possible by denying their humanity, acquiring rights becomes possible by demonstrating that the immigrant is in fact human. Achieving legitimacy for rights claims has therefore depended on gaining recognition for immigrants as truly human beings.

Demonstrating common humanness has not driven these stigmatized immigrants to embrace universal discourses, principles, and attributes. Their chances of gaining recognition as humans improved when they demonstrated identification with national values and norms. Revealing one’s belonging and identification with the nation is one of the only ways in which stigmatized immigrants can reveal their humanity. For the DREAMers, this was demonstrated by the themes repeatedly stressed in their public claims. They have been framed as “de facto” Americans who cannot be held legally responsible for the act of crossing the border. They are just as American as any other, and because of this, they are rights-deserving human beings. The battle of the immigrant rights movement is about gaining recognition for undocumented immigrants as human beings, but the way in which people gain this recognition is by demonstrating belonging, identification, and contributions to the national community. The human being as a figure imbued with inalienable rights therefore continues to be mediated by the nation-state.

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The National Limits of Human Rights

There has been a proliferation of theoretical writings on human rights, social justice, and equality. Intellectuals have long sought to theorize unambiguous and transcendent definitions of equality and justice, devise criteria to distribute rights equally, and design institutions to ensure equality and justice over extended periods of time. These theories are designed to function as beacons of light that guide activists through the fog of everyday struggles. Without the guiding light of high theory, activists would be derailed by particularistic concerns, short-term interests, and co-optation by the powers that be. Theoretical schemas of “equality” and “justice” are therefore supposed to infuse particular battles with broader meanings and direction.

These kinds of theoretical writings provide nice reminders of what could be done, but they serve as poor guides for producing just worlds because they ignore the limits imposed by the persistence of national political communities. This study reveals that rights are constituted, managed, and distributed by the nation-state. By definition, such political communities are closed, employ insider-outsider categories to distribute rights, and exclude outsiders as a necessary means to ensure their reproduction. The essence of this political community pivots on maintaining the lines separating members from interlopers. The nation-state may proclaim equality for all, but equality of rights is reserved only for its core members. The exclusionary nature of the nation-state, therefore, makes it an entity that is by definition unequal and unjust. Theories of rights and equality are certainly thought provoking, but they serve little purpose as political guides when they fail to take into account the real politics of the nation-state.

Undocumented immigrants and their allies are certainly motivated by a strong sense of justice. Principles of equality and justice drive these outsiders to call for an extension of rights. However, rights advocates mobilize in a context in which equality, justice, and rights are shaped by a national political community. They certainly express their claims and arguments through a discourse of equality and justice, but these concepts are grounded in national values and norms. The “wrong” they are calling attention to is based on the national community’s definition of justice, not universal principles. For outsiders to gain recognition from “established” members, they must articulate a message of injustice that coheres with the national community’s particularistic vision of equality, fairness, and justice. They must celebrate a nation’s particular notions of justice and fairness and then assert that the exclusion of a certain group is morally wrong because it violates core national principles. The situation of undocumented youths was a wrong because the youths played according to the “rules of the game” and they were still punished for decisions that were “no fault of their own.” These are strongly American assertions of justice and fairness. Demonstrating that an injustice has been done results from acts, struggles, and statements that ultimately celebrate exclusionary national moralities. This helps to reinforce the normative bonds of the nation rather than unravel them.
In addition to reinforcing national norms and moralities, the struggle for equal rights produces new inequalities and injustices that are typically not anticipated by rights activists or their supporters. The established political community is by definition closed, and access to it depends on whether an outsider can sufficiently demonstrate identification with its values and norms. This means that those people with the finest cultural and social attributes (good, productive, and “normal” people) are best placed to make an argument that a wrong has been done. Outsiders are subsequently stratified from most to least deserving of “equal” rights on the basis of their social and cultural attributes. Those considered most deserving face the greatest likelihood of gaining recognition as equal human beings while those who are considered least deserving face the greatest likelihood of being brutally repressed by the state and spurned by natives. No matter how brilliant their theories of equality or committed they are to a just world, equal rights advocates produce new hierarchies, inequalities, and closures because of the limits on the distribution of rights imposed by the nation-state.

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In the case of the immigrant rights movement in the United States, the DREAMers assumed the most prominent position in the undocumented immigrant community because of their abilities to publicly demonstrate their fit in the national community. Their ability to demonstrate such a fit has convinced important segments of the public that an injustice has been committed against this particular group. Moreover, the ways in which they developed an argument that a wrong had been done speaks to a specifically American notion of justice. While this has not yet resulted in the passage of the DREAM Act, it has led the White House to introduce a new and exceptional measure to grant this group administrative relief from deportations. At the other end of the spectrum, undocumented immigrants who have criminal records are placed at the bottom of the immigrant hierarchy, with few activists willing to argue that they deserve full recognition as rights-deserving human beings. Progressive antienforcement organizations have argued against Secure Communities not because it violates the rights of all undocumented immigrants (criminals and innocents), but because it targets innocent immigrants along with “truly dangerous” criminals. They argue that Secure Communities is a blunt instrument and cannot sufficiently distinguish between “true” criminals and “good” law-abiding immigrants. The default assumption is that criminals may be less deserving of full rights. This particular struggle for equal rights has resulted in the production of new inequalities and injustices, with undocumented immigrants ranked hierarchically according to their cultural and social attributes.

Feelings of justice are important drivers of these struggles. Activists are moved to struggle because they believe that the existing system produces inequalities and that such inequalities are fundamentally wrong. However, the exclusionary nature of national communities sets up real limits on what can actually be done while simultaneously producing new inequalities that had not been anticipated before. When faced with these new inequalities, equal rights advocates may adjust their strategies to become more inclusive (for example, the most recent cycle of DREAMers’ mobilization), but many may also recognize the creation of new inequalities (such as the banishment of criminal immigrants) as an unfortunate but necessary compromise. In spite of the extremely good intentions of activists and their commitment to equal and just societies, the reality of fighting for equality in exclusionary nation-states necessarily results in the reproduction of certain existing injustices and the creation of new, unanticipated ones.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can purchase the full book here.

Excerpts from The DREAMers: How The Undocumented Youth Movement Transformed The Immigrant Rights Debate by Walter J. Nicholls. Copyright © 2013 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University. All rights reserved. Published by Stanford University Press in hardcover, paperback, and electronic formats. www.sup.org

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