Democracy & American DREAMers: DACA & Undocumented Latino Youth

Immigration—particularly undocumented immigration—continues to be an unresolved issue in America; however, it is part of the larger unresolved issue of the political and social inclusion of Latinos (as well as other visible racial and ethnic groups) in the U.S. It is an issue that will increasingly affect us all because of our changing demographics with Latinos at 16.9 percent of the population projected to be 30 percent of the population by 2050 at the latest.

This lack of inclusion is underscored in a new book my coauthors, Jessica L. Lavariega Monforti and Melissa R. Michelson and I recently published which looks at the experiences of undocumented Latino youth who have been raised in the U.S., but because of the inability of our political leaders to pass immigration reform dealing with even the seemingly straightforward aspects of the issue—namely, how to incorporate and legalize Latino youth who have grown up in the U.S—their lives have been severely limited at every turn. In our book we systematically examine the experiences faced by undocumented Latino youth based on in-depth interviews conducted immediately after President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in the summer of 2012. Through 101 interviews conducted in California, Texas, Washington, and Oregon we learn the effects of living in the U.S without the “nine-digit number” (Social Security number). We learn how living as undocumented youth has impacted their decisions after completing high school, their political socialization and self-identity, and their feelings of trust and confidence in our government, and even their personal and intimate relationships.

Regardless of their geographic location, the sample of DREAMers in our book all experienced life with a greater sense of fear, vulnerability, lack of freedom, and obstacles. It was felt while they were shopping, traveling, driving, or in one case, serving as a university student body president who was “outed” and had his life turned upside down. In some cases, their unauthorized status even affected their willingness to call the police if someone had been in a car accident. Living as an undocumented Latino youth in the United States is, even post-DACA (which provides some measure of protection from deportation) as one of our respondents stated, “not full freedom.” Similar to the experiences of immigrants in the past, our sample of DREAMers is affected by the white racial frame in that they are racialized targets at every turn. This racialization places greater limitations on all aspects of their lives. As one of our respondents states,

[B]eing an illegal immigrant shapes who you are, . . . when you’re growing up, like what you become and . . . how you act and whatnot.

Listening to the stories of our sample of DREAMers, we learn about the lives of hardworking, good kids who have grown up in America seeking to achieve the American dream like everyone else. Some always knew they were undocumented, but not quite what it meant; others first learned as teenagers. Just as they were trying, like other teenagers around them, to assert their independence – to go away to college, to get a first job, to learn to drive – they find themselves stopped in their tracks by a system that relegates them to the margins because they are undocumented.

Based on this research, if we truly hope to have a democracy, then we must have the wisdom and the tenacity to continually seek ways to improve our society by extending the promise of America’s most cherished principles to the DREAMers. Latino youth are our future and there will be no real democracy for any future Americans without the political and social incorporation of Latinos. Similarly to the pre-Civil War South and through the 1960’s where nearly half of the population was legally oppressed by the other, an America where one third of the youth entering their voting age, their legal working age, or college age either are excluded from the body politics or are suspected of not belonging to the body politic, democracy is crippled or false. As Douglas S. Massey states,

[T]he most serious task remaining for immigration reformers is the legalization of the 11 million persons who are currently unauthorized, especially the 3 million or more persons who entered as minors and grew up in the United States. The lack of legal status constitutes an insurmountable barrier to social and economic mobility, not only for the undocumented immigrants themselves, but for their citizen family members. Not since the days of slavery have so many residents in the United States lacked the most basic social, economic, and human rights.

The U.S.’s founding values of “establishing justice” or the “blessing of liberty” currently does not apply to 5 million Latino youth who are just kids trying to be kids in the only country they’ve ever known.

If we make a commitment to DREAMers through humane immigration policy such as passage of the DREAM Act, our entire society will be enriched by not only the economic and cultural benefits that they will bestow upon American society, but because we will stop undermining our democratic values through the continual exclusion of undocumented Latino youth who have so much to contribute to society, if only they are allowed to. As one undocumented young woman
we interviewed states:

We are members of this society whether people acknowledge it or not, but we continue to be discriminated against, marginalized and “othered.” We experience rejection on a daily basis, and although we continue to overcome barrier after barrier, it is not a way of life that any person should have to experience. We are talented individuals who want to be able to give back to our communities. Why does legislation continue to prevent us from doing so? Why let our skills go to waste? Why not use them to improve this nation? This problem is much bigger than people want to acknowledge. . . . [W]e are human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

As we document in our book, all of the DREAMers we spoke to recognized that their immigration status had had powerful impacts on their lives.

And yet, as we found time and again in our research, they keep on dreaming as underscored by one of our respondents:

Well, whatever is within my reach I’m going to do it. After I finish my bachelor’s and continue my master’s, and if possible go into the PhD program; if not, I’ll set up a business as I have a business already, so keep going and make it bigger. I won’t stop. If there’s something in my way I’ll just go another way.

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