Still Undocumented, and Still Unafraid: Undocumented Immigrant Activism in Hostile Times

By Edelina M. Burciaga

On May 17, 2010, four undocumented students and one ally walked into the Arizona office of Senator John McCain demanding that he co-sponsor the Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would have provided a pathway to citizenship for eligible undocumented youth. Wearing graduation caps and gowns and with a crowd of supporters gathered outside, these activists staged a sit-in (Galindo 2012). Three of the four undocumented activists were arrested marking the first act of civil disobedience in the undocumented youth movement. This protest followed the first Coming out of the Shadows event held in Chicago, Illinois in March, 2010 and preceded DREAM Act Summer, a period of intense mobilization to pass the DREAM Act. During the summer of 2010, undocumented activists held hunger strikes, staged sit-ins in Washington D.C., shutdown intersections in major cities, and held rallies where undocumented youth came out of the shadows as “Undocumented and Unafraid.”

While 2010 was a landmark year for undocumented youth organizing, in the eight years since that time, undocumented youth activists have continued to mobilize and are at the forefront, now as adults, of the immigrant rights movement. This blog post draws from and reflects on ten years of ethnographic and interview-based research with undocumented young people in Southern California, metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia and now Denver, Colorado where I live and teach. A longer discussion of this research can be found in an article co-authored with Lisa Martinez about the role of political contexts in shaping undocumented youth activism. I think understanding the trajectory of the undocumented youth movement since 2010 is key to understanding immigrant rights organizing in the current moment.

Leading up to the summer of 2010, undocumented youth mobilization employed two frames (1) the exceptional DREAMer frame and (2) a “through no fault of their own” frame. Both of these frames distinguished undocumented youth from other undocumented immigrants, including their parents. While undocumented youth activists understood the strategic value of these frames; as the undocumented youth movement built grassroots momentum through engaging in acts of civil disobedience and direct action, activists questioned the salience of these frames and began to move away from the deserving/undeserving immigrant narrative (Unzueta Carrasco and Seif 2014). Inspired by undocumented youth’s acts of civil disobedience and coming out of the shadows, undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as adults also began to come out of the shadows. In 2012, a group of undocumented immigrants launched the “No Papers, No Fear” ride for justice. The UndocuBus, as it came to be known, started in Phoenix, Arizona and riders included undocumented immigrants who migrated as adults and as children. The tour targeted cities in the U.S. South, a region that had become notoriously hostile for undocumented immigrants.

In 2012, President Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a significant victory for the undocumented youth movement. Nevertheless, undocumented youth activists continued to challenge unjust immigration laws and perceptions about their political power by engaging in anti-deportation activism. For example, in 2013, nine undocumented youth activists crossed back into Mexico in order to present themselves at the U.S. Border to claim asylum. This action included two more crossings as part of the #BringThemHome campaign. Activists also infiltrated detention centers including one in Broward, Florida where several detainees were being held who should have been considered low priority under President Obama’s immigration enforcement priorities. These efforts coincided with the emergence of the #Not1MoreDeportation campaign, a collaboration of immigrant rights organizations across the country to bring attention to the devastating impacts of the deportation regime on immigrant families and communities.

In addition, undocumented youth activists responded to the devolution of immigration law and policy to states and localities by focusing efforts on passing as one activist termed it “healthy legislation” in welcoming contexts like California. In hostile contexts, like Georgia, undocumented youth activists focused their efforts on educational access. In both welcoming and hostile state contexts, undocumented youth activists challenged the frames that had guided the movement early on by centering their parents’ motivations for migrating. As one activist in Georgia shared, “The original dreamers are our parents.” Echoing this sentiment in September 2017, after the announcement of the rescission of DACA, an undocumented youth leader and DACA recipient in Colorado shared at a rally, “My family crossed to give me the education that I have now. I’m still an immigrant, I’m still undocumented, but I will not stand down just because they tell me to.”

The historical trajectory of the undocumented youth movement suggests that even in this extremely hostile time that undocumented youth activists, and the broader undocumented immigrant rights community, will not stand down. Undocumented immigrant activists are staying the course in terms of fighting deportation and seeking to improve the day-to-day lives of undocumented immigrants at the state and local level. This includes ending cooperation between local law enforcement agencies and ICE, campaigning for driver’s licenses, and expanding educational access for undocumented youth through in-state tuition and state financial aid. Despite their disenfranchisement from traditional political participation through voting, undocumented immigrant rights activists have shown considerable influence in the political arena and in public discourse (Negron-Gonzales 2017). The Gente for Abrams campaign in Georgia’s Governer’s race is a prime example of undocumented immigrants pounding the pavement for progressive candidates.

In short, undocumented immigrant rights activism has taken the tone and tenor of previous social movements in United States history, which may lead us, citizens, to take for granted the courage it takes to mobilize as an undocumented immigrant, especially in these virulent times. Under this current administration, undocumented activists are getting caught up in the same inhumane deportation system they are fighting. Alejandra Pablos and Eduardo Samaniego are just two recent examples of undocumented activists who were or are being detained by ICE. I think the immigrant rights movement, and specifically undocumented activism, is one of the most important social movements of our time. Social movement scholars have much to learn from the movement including about the nature and consequences of high-risk activism (Mc Adam 1986); undocumented activism as a form of resistance (Hollander and Einwohner 2004); and the role of political threat in shaping undocumented immigrant activism (Almeida 2003). On the same day that the end of DACA was announced, undocumented immigrant activists held a rally at the Auraria campus in downtown Denver. The rally drew people from across the city including students walking out from their high schools, asone Colorado-based undocumented youth leader shared, “Yes, we’re afraid, we’re all afraid, but that’s what courage is, doing something when you are afraid.” As an ethnographer of the movement over the past ten years, I am sure that immigrant activists will continue to be “undocumented, unafraid, unapologetic, and unashamed.”


Leave a comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Immigrants Rights Activism

Leave a Reply

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

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

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s