Undocumented Americans Confront Power

By Lorella Praeli

December of Dreams

Dressed in graduation caps and gowns, their faces gleamed with optimism.  On December 18, 2010, undocumented immigrant youth and their allies lined up outside the nation’s Capitol to witness the U.S. Senate vote on the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.  Hundreds of students from across the nation descended on Washington to watch what they hoped would be the culmination of their organizing efforts. For weeks, months, and for some, even years, these youth had organized a series of political actions to draw attention to their plight: their undocumented status.  Their tactics, which ranged from acts of civil disobedience to hunger strikes and “coming out” rallies, had galvanized youth and young adults and propelled them to publicly declare their undocumented identity.  On this date, they sat through public statements that criminalized their presence and rendered them “illegal.” And, together, they saw, once again, DREAM fall short by five votes of overcoming a Senate filibuster. 

To vote “yes” on the DREAM Act may have cost some legislators their political careers, though probably not. For DREAMers, the failure to pass this piece of legislation translated into more years of deferred dreams, substandard wages, and a life that confines them to the shadows. 

The 2010 DREAM vote was a defining moment in our movement. It pushed us to explore how power operates so we may think about how to organize against it. How can we break the silence that instructs and defines the undocumented community and the mobilized bias of power in order to effect political and social change? What are the social and political factors that isolate and silence members of our community? And, what forces constrain undocumented immigrant youth and confine them to a life “in the shadows?”

In seeking to organize, agitate, and empower, we recognized that strategies and language needed to be rethought; priorities and focus, reassessed. We stopped speaking about our “situation” and began to transgress—we became “undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic.” We shared stories of pain, hope, and struggle and began to bring life and truth to a movement that had forsaken its strongest asset.

A Call to Action

John Gaventa (1982) writes that rebellion may develop if there is a shift in power relationships (p. 23). Undocumented immigrant youth and young adults must go through a process of issue and action formulation (Gaventa 1982, p. 24). Through this process, DREAMers develop consciousness of their needs and possibilities (Gaventa 1982, p. 24). Their actions begin to redefine the social structure as it challenges the mobilization of bias, that is, the social system, and threatens the status quo. After going through this process, they must also carry out the process of mobilization of action upon issues to wage the conflict and challenge the power structure (Gaventa 1982, p. 24). Empowerment results from these changes and more DREAMers step out of the shadows, enabling others to achieve purpose in times of uncertainty (Ganz 2009).

As a social movement, we seek to create discourses and actions around a political cause, which enables individuals to challenge norms, testify publicly about their experiences, and claim their identities and sense of personhood (Coutin 1993; Gaventa 1982). By challenging the structure of power in place, individuals undergo personal transformations and experience shifts in consciousness, which allow them to interpret and reinterpret truths and conceive of new possibilities (Coutin 1993; Gaventa 1982). These practices challenge anti-immigrant rhetoric and draconian measures of enforcement and exclusion. When Maria asserts her identity and says, “I stand here and I will remain here because I am not going anywhere,” she transgresses. She unveils her unlawful presence, highlights that she is in violation of the law, and demands recognition.

Power in Action

As DREAMers enter the public sphere and continue to be met with opposition, they garner strength and ammunition to organize. Even though we are disenfranchised in the political-voting-rights sense, we are key players in our communities—in state efforts to defeat restrictionist policies and enact progressive legislation. Among our social circles and in our backyards, we are creating new spaces and making change possible at the personal and societal levels. We undergo personal transformations by denouncing and rebelling against forms of power. In doing so, we overturn the power of the state and the U.S. immigration system, which manifests itself in visible apparatuses and in the consciousness of the individual, as it internalizes forms of surveillance, whereby the DREAMer becomes an agent of his/her own subjection (Coutin 1993; Foucault 1977).


Coutin, Susan. 1993. ‪The culture of protest: ‪religious activism and the U.S. sanctuary movement. Westview Press.

Foucault, Michael. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Random House.

Ganz, Marshall. 2009. Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gaventa, John. 1982. Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. Urbana, IL: Illinois University Press.

Leave a comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Student Activism in Social Movements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s