When I was doing research in 2008 for American by Paper, my book about documented and undocumented immigrants, DACA didn't exist. People despaired--for themselves and their families. They put their hopes and prayers in what a new administration would bring. Perhaps Obama would change things. Obama! With immigrant roots (via his father) himself!
By the time my book was published, 8 years later, there was Obama, and there was DACA.
What DACA did and didn't do
DACA was not the amnesty people hoped for. The man I spoke with who had not been to his father’s funeral in Brazil because he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to return to the U.S. still could not make a return visit. The couple who left their children with grandparents for five long years while they worked still could not see them. DACA left out many. It divided families along lines of status. So of course, it didn't solve all the problems of those I had the privilege to write about in my book.
But it was something. It was a move towards fulfilling the promise this country makes over and over again—that it welcomes, that it includes, that it respects, that it makes space for the creativity and intelligence of all those brave enough to come here.
Specifically, DACA helped those who had come here as children--those who otherwise had to “learn to be illegal” when they reached the age of 15 or 16 and realized they couldn’t apply for jobs or driver’s licenses. It gave people a real reason, an end game, to work hard in school. It gave them hopes for a job. It lessened some of the anxiety that followed them—in classes, in cars, on the streets in their neighborhoods, in their homes at night.
The persecution was and is real. "Pretty soon they'll forbid us from walking," said one young man. “Any day you could be picked up on the corner,” someone else told me. We were in her car. She was driving me to her church. She genuflected backing out. The undocumented are often picked up by the police in cars.
DACA came on the scene after I had finished my research, after the large scale immigration protests in which "legal" and "illegal" bodies were scrambled into one big mass of humanity. One big beautiful mess of love that I have to continue to believe is our natural human condition.
Writing into the belly of the beast
My book was about writing. About how writing regulates movement through papers. If you have papers with the right writing on it, you may pass. If you don’t, you may be deported. You may also die in a detention center. You may be mugged in the sewer system underneath the border trying to claw your way to a better life. Writing was—is—a way of tracking.
When DACA was put into motion, I was putting the finishing touches on my conclusion. I wrote that I was wary of DACA. The government was asking people to register their names in writing. DREAMers had to use the very same tools, writing, with which the government, backed by legal documentation, guns, dogs, armies, money, power, had persecuted them. They were offering themselves up into the belly of the beast.
What tremendous faith in this country and its rules and institutions and integrity to make such a move. In my work with immigrants for over a decade, I am always humbled by the faith people put in the rule of law in the United States. The institutions, they work, people have said to me. People don’t litter, they have noted. There is justice, they have believed.
Revoking DACA is a profound betrayal of the trust people put in the government when they willingly put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. When they signed up, paid their fee, submitted their names.
Surveillance and Beauty
Writing is a system of surveillance. It been used to track people at least since one of the moments of its invention in Ancient Mesopotamia, where it was used to keep track of who paid taxes and who didn’t!
But writing also produces change. Writing was—is!--also the means DREAMERS and others have used to come out as undocumented, to de-stigmatize “illegal” status, to argue for change, to create beauty in the face of profound injustice.
The question I am asking myself is this: How can we write our way out of DACA’s reversal? Out of the broken promises, the broken trust, in its wake?
The potentially practical
For those of us who are educators, who are returning to school this week or have already returned, what can we do for DREAMers?
- We can say publicly at the beginning of class that we support DACA, that we support students of all legal status, that we stand by their right to learn and to be in this country.
- We can check our assumptions about legal status based on race or perceived accent.
- We can be cognizant of students’ mental health. The fear of deportation—of the self and family members—can be debilitating.
- We can be conscious of what we ask people to do in their writing. This may be a moment when some people need to express and speak out. But this may be a moment when people decide that their hearts and souls and experiences and political views are best kept private, best not shared in the public space of a classroom, in the officialdom of a university or a school.
- We can keep protesting and calling and calling and protesting unjust laws.
Help me, us, here in the comments. I'm sure there is more we can do.