Luis Fernando Macías
On January 31, 2018, the Jimmy Kimmel-Live show aired a segment called “Fierce DACA Opponents Meet DREAMer Family Face to Face.” This segment was a departure from the talk show’s usual format: comedic monologue, prank videos, celebrity interviews and musical guests. The host, Jimmy Kimmel, acknowledged the deviation and introduced the segment with a rudimentary overview about the debate around reinstating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which the Trump administration had capriciously rescinded months prior. The eight-and-a-half-minute-long segment began with Kimmel interviewing the six panelists about their opposition to DACA and undocumented immigration at large. Their responses echoed popular nativist talking points such as following the rule of law and the importance of getting “in line” for immigration status. As saccharine piano music began playing in the background, they were walked to a room to meet Esmeralda and her family.
Esmeralda is a DACA recipient and mother to her young daughter who was sitting on her lap. Kimmel prompts Esmeralda to share her immigrant story then highlights that she has no criminal record, she is a nursing student, she is gainfully employed and is a dutiful taxpayer. Her fiancé, Michael, a soldier in the armed forces, then enters the room. Kimmel tells the panel that soon Michael will be deployed overseas and if Esmeralda loses her DACA permit and is deported, the family will be separated. Presumably, the segment was intended to show opponents of DACA that if they met someone in this situation then they would reconsider their hardline position. Unsurprisingly, they did not. The segment ended without a musical or emotional crescendo. No resolution, just panelists continuing to shout xenophobic statements to a visibly uncomfortable family.
This segment is emblematic of the discourse about undocumented youth and young adults at large. Even people with the best intentions will rely on patriotic, meritocratic, heteronormative, assimilationist, capitalistic ideals of who is worthy of being in the United States. This specific portrayal of the “good immigrant” echoes back to the late 1990s when immigrant advocacy organizations and state legislators needed a literal poster child as a way of garnering national support for comprehensive immigration reform. In 2001, the proposed legislation “DREAM Act” focused on undocumented youth and purposefully used the backronym D.R.E.A.M as a way of alluding to the exceptional immigrant youth who are portrayed as an extension of the mythical American Dream. Consequently, DREAMer as a term and ideology is entrenched everywhere: in subsequently proposed legislation, in employment and scholarship requirements, and especially in academic literature.
We Are Not Dreamers, edited by Leisy J. Abrego and Genevive Negrón-Gonzales, is a notable addition in the research literature because much (albeit not all) of the academic publications on the experiences of undocumented students are authored by those who are not undocumented (this includes me). Many of us are compelled to explore these realities because of our own personal connections and history. Yet, growing up in a mixed status family, having a partner who is undocumented or who must endure a xenophobic slur does not equate to the experiential knowledge and realities of being illegalized by the State. All the authors, not including the editors, are or were undocumented at some point. Their perspectives, theories, realities and approaches to liberation vary greatly from one another. Their only commonality is an aversion to having their complex lives reduced to an unrealistic ideal of meritocratic excellence. The resulting research findings, personal narratives, and theories in the flesh are astounding.
The editors begin the book by providing historical context about the DREAMer narrative’s creation, its relative effectiveness in shifting public opinion and prevalence in social and academic discourse. The book’s introduction concludes with the critical point that any advancement (including the Obama administration’s concessionary DACA) has come as a direct result of the activism and advocacy led by undocumented youth and young adults. The reader is then welcomed to select a chapter in any order and learn about different realities present in the lives of many undocumented youth. In this way, the book is akin to a mosaic. The reader can focus on a particular section and then step back to appreciate it in its entirety. Perspectives shared in the book include, but are not limited to, the stigma of being on academic probation (chapter 2), commodification of university diversity initiates (chapter 3), the paradox of marriage for both love and immigration status (chapter 9) and the family dynamics of undocuqueer parenting (chapter 10). The rich and textured narratives provide the reader a glimpse into people’s lives in a way that is not voyeuristic or marauding. The realities the authors share are not curated for an audience that fetishizes trauma and struggle. Rather, they are unfiltered narratives about life as an illegalized person that echo the tradition of testimonios, which denounce injustices and document the experiences and acts of survival of oppressed groups.
Given that my own scholarship focuses on Education, chapters 2 and 3 were of particular interest to me. In chapter 2, Grecia Mondragón focuses on undocumented university students who have been placed on academic probation. This chapter vividly articulates the toxicity of the DREAMer narrative and its consequences. Similar to the model minority archetype, students labeled as DREAMers are expected to demonstrate their worth through high academic achievement and stoic meritocratic perseverance, regardless of the circumstance. Mondragón centers participants’ own words about being outside of these impossible standards and the resulting internalized guilt and shame that they felt. The chapter concludes with an implication section that explicitly places the onus on universities to improve their policies and practices regarding academic probation because participants indicated that in their time of most critical need, faculty and staff treated them as deficient and unworthy of support.
Chapter 3 also explores the university’s relationship to undocumented students, specifically its commodification thereof. In a meticulously researched and masterfully articulated examination, Gabrielle Cabrera posits that The University of California-Merced profits from the recognition and state funding associated with having the highest percentage of undocumented students of any campus within the UC system. In the chapter, Cabrera states that “the university sells undocumented stories of migration and trauma as a method of cultivating an image of an altruistic, progressive institution” yet systematically fails to deliver on any commitment to support them. She then chronicles the undocumented student activism that pushed the university to confront their unfulfilled pledges, particularly that which relates to funding. I was so impressed by this chapter that I felt compelled to reach out to the author to compliment her work. It was then that I learned that it was based on her undergraduate senior thesis. I was astonished. At a very early stage in her academic training, Cabrera accomplished what I have rarely seen even senior academics do. She spoke truth to power, with every resolute statement substantiated with reports and public records while simultaneously and seamlessly weaving in quotes and theory to demonstrate how that university (and arguably liberal institutions writ large) utilize diversity and multicultural initiatives and rhetoric to undermine systematic change. This speaks to the ethos of the book: when afforded agency over the portrayal of their own experiences, the resulting brilliance is unmatched.
The book is undoubtedly outstanding. However, at times some chapters are dense with academic jargon and theories specific to certain disciplines. There are also instances in which some authors fall short of fully articulating their main arguments and/or stray from coherence of the theories they cite. In general, the book is also very much geographically centered in California with many of the perspectives coming from the larger Latinx undocumented community. The editors acknowledge this predominance, which is not so much a fundamental flaw as it is a possibility. The potential for future volumes where authors from other communities (geographic, cultural, racial) contribute their perspectives to expand the literature on illegalized lives is exciting. We Are Not Dreamers will undoubtedly become canonical. It should be required reading for every educator, administrator, and staff member across all levels of education, specifically higher education. It is also recommended for anyone who has ever used “DREAMer” to refer to undocumented students. Basically, it would benefit everyone to read this book, including late-night talk show hosts and producers.
 Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act
 See: Solórzano, D. G., & Bernal, D. D. (2001). Examining Transformational Resistance through a Critical Race and LatCrit Theory Framework: Chicana and Chicano Students in an Urban Context. Urban Education, 36(3), 308-342.
Luis Fernando Macías, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the Department of Chicano and Latin American Studies at California State University, Fresno. His scholarly focus is on undocumented studies, racial formations and how they relate to educational policies and practices. In addition to research, he has organized several educational summer camps for immigrant and refugee youth and previously worked as a Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) accredited representative. His work has been featured in various media outlets like the podcast: Politically Re-active with W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu (episode 54).