2011 – A Year of Activism for the DREAM Act and Undocumented Immigrant Youth

dream activists

A press conference in favor of the DREAM Act in California. (Photo: Antonio Villaraigosa/flickr)

2011 may be best remembered for a new type of political activism.  Movements including the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street were built on a combination of street protests and social media.  The year also saw an outpouring of activism and support for undocumented immigrant youth, especially those who would benefit from the DREAM Act—a proposed federal law that would create a path to legal status for undocumented young people.

Here’s what happened in 2011:

DREAMers (undocumented youth) and their allies responded to the narrow failure of the DREAM Act in Congress at the end of 2010 by launching demonstrations, organizing nationwide groups using social media, getting arrested in civil disobedience actions, lobbying Congress and fighting for state-level DREAM legislation. States can’t offer citizenship, so state efforts are mainly aimed at easing hardships for undocumented college students.  With Congress at an impasse over immigration reform, the movement decided to focus on individual states.

On March 10th, undocumented immigrant advocacy organizations launched National Coming Out of the Shadows day. In the months following this event hundreds of youth across the country revealed themselves as undocumented and participated in demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience in what many called a human rights campaign. Some undocumented youth were arrested while protesting—including six in Chicago, ten in North Carolina, five in Indiana, seven in Atlanta, and four in Arizona.  In all of these cases the students were charged with civil disobedience for either blocking traffic or staging a sit-in at a government office.

With an uncanny resemblance to last year’s “It Gets Better” gay rights campaign, many DREAMers came out publicly as undocumented in online videos, coining the phrase “undocumented and unafraid.”

The most high-profile revelation came from Jose Antonio Vargas, a former Washington Post and Huffington Post journalist who revealed his undocumented status in a New York Times Magazine article.  Other DREAMers revealed their immigration status at public rallies or by posting videos online. Several DREAMers shared their stories with Feet in Two Worlds on our YouTube channel and at a forum at The New School in New York.

Illinois and California passed state-level DREAM Acts that allow undocumented youth to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and obtain public and private scholarships, and New York Senator Bill Perkins introduced the New York DREAM Act, with help from the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC).

Despite these efforts, and the Obama administration’s declaration that it would exercise “prosecutorial discretion” and focus on deporting high level criminals, several DREAMers narrowly evaded deportation this year.  Nadia Habib, a 19-year-old college student originally from Bangladesh, and her mother Nazmin were almost deported in September. They were permitted to stay, but their case is still under review. Matias Ramos, an Argentine immigrant and UCLA graduate, was also recently granted a temporary stay moments before being deported.

While some states passed DREAM legislation, others sharpened their focus against undocumented immigrant.  In June, Alabama passed HB58— the nation’s toughest law against undocumented immigrants and those who help them. On the federal level  396,906 individuals were deported in 2011.  Secure Communities, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) immigrant identification program, is now active in 44 states.

Young undocumented immigrants show no signs of slowing down their activism in 2012. Their need for the DREAM Act is stronger than ever, but in a presidential election year where immigration is an issue on which no candidate wants to appear “soft”, the DREAM Act battle will likely continue to be waged in individual states.

Von Diaz is a Feet in Two Worlds journalist.  She has also worked as a consultant to Define American, the organization created by Jose Antonio Vargas.

AboutVon Diaz
Von Diaz is a writer and radio producer based in New York City. She is a self-taught cook who explores Puerto Rican food, culture, and identity through memoir and multimedia. Her work has been featured on NPR, American Public Media, StoryCorps, WNYC, PRI’s The World, BuzzFeed, Colorlines, and Feet in 2 Worlds. Von has an M.A. in journalism and Latin American and Caribbean studies from New York University. A graduate of Agnes Scott College, she earned a B.A. in Women’s Studies and focused her research on women in Latin America. She is a currently a producer at StoryCorps, and previously worked in community advocacy and communications for nonprofits focused on women, children, art, and Latino culture.