Chapter 1: Who Gets to Dream?

Who Gets to Dream?

When most people think of undocumented immigrants, chances are they think of Donald Trump.

Which makes a twisted kind of sense. The man captured the attention of an entire country when he started off his presidential campaign railing against undocumented immigrants, and has made a name for himself as a presidential candidate spouting off hateful drivel. It’s been a ratings boon for networks, a rallying cry for conservatives and self-congratulatory bonanza for liberals that have taken to Facebook to bash him.

It also indicates the massive blind spot this country has toward undocumented individuals and their experiences. The fact that a man who has literally no expertise in the area has managed to sustain a presidential campaign off of this issue with nothing but caricatures and fearmongering is symptomatic of a greater national ignorance.

The fact that a man who has literally no expertise in the area has managed to sustain a presidential campaign off of this issue with nothing but caricatures and fearmongering is symptomatic of a greater national ignorance.

The purpose of this project was to illuminate the root of the issue that has allowed men like Trump to inhabit the national conversation about immigration. When reporting started nearly 11 months ago, the idea was to address the Daily Bruin’s own blind spot when it comes to reporting on undocumented students and their daily realities at the University of California and around the country. As the months have progressed and immigration has become a focal point of the presidential campaign, it now appears more necessary than ever to produce an accurate description of what it means to be undocumented in the United States.

What follows is the first of three columns designed to illuminate some of the most pressing problems for undocumented immigrants today. These words are not meant to speak for undocumented individuals in any capacity; rather, consider this an introduction to a community that is rarely meaningfully engaged by the mainstream media, but vital to any conversations about our future as a country.

For undocumented students, advocacy isn’t just about obtaining better resources or a pathway to citizenship; it’s also about securing the future of their friends and families. Yet, right now, many advocates at the UC and elsewhere find that the general population seems to care much more about the success of a select group of undocumented immigrants than about the group overall.

This tunnel vision can be attributed to a narrative that has developed around these students as that of the “good immigrants.” As the story goes, these students are merely a merely product of their circumstances, the collateral damage of their parents’ immoral decisions years ago. They are young and ambitious, and have overcome long odds to become productive members of society. And by this logic, it’s them alone who deserve help.

“It’s a way of picking out what’s this idealized portion of the immigrant population, and doing everything for them, and leaving everyone (else) behind,” Vlad Stoicescu-Ghica

This thinking directly plays into the corrosive “good” versus “bad” narrative that has been codified into two significant pieces of government action that were designed to help undocumented individuals: the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act – or DREAM Act – and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. The DREAM Act was originally proposed in 2001 and would have provided conditional residency to high school graduates who entered the U.S. before their 16th birthday. Those that went on to serve in the military or completed at least two years of higher education would be eligible for permanent residency.

Throughout the following decade, many different versions of the bill would be tried and tested, but never passed in Congress. President Barack Obama later pushed through some of the features in his executive action in 2012. That policy, known as DACA, provided a renewable two-year deferment period and a work permit for nearly 1.2 million undocumented individuals in the United States. Essentially, DACA pushed those protected to the back of line, ensuring that no action to deport them would be taken. This is far from a sure thing – since it is an executive action and not a law, the protections can be revoked by any president that comes after Obama. At the UC, a majority of undocumented students are protected by DACA.

Yet national attention orbits around this small sliver of young immigrants while implicitly condemning the others. That 1.2 million, generally referred to as “DREAMers,” represents only 11 percent of the nearly 11.4 million undocumented individuals who lived in the United States in 2012. This focus on DREAMers, compounded with negative sentiment toward other immigrants, isn’t inherently the fault of DACA or the DREAM Act, but rather comes as a result of the implicit biases against undocumented people held by a large chunk of the general population.

“It’s a way of picking out what’s this idealized portion of the immigrant population, and doing everything for them, and leaving everyone (else) behind,” said Vlad Stoicescu-Ghica, a fifth-year political science student and co-chair for Improving Dreams, Equality, Access and Success – an undocumented student support and advocacy group at UCLA.

Which means that efforts like the DREAM Act do little to assist the undocumented population. Failing to take into account the entirety of this community leads to ineffective solutions that perpetuate a national culture of insensitivity and mistrust of immigrants.

Country of origin

Undocumented individuals by country of origin

Data from the Department of Homeland Security.

The impetus to fix these changes falls on the shoulders of both lawmakers and voters. Politicians at the local, state and federal levels must recognize that creating legislation that assists only a minority of undocumented immigrants does nothing but kick the can down the road. On the flip side, ignorance should not be bliss for voters; in fact, it’s more important than ever that those who intend to participate in their community and national elections take a hard look at their assumptions and take the time to actually engage with the undocumented community.

At the UC, the burden falls on students and the administration to check their assumptions when considering how to best help undocumented students.

To do that, we have to first understand where many undocumented individuals are coming from. “A lot of us are able to be here because of our parents,” Stoicescu-Ghica said. “I come from a single-parent household, my mom worked like crazy for me to able to get this far to go school.

“(The DREAM Act and DACA) creates a conflict within us personally. How can I advocate for myself when my parents are at home living this really shitty and difficult life?”

Stoicescu-Ghica also noted that many undocumented students at the UC work. In his case, he estimated he worked 20 hours a week, the maximum amount allowed by UCLA during the academic year, in order to send money home. Other working undocumented students expressed similar sentiments, he said.

This notion of a shared sacrifice runs deep within the undocumented community. It’s a huge part of why any efforts to draw arbitrary lines and tiers between undocumented individuals is met with derision; to them, survival is a communal effort.

“(The DREAM Act and DACA) creates a conflict within us personally. How can I advocate for myself when my parents are at home living this really shitty and difficult life?” Vlad Stoicescu-Ghica

The harms caused by this narrative rift aren’t just anecdotal. For DACA students, this implicit condemnation of their friends and families has tangible consequences. A 2015 report by UCLA found in a survey of 909 undocumented students that almost 90 percent of those who are protected by DACA worry about their friends and family being detained. And that worry translates into higher stress – in the same report, UCLA found that 36.7 percent of undocumented female participants and 28.5 percent of undocumented male participants faced anxiety levels high enough to be medically classified as a disorder.Viewed with these statistics, it’s clear that DACA, while helpful, comes with a price.

By the numbers

Undocumented individuals by the numbers

Click for an interactive breakdown of the undocumented population by the numbers

Yet, the “good” versus “bad” immigrant narrative persists. It does so, in part, because of its political expediency. At the UC conference for undocumented students in May, it was suggested the narrative developed as a form of “strategic essentialism.” In non-academic terms, this means that that the narrative was developed in order to appeal to the values of the country’s dominant social class.

Which explains the DREAM Act and DACA’s reliance on the “good immigrant” narrative – the idea of young, aspirational kids pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and making it to college appeals to a nation that perpetually considers itself to be built by scrappy underdogs. In effect, the DREAM Act and DACA labels the efforts of these people as penance, a sort of reconciliation for the original sins of their parents and those who came before them.

And at first, undocumented students were happy to exploit the narrative.

“The term DREAMer was something people used to self-identify with,” Stoicescu-Ghica said. “It was the idea that we as students deserve the same right as any other students. … We’re American, but we’re just not as as acknowledged as such.”

But what was once politically useful has become a detriment.

“At the time, when there was no conversation, you needed something (like the DREAMer narrative) that would get people’s attention,” Stoicescu-Ghica added. “But now that we have that national conversation going on … it’s time to elevate it.”

The real solution lies with a bill that provides a pathway to citizenship for the entire undocumented population and doesn’t treat undocumented individuals as reformed criminals.

On the surface, it seems that some in power have started to raise the standard of dialogue. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have both offered to explore pathways to citizenship should they become president. In 2014, Obama announced a new executive action called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA, which was designed to provide protections for undocumented parents of U.S. citizens. However, after a lawsuit was brought against the federal government by 26 states, the order remains in legal limbo.

The real solution lies with a bill that provides a pathway to citizenship for the entire undocumented population and doesn’t treat undocumented individuals as reformed criminals. Since that seems unlikely, the burden will fall on the states and local municipalities to create a culture of acceptance around being undocumented. Lawmakers in those areas can reach out to undocumented communities and work to bridge the gap between them and their citizen counterparts.

In order for that to be effective, though, members of those communities must be willing to accept that their first impression of undocumented immigrants may be wrong. The UC isn’t impervious to this criticism either; when considering how best to assist undocumented students, the University must take into account the extreme power of narratives. We, as students, also have to understand that power.

It’s not the DREAM Act and DACA themselves that are a problem – expanding opportunities for vulnerable people rarely is.

These actions can have a powerful effect on the way in which our respective communities interact with undocumented individuals. These efforts can produce a positive feedback loop, breeding new initiatives that allow more people to come out of the shadows.

It’s not the DREAM Act and DACA themselves that are a problem – expanding opportunities for vulnerable people rarely is. Without a closer examination of the implicit biases threaded throughout the national conversation and government action surrounding undocumented immigrants, the efforts could end up with some unexpected and harmful consequences.