I’m one of the approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, and I’m also a doctoral student at UC Berkeley — one of the “deserving” immigrants, the “good” immigrants, the “DREAMers.” My friends and I always joke that if there ever was a poster child for DACA, it would be me. For five years, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) has protected me and 800,000 others from deportation while granting us work permits among other benefits. Today, under the Trump administration, the end of DACA could be just six months away.
And while some continue to debate the fine points of DACA, the policy was never an adequate solution to our nation’s immigration situation — and its framing of some immigrants as “good” and others as “bad” has actually hurt the movement.
The DACA narrative, advanced by advocates, politicians, and media reports, tends to highlight “model” immigrants — those with perfect GPAs, impeccable English, and spotless criminal records, like me. A Miami Herald editorial arguing in favor of DACA featured a photo of a high school valedictorian, Larissa Yanin Martinez. Leon Panetta praised DREAMers in a op-ed as patriotic and open to military service. “They would make outstanding soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen,” he wrote. In a letter reversing his previous opposition to DACA, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery wrote of the “outstanding accomplishments and laudable ambitions” of many DACA recipients. The “they came here through no fault of their own” refrain, repeated again this week by Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe, appears in nearly every story about DREAMers.
Though well intentioned, lauding the DREAMers has the unintended effect of juxtaposing these “good,” “deserving” immigrants with the “bad” ones — those with, say, a drug charge from years back — who deserve nothing but deportation and marginalization. Narratives of childhood innocence and economic contribution constrict the movement at a time when it needs to include all 12 million. And supporting DACA has allowed the liberal elite to feel good about ostensibly doing something pro-immigration when, in fact, it hurts our struggle.
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In addition to exceptionalizing a few of us, DACA essentially threw non-DREAMer immigrants under the bus, and now the policy has been exposed as an abject political failure. The distinctions some immigrants made to present themselves as deserving no longer carry water; the good immigrant/bad immigrant distinction is gone. We without papers have been, and will continue to be, functionally illegal, and no amount of, “um, actually, the term is undocumented” will change that.
I don’t object to the protections that DACA grants (which would be strange, given that I have benefited so much from it), nor am I against efforts to retain it. But DACA is not the endgame, and the fight to keep it needs to adopt a narrative that doesn’t criminalize the rest of the 12 million — many of whom are not valedictorians, have an indiscretion on their record, or speak broken English.
Without the “good immigrant” vs. “bad immigrant” narrative, and without the pressure for respectability on which our current movements are premised, there would be neither a need nor a justification for a hotline to report immigrant crimes. The president would be unable to pay lip service to only deporting “bad hombres” while actually allowing the deportation of anyone who had crossed the border. People would be unable to support policies that punish immigrants while expressing horror when a “good one” faces deportation.
And as the Black Lives Matter movement makes clear, black Americans who are “respectable” are not safe from mistreatment or violence at the hands of the state. Thus, in fighting for substantive immigration protections, we must understand how creating the status of “illegal immigrant” is not a static occurrence but an ongoing political, legal, and social process; this is why it is accurate to speak of immigrants without status not as just undocumented or illegal but “illegalized.” This denotes a status where the immigrants are made to grovel for a humanity that ought to be presupposed.
Such a position is where we find ourselves. DACA, for all its benefits, was a Faustian bargain that we never should have struck. Our movement must make a fundamental shift in how we frame our experience in the struggle for substantive immigration protections: safety from deportation, citizenship for all 12 million, and a reconceptualization of political membership in such a way that the situation we face never happens again.
We deserve this not because we are good, but because we are human beings, and as Elie Wiesel proclaimed, “No human being is illegal.” As we look inward to determine where our movement went wrong, we must admit that our readiness to adopt damaging narratives hampered our long-term strategic gains for short-term objectives. Unless we move beyond DACA, we now stand to pay the price for our myopia.
Joel Sati is a Ph.D. student in the Jurisprudence and Social Policy program at Berkeley Law and an immigrant-rights activist.
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