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Undocumented youth divided over how to fight back against Trump immigration clampdown

Undocumented immigrants at a protest soon after Trump’s election. Justin Lane/EPA

Young immigrants from across the US participated in the first act of civil disobedience by undocumented youth under the Trump administration on July 26 in Texas. After protesters sat in the street outside the state capitol building in Austin, blocking traffic, 15 undocumented young people and their allies were arrested. They were eventually released.

These protests were sparked by increased immigration enforcement against the undocumented population since the election of Donald Trump, including his pledge to end a temporary form of relief from deportation that has been available to many undocumented youth since 2012.

The protesters pledged their “renewed commitment to winning permanent protection, dignity and respect for all 11m undocumented immigrants”. They have called on other undocumented youth to follow their lead and engage in civil disobedience to defend their communities.

In response to threats faced by undocumented young people, a bipartisan DREAM Act bill was introduced to the Senate on July 20 by senators Lindsay Graham and Dick Durbin to provide eligible undocumented young people with a pathway to citizenship. To be eligible, they must have arrived in the US before the age of 18, have been in the country for at least four years, and not have criminal convictions. A version of the bill has also been introduced in the House of Representatives.

For over a decade, the US legislatures have been trying to pass a version of this DREAM Act but to no avail. When it was last introduced as a standalone bill in 2010 it passed in the House but fell five votes short of the 60 needed to be considered for final passage in the Senate.

Senators Lindsey Graham (left) and Dick Durbin revive the DREAM Act in July 2017. Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Announcing the 2017 bill, Graham praised Donald Trump’s focus on “bad hombres” and asserted that young undocumented people were brought here “by their parents illegally”. But this perpetuates the idea that there are “good immigrants” – the Dreamers – and “bad” immigrants, their parents and those with a criminal record.

Activists divided

While several immigrant rights organisations have come out in support of the 2017 bill, the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance described it as “a huge step back for immigrant justice”, expressing concerns about “the lack of solidarity with those who continue to be scapegoated ‘criminals’”.

Some undocumented youth have voiced their intention to resist attempts to divide the undocumented population, stating they “will not throw our parents under the bus to make ourselves more deserving.” This resistance is part of a wider rejection by undocumented young immigrants of being labelled as “Dreamers” – the brightest and best who are innocent because they were “brought” to the US by their parents. Dreamers are often presented as culturally assimilated “all American” students.

Despite concerns over the label, there are still undocumented young people across the US who continue to identify as “Dreamers”. This has led to disagreements within the movement about how to respond to immigration clampdowns by the Trump administration.

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump promised to increase enforcement measures against undocumented immigrants. This included a pledge to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme, an executive order signed by Barack Obama in 2012. Since its introduction, DACA has provided nearly 800,000 undocumented young people who entered the US as children with a two-year renewable reprieve from deportation and the right to work legally.

DACA came about because of the mobilisation and civil disobedience of undocumented youth, frustrated at the lack of progress on the DREAM Act. In 2011 and 2012, they engaged in a programme of direct actions and civil disobedience, including occupying Obama’s campaign offices during the 2012 election campaign.

Rejecting the ‘Dreamer’ label

In my ongoing research on this youth movement, I have interviewed young activists in southern California about their activism and their responses to Trump’s election. Many activists have critiqued the narrative about young “Dreamers” which is exclusionary to those who have not attended college, who arrived at an older age, or who have criminal convictions. One 21-year-old “DACAmented” student who I interviewed told me that she hates the “Dreamer” label. It presents children as having no agency:

So, in other words, your parents brought you along in a criminal act, so we were criminalising our parents in the process of being a Dreamer.

A focus on students also excluded people who had not attended college. As an undocumented young activist from Los Angeles explained: “There is layers even within the undocumented people. There will be those who have bachelor degrees … and then you have the ones who don’t.”

Following critiques about the use of the term Dreamer and the sentiment behind it, the movement started to become more inclusive from 2010 onwards. Many undocumented youth organisations, especially in California, have shed the term from their organisation names, often replacing it with “immigrant youth”. Many have also refocused their efforts to organise and defend the wider undocumented community against criminalisation, detention and deportation, rather than prioritising a pathway to citizenship for those who have the best chance of being granted it.

But under Trump the shift away from the Dreamer narrative seems to have faltered.

DACA under threat

Arrests of suspected undocumented immigrants have risen by 35% nationally under the Trump administration – although they have remained relatively unchanged in southern California. In recent months, some DACA recipients have been detained or even deported.

In May, a young activist, Claudia Rueda, was detained by border patrol in Los Angeles. She was released following a campaign against her detention led by her friends.

A protest to free Claudia Rueda, an activist for immigrant youth. Author provided., Author provided

Although DACA is still in place, the White House has not confirmed whether it will remain in the long-term. Officials from ten states have demanded Trump ends it by September 5 or they will take legal action. They argue that DACA is unlawful because it does not have statutory authorisation from the legislatures.

In response to these threats against DACA, there has been a resurgence of the Dreamer narrative, including among some undocumented young people. This can be seen in the emphasis on young people’s economic contributions, educational success and innocence in social media posts, media commentary and in proclamations by politicians.

But by embracing the term “Dreamer” again, differences are emerging within the movement regarding messaging and priorities in the battle ahead. As the DREAM Act comes before lawmakers, these tensions are likely to rise to the fore.

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