On DREAMers, DACA and the Model Immigrant Trope

Home News & Politics On DREAMers, DACA and the Model Immigrant Trope

For all the clamor and the rush to post, protest, and support undocumented people, there are millions of immigrants whose experiences have been erased from the story.

Earlier this week, Donald Trump’s administration announced its decision to rescind the Obama-era policy of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, shaking the nation’s immigrants, especially the 11 million undocumented people. The decision will allow renewals until March 2018 for current DACA recipients to work or study in the US, but the administration will no longer consider new applications.

Since then, tweets and posts have flooded social media and people scrambled to change their profile pictures to say, “I stand with immigrants”. Demonstrations were held, reactions have come from members of Congress and prominent religious groups. The decision was even met with a bipartisan-sponsored revival of the DREAM Act, pushed for by Sens. Durbin (D-IL) and Graham (R-SC).

Yet for all the clamor and the rush to post, protest, and support undocumented people, there are millions of undocumented immigrants whose experiences have been erased from the story.

They are those at the intersections of identities that further marginalize and disadvantage. They are the poor, they are Black, they are trans, they are disabled, they are refugees. They are those whose features and skin tones don’t match the ones on brochures or fliers that activist groups pass out. They are the ones whose stories are not the “rags-to-riches” narratives that appeal to donors. They are the ones already most at risk for deportation. They are the ones who are forgotten.

For decades the US has peddled the myth of a meritocratic Land of Opportunity. The lie was spread that if you only work hard enough and pull yourself up, then you too can make your life better. This great U.S. tradition is co-opted and continued by the media in portrayals of undocumented immigrants.


Undocumented immigrant’s stories have steadily penetrated the national consciousness, helping bring to light the issues facing them, but in their rush to have everyone talking about undocumented immigrants from dinner tables to courtrooms, by spotlighting only “good” immigrants supposedly pulling themselves up “by their bootstraps”, media and activist portrayals perpetuate respectability politics and contribute to the erasure of millions of people.

All too often the narrative centers only on those most adjacent to power. The media will interview, activists will highlight, and organizations will support only conventionally “hard-working”, “successful”, and often light-skinned non-Black Latinx or Asian immigrants while ignoring Afro-Latinxs, South and Southeast Asians, Afro-Caribbeans, and other Black and African communities as well as poor immigrants who often do not have the same access to the jobs, suburban communities, or higher education so coveted in immigrant “success” stories.

Being queer, not being Christian, being trans, or other identities that challenge the acceptable narrative of the small and “Good” nuclear family also disadvantage certain undocumented immigrants. While having a disability or being a survivor of sexual assault are identities grouped together to denote “damage” or “low” skill/capability in conventional narratives and ultimately limit access through current policies and practices.

Undocumented immigrants at the intersection of these identities are also disproportionately socioeconomically disadvantaged. Being in poverty reduces access to conventional hallmarks of a “successful” immigrant such as access to higher education, given that only twenty states allow undocumented immigrants in-state tuition and undocumented students are ineligible for federal financial aid (yes, even if they have DACA). In fact only about 5-10% of undocumented students enroll in college each year.


Even in the admissions process there are challenges like racial bias in standardized testing, as well as the policy of reserving space for the descendants of alumni who are overwhelmingly and purposefully white, upper class, hetero normative, male, Christian, cis, able-bodied, and U.S.-born.

Access to higher education is just one of many hurdles undocumented immigrants face to be considered “respectable”, especially undocumented immigrants at the intersection of other marginalized identities. Yet despite all this evidence, we now have politicians professing concern for undocumented immigrants by pledging their support for pending immigration legislation such as the DREAM Act or the BRIDGE Act, which require educational attainment to stay in the U.S. Even requiring a high school diploma could pose a barrier due to racial inequalities in the school system and given that only 50% of undocumented immigrants have high school diplomas.

Politicians and activists of all stripes (including President Obama in his official statement on the decision) are always keen to explicitly mention DREAMers: the college grads, the professionals, and the innocent children. But what of those deemed undesirable by the arbitrary standards of the dominant group? What of those who do not claim the name “DREAMer” due to its exclusion and erasure? Are they to be stripped of their rights and their humanity because they are deemed undesirable?

That might be deliberate. The perception of “undesirable” undocumented immigrants is uncannily similar to the perception of incarcerated people in the prison-industrial complex. The US houses the largest prison population in the world. And as part of their incarceration, inmates are required to do labor for cents an hour. All the while, media portrayals of inmates are of dirty, lazy “undesirables”. So despite crime rates trending down, the public still believes crime is increasing. This perception is then leveraged by the justice system to incarcerate while federal, state, and private prisons contract with manufacturers to have inmates produce goods and services generating billions of dollars. But could casting millions of undocumented people as “undesirable” really lead to a system like the prison-industrial complex? It already has.

There are real and dangerous consequences to playing respectability politics and continuing the erasure of millions of undocumented people. So in the fight for liberation and justice for undocumented people, we cannot value human lives only by their capacity for servitude to the corporatocratic state. We cannot remember only those that fit conventional standards of respectability. We must choose to remember all undocumented people.