The Evolution of Undocustudent Resistance, Activism, & Empowerment

By Joanna Perez

Although most undocumented immigrants do not have access to a pathway to citizenship, access to education has been granted to eligible undocumented students (undocustudents). In 1982, the Plyer v Doe Supreme Court case ruling prevented the K-12 public education system from denying any student access from enrolling in school, regardless of their immigration status (Olivas, 2012). As such, undocustudents who partake in the K-12 public education system are able to gain a sense of belonging and are momentarily shielded from the daily consequences of an ascribed “illegal” identity (Gonzales, 2016). Yet, upon graduating from high school and transitioning to adulthood, undocustudents begin to experience various forms of exclusion (Abrego, 2006).

Since Plyer v Doe does not guarantee access to higher education, in 2001, states and Congress began to push for policy change. At the state level, in-state tuition policies were being proposed in order to allow eligible undocumented students to be classified as ‘residents’ so that they could pay in-state tuition rather than ‘international student’ tuition rates (Flores & Chapa, 2009; Perez, 2012). While states that passed these legislations made college a more affordable option, undocustudents still did not have access to a pathway to legalization nor the ability to fully participate in the labor market (Abrego & Gonzales, 2010). Thus, at the federal level, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act was first proposed in 2001, which if passed, would allow eligible undocumented immigrants to attain legalization by pursuing a higher education or joining the military (Olivas, 2004). Although the DREAM Act has had bipartisan support and introduced several times in Congress, it has yet to pass. Nevertheless, those who would benefit from the DREAM Act, commonly referred to as DREAMers, have received national attention and support in spite of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy.

Immigrant Rights Associations created the public figure of DREAMers as individuals who innocently came to the U.S. at a young age, assimilate into the dominant “American” culture, and are college-bound as well as desire to contribute to the betterment of society (Nicholls, 2013). Often this is tied with the imagery of undocustudents in caps and gowns, abiding by notions of meritocracy and “deservingness” of citizenship. Certainly activism centered on DREAMers has been instrumental in advancing the immigrant rights movement. Besides promoting access to higher education, DREAMers made the struggle of undocumented immigrants visible across the nation and even in popular culture. In fact, from 2001 to 2010, the DREAMer movement consisted of creating undocumented-led organizations, lobbying, while also engaging in rallies, marches, congressional hearings, mock graduations, and other forms of activism at the local, state, national, and university level.  Although these efforts resulted in several positive changes, the inability to pass the DREAM Act led to a shift in the movement.

Beginning in 2010, certain undocustudents began to realize that there was a need to escalate their activism by partaking in direct action as well as advocate for the rights of the entire undocumented immigrant community, not just DREAMers.  For instance, on March 10, 2010, members of Chicago’s Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL) participated in the first Coming Out of the Shadows event where undocustudents publically came out by sharing their stories and declaring that they were “undocumented and unafraid.” For those who participated in this historical event, being able to publically come out of the shadows was not only a form of resistance and activism, but also a form of empowerment (Muñoz, 2015). More than eight years later, Coming Out of the Shadow events across the nation continue today. In addition, for the first time, four undocustudents risked deportation by staging a sit-in at Senator McCain’s office in May 2010 (Zimmerman, 2011; Mateo et al, 2012;). Although they were arrested, they were later released, demonstrating undocustudents’ ability to push legal boundaries. This inspired undocustudent activists across the nation to participate in sit-ins and other forms of civil disobedience (e.g. hunger strikes, infiltration of detention centers, etc.) from 2010 to 2016. At the same time, virtual activism through social media and inclusion of protest art has been crucial in providing counter-spaces of hope and liberation for undocumented immigrants (e.g. the work of Julio Salgado, Angy Rivera, Yosimar Reyes, Carolina Valdivia) (Perez, 2018). These forms of activism and artivism have kept politicians accountable, promote awareness among anti-immigrant communities, expose the impact of draconian immigrant legislation, and push for the safety of immigrant families. Ultimately, this has resulted in mass mobilization aimed at fighting against deportations, separation of immigrant families, and overall injustices committed towards undocumented immigrant communities.  In fact, former President Obama issued the Executive Order known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012, which granted eligible undocumented immigrants with legal work authorization and relief from deportation for a period of two years with the ability to renew. This demonstrates that since 2010, undocustudent activists have been instrumental in the immigrant rights movement.

While DACA does not guarantee a pathway to legalization, becoming DACAmented provides a sense of hope and belonging. However, the Trump administration has consistently described DACA as an illegal amnesty program [1]. Such a stance led to the decision to rescind DACA on September 5, 2017, leaving thousands of DACAmented people in legal limbo. As of November 2018, DACA continues to be under constant change based on debates in Congress, decisions in the courts, and political agenda under the Trump administration [2]. Nevertheless, certain states continue to resist and uphold DACA, including California [3]. Also, undocustudent activists continue to be vocal and socially conscious. In fact, undocustudents have drawn on oppositional consciousness to create social change, which is a mental state that empowers and prepares oppressed groups to defy, alter, and dismantle systems of human injustice (Mansbridge & Morris, 2001). At the same time, given the criminalization, marginalization, and oppression towards immigrants and people of color under the current administration, undocustudent activists have emphasized the power of solidarity by promoting the understanding of intersectionality (Lorde, 1984; Crenshaw, 1991; Collins, 2000). By recognizing that their struggle is not solely based on their immigration status but interconnected with race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc., undocustudent activists continue to fight for their rights. For instance, undocustudent activists have created community action networks on and off campus to promote awareness about immigrant rights as it connects with what is happening in detention centers, at the border, and in the community as a result of interior policing. At the same time, they are joining forces by demonstrating the ways in which their struggle is tied to the #BlackLivesMatter movement and Central American caravans. Lastly, besides using their activism to promote social justice, they are dealing with the trauma associated with being undocumented under this administration by hosting healing circles, ally trainings, and a variety of community events as well as intentionally building safe spaces that acknowledge their resilience while also empower anyone who feels disenfranchised.  

Undocustudents are witnessing how today’s political climate has led to the normalization of nativism, xenophobia, and structural racism.  Thus, undocustudents are living in a time where their ascribed social position as non legal-abiding individuals shapes the way in which they are perceived and treated by the larger society. Nevertheless, undocustudent activists are resisting their ascribed illegality, engaging in various forms of activism, and have empowered the undocumented immigrant community to become vocal, unafraid, and unashamed. Despite the heightened threats and push for anti-immigrant policies under the current administration, undocustudent activists teach us that grassroots mobilizing rooted in social justice, oppositional consciousness, and accounting for intersectionality is crucial in creating social change.





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