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.