Don’t Call Me a Dreamer: Reflections of an Undocumented Person Who Has Taken Up Enough Space

The 2016 Elections have different meanings for different stakeholders: some are holding their breaths, waiting for the first woman president. Others are hoping for an anti-establishment purge. As an undocumented immigrant, I am paying close attention to the shifting dialogue regarding immigrants. I am in both awe and fear in response to these changes: it is a realization and confirmation of the power of the work undocumented organizers are engaged in. Specifically, presidential candidates have borrowed language from those who are currently organizing on the ground. Despite limitations that the political system tries to exert on us, the advocacy we do is positively impactful and it has the potential to shape conversations on the most visible platforms.

Because I believe in the power of our words, our stories, and our advocacy, I am unsettled by the rhetoric and the strategies mainstream immigrant organizations have adopted to make undocumented people more visible. While it stings to hear Trump and others throw around the derogatory term “illegal immigrant,” I flinch when Clinton refers to undocumented immigrants as “DREAMers”. I feel as uncomfortable with the critique that “illegal immigrants are lazy and stealing our jobs” as I feel with affirmations that I “deserve” a pathway to citizenship because I am seen as a “hard-working and law-abiding college student”. While the phrase “illegal immigrant” (which connotes that my mere existence is at odds with what society has defined as legitimate) is dehumanizing, the category of the DREAMer and the standards we must meet to be recognized and respected as human beings is similarly dehumanizing for those who benefit and those who do not.

DREAMer is a term that gained traction as the federal DREAM Act reached the height of its momentum in 2010, teasing the possibilities of a long-awaited immigration reform bill. Despite the reward of residency status, only a fraction of undocumented people qualified because of restrictive requirements. Some of these requirements included that a person must: have proof that they entered the United States before the age of 16 and continuously lived in the country for at least five years; graduated from a United States high school or obtained a GED; “came legally”; and “demonstrates good moral character”.

To those who may not be directly impacted or are not actively paying attention to the immigration system, all of this language may sound reasonable. A few years ago, this did seem reasonable to me, particularly because I directly benefitted from the bill. The DREAM Act was, after all, made for people like me: a college-bound child who had been in the United States since I was 5 years old. But if I, the “law-abiding” college student, “deserve” residency or citizenship, then alternatively there are those who will never “deserve” relief under this “model immigrant” arc.

I once believed that there was a threshold of “good” that undocumented immigrants should meet in order to “deserve” human rights. At the same time, I did not think about what it meant to bar people from access to immigration relief because they never had access to an education or were prioritizing economic survival so never went to college. It took a while for me to see how inherent racism in policing and law enforcement marks black and brown bodies as criminal. So I similarly did not see how the language of the DREAM Act (and subsequently, the category of “DREAMer”), which only provided relief to anyone who demonstrated “good character,” was positioned to marginalize those who were already at a disadvantage in their interactions with police. This is particularly significant for me as a Korean immigrant because there is an insidious legacy of White society creating and using tropes of (East) Asian-Americans to criticize other people of color (read: model minority myth). The DREAMer narrative is merely an iteration of the model minority myth — it punishes those who are systematically left out from an arbitrary standard.

Moreover, I never considered how the myopic rhetoric we used when we advocated for ourselves was excluding people whose stories have meant the difference. So many of us are able to name injustice because we witness how our parents have been treated. Some of us become politicized after hearing stories of those who live in the crossfire of different systems of oppression. Yet despite the impact of others’ stories in our lives and how those stories of others have fueled our organizing, we have created dichotomies between the “deserving good immigrant” and the “undeserving bad immigrant” that consequently make the vulnerable even more so.

Beyond the ways our advocacy has made it difficult for others to receive relief, we have made it burdensome for those who have “good immigrant” privileges. How much room are we leaving people within the lines to make mistakes, which is to be human? How much room are we leaving for conversations around systems of oppression that make it difficult for specific people to access these fundamental and inherent human rights?

More than ever, the undocumented network of college students is robust and visible. We are learning the language to name and talk about our struggle, and we now have unprecedented access to academic and social spaces. How will we choose to move forward?

Kit Lee PO '17 is a Politics major. 

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