On December 18th, 2010, I was at the United States Senate Gallery when two bills were introduced, discussed, and voted on at the time of the lame duck session: The DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) and the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell which was a discriminatory military policy that prohibited qualified gay and lesbian Americans from serving in the armed forces. The President of the Senate Chamber called for members of the Senate to cast their votes on the DREAM Act. The hopes of hundreds of DREAMers vanished before all votes were even cast. The media soon reported that Republicans in the Senate had killed the DREAM Act. Hundreds of DREAMers formed a circle in an aisle next to the Senate Gallery as they embraced each other and cried about the injustice we had just witnessed. Many people gave up after the defeat, but not the DREAMers. If there is something that DREAMers like me have learned throughout these years is to NEVER GIVE UP!
The first version of the DREAM Act was introduced in August 2001. Yet, it did not gain national recognition until May 17, 2010, when a group of DREAMers occupied the office of late Senator John McCain demanding their right to stay. As Walter J Nicholls claims in his book The DREAMERS: How the Undocumented Youth Movement Transformed the Immigrant Rights Debate, before the era of social media, there were no organizations directly fighting for the DREAMers. Very few people knew about who the DREAMers were; then Facebook and Twitter came along paving the way for DREAMers to connect with one another by creating a sense of community which led to the formation of the DREAM Movement.
In effect, the oppression, angriness, outrageous treatment, and criminalization of immigrant communities led to the formation of the DREAM Movement. Furthermore, the lack of action on addressing our broken immigration system led DREAMers to pursue strategies of confrontation with public elected leaders. Using slogans such as “Undocumented and Unafraid” or “Undocumented, Unafraid, and Apologetic”, DREAMers began to participate in aggressive actions that sought to put pressure in our elected leaders. Language and attitude matter, thus, DREAMers soon realized the importance of “coming out” of the shadows by sharing our stories to a wider audience. Not only we challenged Washington’s political power, but we also established a fearless voice that clearly stated we were not giving up.
I joined the DREAM Movement after I began reading the Facebook posts of fellow DREAMers. During the lame duck session, it became easy to know who an undocumented youth, or an ally was in social media thanks to the duck in a graduation hat profile picture DREAMers began circulating in Facebook asking to sign the petition in support of the DREAM Act. Soon some others profile pictures with the DREAM Act pin began to circulate as well on Facebook and Twitter. By November 2010, the DREAM Movement had grown enormously nationwide and had gained enough political support to bring the DREAM Act to a vote. Social media allowed DREAMers to reach out to other undocumented youth who had been feeling isolated, frustrated, and hopeless about their immigration status. And what seems to be a defeat in 2010, became a victory in 2012 when President Obama introduced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
Republicans did not kill the DREAM Act, rather, they paved the way for DREAMers’ broader activism. As writer Julia Preston put it, ‘Dreamers learned to play hardball politics’ with Washington. We soon learned that all arguments against immigration could be refuted and that the issue was a combination of injustice, lack of generosity, and indifference. In effect, we also learned that the biggest misconceptions about immigrants are a product of anti-immigrant context which has been sustained and reproduced by the political climate. Instead of giving up, we created networks, advocacy groups, student clubs, and collisions to expand the movement which eventually allowed us to put more pressure on Washington to enact legislation to provide DREAMers with a temporary relief. Even though Washington continued to play politics and make strategic moves, we began to succeed at the ball game thanks to our social media activism.
Even though very few DREAMERS knew about social media marketing or politics, within time all DREAMERS began to learn the skills that were needed to change the circumstances in the political battlefield. Once we began identifying ourselves with others in the DREAM Movement, we initiated our tactics of exposure to create a collective action. We began sending invitations to one another’s to attend rallies, marches, town halls, press conferences, public speaking, and story-telling training sessions. Advocacy training and counseling were also added to the campaign strategy and eventually working with allies’ organizations. In New York, I was a member of the Advocacy Committee at the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC). Our job consisted of creating social media campaign strategies to mount pressure on elected officials to support the DREAM Act. For instance, we organized 150 miles walk from New York City to Albany to create awareness about the NY DREAM Act. We also executed several lobbying days here in the City and in Albany asking our elected officials to support the bill. We organized press conferences, town halls, sit-downs blocking traffic in front the Governors’ Office, created online petitions, formed Dream Clubs within CUNY Schools and other private schools, and pitched our stories to the press/media, among other actions. In effect, we learned to confront the politics of immigration through our use of social media and by disclosing our status at rallies, marches, and conferences.
For DREAMers, the issue of immigration is personal. Our commitment to social justice and policy work has been fueled by our own story of immigrating to the United States. Being undocumented has made it more challenging for all of us to achieve our goals. Like many undocumented immigrants, we were forced to live in the shadows, lacking opportunities many native-born people in the US take for granted. With hard work and determination, many DREAMers like myself have been able to transform their lives. Now, our mission is to advocate for opportunities for those who are unable to speak for themselves. I personally believe that we all share the responsibility of achieving social justice. We cannot forget that we live in a country built by immigrants. Thus, I believe that the country desperately needs a comprehensive immigration reform that respects the rights and dignity of those who have chosen to migrate out of necessity. Moreover, I also believe that more opportunities should be created for immigrant’s students and immigrant families who are constantly feeling fierce of deportation in top of having difficulties securing their families financially. Undocumented students who have worked and studied hard deserve the path to citizenship and to flourish academically and professionally.
I am hopeful that the new generation of DREAMers will continue creating more channels for activism so that others can join the movement in the fight for immigrant’s rights. The immigrant community still needs the following: comprehensive immigration reform; more financial support for undocumented students, especially for those not eligible for DACA; more policies of integration; naturalization campaigns; friendly employment legislation and better access to jobs; legal protection against discrimination; and driver licenses for both documented and undocumented immigrants.
It has been eight years since DREAMers like me first arrived in Washington to learn from our elected leaders who take priority and decisions on behalf of all of us. There is no question that the DREAM Movement has contributed to democracy, government efficiency, and effective leadership. Perhaps other movements can now look back at the crazy undocumented youth that once got together thinking they could change the circumstances on the issue of immigration. As Steve Jobs once said, “those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world usually do.” And these are the DREAMers. A movement led by undocumented youth who has kept all of us motivated throughout all these years showing us all that joy is greater than fear and that regardless of their struggles, immigrants and undocumented youth are hardworking people who have passion and courage to follow their dreams, and they NEVER GIVE UP!