A Time to Dream

Undocumented youth in the US are growing determined that their presence will be seen and their voices heard

Protestors in front of the White House in June this year rally in support of the DREAM Act, which protects illegal immigrants under the age of 30, without criminal records, from deportation. DANIEL C. BRIT / THE WASHINGTON POST / GETY IMAGES
01 September, 2012


Rather, what would Jesus do if he were without papers in the United States of America?

I asked myself this question after talking to a young man born in Mexico, with a fuzzy beard and a soft innocence about him. He had told me that his name was Jesus. He caught my attention because he was wearing a blue T-shirt with the following words imprinted in white across the chest: “I AM UN.DOC.U.MENT.ED.”

We were at Sundance, the resort founded by Robert Redford at the foot of the magnificent Mt Timpanogos in Utah—a place seemingly designed to reward people, during a brief, glorious stay, for having worked hard for progressive causes all their adult lives. All around us were thousands of acres of preserved wilderness. There were hawks and owls, elk, deer and varieties of humming bird. Chairlifts carried visitors from the base to a high point up on the 12,000-foot mountain. A stream burbled through the heart of the resort.

I had been invited to Sundance for an event called “Creative Change”—a gathering of activists, artists and funders interested in hammering out innovative ways of doing cultural advocacy on social matters. That day, at the Redford Conference Center, the talk was of Occupy Wall Street, immigrant rights, the elections and national debt. Such conversations continued over hikes to waterfalls and leisurely barbeque dinners in the shadow of hills. I was loving it all—social change washed down with a glass of fine Chardonnay.

Then there was Jesus with his blue “I AM UN.DOC.U.MENT.ED” T-shirt.

Jesus is a part of a generation of young Americans who came to the US as children accompanying parents who were without papers or who stayed back after their visas expired. According to one estimate, there are 1.4 million such youth in the US. Their opponents call them “illegal aliens”—or sometimes just “illegal”—but they call themselves the Dreamers. There have been people without papers before too, of course, but the Dreamers are part of a new, more assertive generation that is ready to wear T-shirts emblazoned with “No Papers, No Fear”.

Jesus told me that he was only two when a devastating earthquake in Mexico City destroyed the family business. His parents brought him to the US on a visitor’s visa—claiming, as many others from Mexico apparently did in the 1970s and 1980s, that they wanted to see Disneyland. Now living in Los Angeles, Jesus has never left the US since that first arrival.

About a year and half ago, he boarded a plane for the first time. He was going to a conference on immigrant rights in Memphis. When the airport security officer asked him for identification, Jesus produced his Mexican passport, which he has kept valid by making regular trips to the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles. The officer flipped through the passport and said, “I don’t see any visa here.” Jesus said to him, “With all due respect, sir, it isn’t your job to look for the visa.”

Jesus was able to attend his conference. His response to the airport security officer was indicative to me of the strength of the Dreamers. Their assertiveness makes them American; they boldly declare that they belong in the US.

The next day Jesus, with his friend Julio Salgado, a well-known figure in the Dreamer movement, addressed the crowd at the conference. There are 11.5 million undocumented people in the US. Jesus and Julio said that the undocumented youth were fighting for their communities, struggling to survive by creating art. The posters they had made for an initiative called Culture Strike were hung on the walls around us. The duo screened a brief documentary video they had made of a woman riding to work in a subway, passing by the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles, and noticing the spectral faces gazing out from behind its barred windows.

Jesus told the audience, “We’re strong, smart, savvy. We need backup. We don’t need your lead in telling our stories, but we need allies.” When I asked him to explain what he had meant, Jesus said that the moment people find out about their status, they make the immediate assumption that the youth are helpless. Julio added, “I want people here to see me as a colleague and not as a victim.” The liberals in the audience were being warned that they needn’t dress up for Halloween as the Statue of Liberty.

Of course, it is tempting to want to play Lady Liberty, not least because the undocumented have been at the mercy of political whim. Jesus said as much, I thought, when he described politicians in the US as “playing politics” with their lives. These youth have long hoped and prayed for immigration reform—but such measures have so far offered too little and too late. The Dreamers take their name from the DREAM Act (itself an acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), a bill first introduced in the US Senate on 1 August 2001, by a Democrat, Dick Durbin, and a Republican, Orrin Hatch. The bill would provide conditional permanent residency to undocumented youth who had lived in the country continuously for at least five years prior to the bill’s enactment. The legislation never found serious traction. Its latest version was rejected in December 2010. Then, in June 2012, President Barack Obama announced that there would be a halt to the deportation of young undocumented students. Jesus said that in the election year, fearful of alienating his middle-class constituency, Obama will not support the undocumented any more strongly. In fact, even the June declaration of support, Jesus believes, wouldn’t have been forthcoming had it not been for the fact that earlier this year the Dreamers had begun occupying Obama’s election offices in different cities across the country.

The Dreamers are not without their critics. Artist and activist Favianna Rodriguez told me that youth like Jesus are disliked even by traditional anti-immigration activists. This is because the Dreamers “did not follow the talking points” and they “did not follow the DC strategy”, she said. Born in 1978, Favianna is older than Jesus and Julio; she played a pioneering role in setting up art institutions in her native Oakland in California. She was a co-founder of the group Culture Strike, which has helped fund some of the work that Julio and Jesus have done with DreamersAdrift.com. One evening at Sundance, standing in a garden lit with candles, sipping giant margaritas, I asked Favianna what she liked most about the Dreamers. “They exemplify the best artistic practices,” she said. “They take risks, they speak truth and they are unapologetic.”

If one takes a look at the clichés that abound in US progressive circles, surely the most popular would be “We are at a turning point.” (The only close contender is one that expresses a similar sentiment: “Things have begun to shift.”) I confess to happily surrendering to that cliché on several occasions at Sundance. On my part, this was only scientific behaviour: I was taking stock of the evidence being presented to me. The Dreamers have had a huge impact on policy but also on individual lives. A fine example of the latter was present at the meeting. His name is Jose Antonio Vargas.

Vargas is a 31-year-old journalist, and joint winner of the Pulitzer Prize for reporting, who created a storm last year by admitting in a New York Times Magazine cover story that he was undocumented. Vargas had worked for several years at The Washington Post, and only a few months before he published his piece about his undocumented status, he had also written a prominent profile of Facebook-founder Mark Zuckerberg in The New Yorker. In June this year, TIME magazine featured Vargas on the cover with several dozen young Dreamers standing behind him. In his New York Times Magazine story, Vargas wrote that when he had read about the four students who walked from Miami to Washington to lobby for the DREAM Act, their courage had inspired him to come out as undocumented.

Another afternoon at Sundance, Vargas told me that people often ask him what had been more difficult: coming out as a gay man when he was in high school, or as undocumented in June last year. He said it was definitely the latter. The turning point was when he watched a YouTube video of the Dreamers. “I felt accountable and responsible,” he said. “How dare I not do anything?”

Bold acts of change demand a metaphorical coming out: daring disclosures that are accompanied by incalculable risk. That is what I learned from Vargas. But privately I had wondered if Vargas, with his high-profile coming out, felt privileged and in some ways distant from the Dreamers, who were young and often poor. I put the question to him as delicately as I could. He understood what I was asking and said, “I feel responsible, and I feel guilty. I have survivor’s guilt. I feel like I made it and most people didn’t.” There was also, for Vargas, a larger motivation. Until he disclosed his undocumented identity, his life hadn’t felt much like his own. There comes a time, he said, when we all need to do something bigger—the possibility of working for immigration reform had offered him that opportunity.

When I was back from Sundance on 3 August and read about the killings in Assam, I felt a little hopeless. Xenophobia mixed with political chicanery had led to the depiction of all Muslims as recent and illegal Bangladeshi migrants. Sure, this was also a PR problem, but not exactly reducible to just that. There was also the problem of overpopulation, and the struggle to claim scarce land. Ideas for innovative cultural resistance fled from my analysis and I fell back upon the bare and despairing consolations of Malthusian understanding. I remembered Jared Diamond’s commentary on the killings in Rwanda. Diamond had quoted a Tutsi teacher whose wife and four of five children had been killed: “The people whose children had to walk barefoot to school killed the people who could buy shoes for theirs.” It was a sad, and profound, statement. I could put it on a T-shirt. A whole world of suffering—its causes and consequences—wrung into large Garamond type and printed on fine cotton. I wasn’t being entirely flippant. I thought an effective cultural response to the killings in Assam, which we know have been abetted by the use of smuggled firearms, would be to design a poster of the sort that the folks at Sundance would have liked: on one side, it would depict people of all ethnic groups in Assam, and on the other, a stockpile of firearms that would be recognised by the victims. Below would be the question: Which One Is Illegal?