By Gerson Cortes, (Guest columnist)
I first joined the DREAM movement at the end of 2010, right after the DREAM Act failed to pass through the Senate. For months, activists burned themselves out organizing actions in support of the legislation, even putting themselves in danger to make their needs visible. They got attacked by right-wingers for being “entitled illegals” and by respected mentors for being selfish DREAMers. And still they pushed for the most tangible solution available at the time.
Graduation caps and gowns became symbols of the movement and 4.0 GPAs, its battle cries. When undocumented immigrants got branded as “leeches on the system,” taking public benefits and not contributing to this country, the most radical thing to do was to disprove the lies. We forgot that those lies were used–and continue to be used–to attack and deny us of basic human rights like healthcare, housing security, and all that encompasses the lofty pursuit of happiness.
In the years that followed the DREAM Act’s demise, college-educated immigrant activists in Southern California and other metro areas began rethinking the whole “DREAMer” narrative. The term spoke of elitism and created an unattainable standard of what a “good” immigrant is supposed to be. In the public’s eye, it created a division between undocumented immigrants that deserved respect, and the “illegals” who got no empathy when torn away from their families. Some DREAMers started to believe this too, willing to accept harsh immigration policies that would make our parents’ lives harder, if it meant a path to citizenship for “the good ones.”
Being “woke” meant no longer being a DREAMer.
I moved out of Orange County to finish my undergraduate degree when dropping the “D” word started popping up on my social media feeds and I brought that message into a small city surrounded by miles of farms in Northern California.
It proved to be a sobering wake up call.
The “DREAMer” narrative isn’t a philosophical debate on respectability politics here. For many, it’s the only way to cautiously ask for help when navigating school, healthcare, and other systems where your status is brought up. By the time it became passé in the marches back home, the slogan “Undocumented and Unafraid” hadn’t even been chanted here yet. My university didn’t have its first “Coming Out of the Shadows” event until 2018, and even then, some undocumented students asked allies to read their written stories aloud because they couldn’t bring themselves to be on stage. Here, some still find “DREAMers” too radical and too visible to feel comfortable stepping into spaces designed for undocumented youth.
This is happening in California. This isn’t a remote town in Idaho, or a community in the Deep South. When surrounded by discussions on immigration, when professionals are more likely to know how to deal with your status, when there’s more than one group in your city working for immigrant rights, it can be easy to forget that the rest of the country does not reflect your reality.
I’ve since graduated and continue to live in Northern California where a real need for immigration advocacy remains. Although I still use “undocumented” when discussing my personal status and talking about immigration issues, I stopped pushing to drop the “DREAMer” narrative; at least here, and in other places, where it may be the only way a scared kid can feel safe enough to ask for help.
Deport This! is a partnership between OC Weekly, Chispa and Orange County Immigrant Youth United. The column is a rebuttal of Donald Trump’s racist politics and his OC cheerleaders, who’ll no doubt get triggered every week with news and views by and about the undocumented community.