Letter to the Editor: Dreamers are not legal pawns, and they’re not trophies either

As we get into resolving the political crisis initiated by this administration’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, policy makers and advocates often turn to statistics and mathematical quantifiers to justify making a case for “unauthorized aliens” who arrived as minors in violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act. This is the legal definition of a DACA recipient, one by a system that dehumanizes and catalogues people into a taxonomy of legal classifications. It is indicative of how our laws look at problems over people. And it reveals an ethos that identifies people by the legal violations attached to them, as if they have no humanity or agency.

This is why we get stuck when we try to categorize people by laws that don’t exist yet. Right now, these people are, by legal definition, “unlawfully present aliens who arrived as minors in violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act.” So until Congress creates a legal pathway to citizenship for them, a “Dreamer” (in the strictest sense) has no affirmative legal definition. Put another way, Dreamers are not defined by who they are — they are defined by who they are not. This is why the law cannot fully resolve this current problem without a pathway to citizenship on the books.

We accept Dreamers because they are not the “criminals.” We accept Dreamers because they are not unproductive “free-loaders.” We accept Dreamers because they are not the undesirable underclass of immigrants that we have already predetermined as unworthy untouchables. Even the one redeeming civil rights case discussing education rights for undocumented children still frames the narrative as how they are beneficial to U.S. citizens — how they are helpful and advantageous in the same way that a plant may be welcomed into a new environment as a symbiotic companion species.

In Plyler v. Doe, the Supreme Court made clear that legislation punishing undocumented children for the mistakes of their parents would not comport with fundamental conceptions of justice. But this was because these children would be dis-served by a failure to assimilate and participate in and uphold “American societal values,” robbed of an opportunity to add value to the United States’ economy. Therefore, the Court reasoned, these children had a right to a public K-12 education regardless of how they arrived in the United States. In this case, readers will find no discussion of their personal complexity, or the various detours of their incredible journey. They will find no narrative that does justice to their resilience, courage or humanity. They’ll only see a commentary on how innocent, well-behaved and handy they are.

Have we ever considered that the Dreamers weren’t here for our own amusement? Would we accept them if they were anything less than the incredibly exceptional people that they’ve been pressured to become? Did we ever stop to ask what we could do for them, as opposed to making demands of what they could do for us? What if we took them as they are — right now, as human beings — and supported them in attaining the one thing that they have always asked of us: their citizenship.

No legal framework exists to discuss a Dreamer’s harmful experiences of trauma, pain and uncertainty. And what’s worse, in negotiating for a pathway to citizenship, cynics demand that we quantify Dreamers, transforming them into symbols of economic progress in order to garner an act of mercy on their behalf. We dehumanize and monetize them, so that they only generate value to our society insofar as they benefit white, mainstream, American society.

Thus, as we move into the final push for Dreamers — as we decide as a country if we’re going to accept nearly 800,000 people for the people they are — we must be mindful to take ourselves out of the equation and stop asking how we stand to benefit from Dreamers. We must take a stand for people who should be allowed to be just as autonomous as we are. And we must commit to advocating for a group of people, and simultaneously allow them to be as complex and nuanced as they choose to be. After all, isn’t that the whole (albeit aspirational) point of liberty in the first place?

Yes, call for a pathway to citizenship because of how deserving they are, for indeed they are an extraordinary community of people. But more importantly, call for a pathway to citizenship because even if they were not exceptional, even if they were just as ordinary as we all have the liberty to be, they are still deserving of the natural and inalienable rights guaranteed by the proposition that all humans are created equal.

Christine Revelo-Lee
Third-year Pritzker School of Law student