DREAM Snatchers: Assimilation, Immigration, and the Right to Be Here

Trump’s decision to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) means that the program’s 800,000 beneficiaries have six months to leave the country, or otherwise risk deportation. Former president Barack Obama implemented the program with an executive order in 2012, allowing qualifying illegal immigrants (qualifications include a spotless criminal record and high school education) to apply for two-year permits. These permits could be renewed indefinitely and allowed them to stay in the U.S. without fear of deportation.

Trump’s decision to rescind the act was a surprise to many and a departure from his campaign rhetoric, which focused more heavily on stopping the flow of illegal immigrants into the country than on managing those already here. The decision also exposes a gaping hole in his argument for hard-line immigration policy as a whole—if Trump means to deport immigrants because they’re criminals, targeting high-achieving college students and employed young adults with no criminal history is a questionable place to start. Most analysts take the move to be more aimed at gaining leverage over Congress than Trump actually wanting to deport DREAMers (DACA beneficiaries). He just seems to care little enough to throw their lives into the bargain.

Cartoon by Lo Wall

More important than what DACA tells us about Trump, though, is what it tells us about the way Americans judge immigrants. The majority of Americans do not support the deportation of DREAMers. DACA enrollees are college students, academics, employed adults—people who have lived their entire lives in the U.S. and are integrated socially and economically. Indeed, DACA was implemented without much Republican pushback, and most understand the act as a way to protect a group of people who almost everyone agrees should be protected. Still, the DREAMers’ political weight entangled them in other immigration-related negotiations. It’s not surprising that public outcry has been dramatic.

Yet when defenders of DACA talk about how DREAMers tend to be well-educated, or how they had a typical childhood, how they speak English, or otherwise emphasize their “Americanness” to justify the program, they suggest that the right to live here is contingent upon social assimilation. In validating this justification, we uphold the idea that immigrants must prove they belong—and that “belonging,” assimilation, integration, and productivity are definable, and their absence, punishable.

In most cases, these terms are much greyer than what a study of DACA alone would suggest. Take even a purely economic argument: ending DACA would take a toll on the U.S. economy, reducing economic growth by an estimated $280 billion and costing the federal government about $60 billion. It’s easy to see why deporting a group of primarily young professionals would result in such a loss. But the economic benefit provided by DREAMers is not totally contrary to that of immigration as a whole. Despite Trump’s rhetoric, most recent research suggests that the long-term impact of increased immigration on wages for U.S. workers is zero, if not slightly positive. Rather than cutting into a fixed labor supply, immigrants today generally take jobs that complement the ones filled by U.S.-born citizens. So, if your measure of belonging is economic productivity, DREAMers are not an exception to the rule.

Then there’s the “social fabric” argument, which stipulates that it is the responsibility of immigrants to weave themselves into American culture and stitch American activities and ideals into their own identity. Speak English; play baseball; shop at the grocery store where everyone else shops; eat at the places everyone else eats. It’s a nice metaphor, but I object to comparing a person’s livelihood to a craft project and to placing the full burden of intercultural engagement on the immigrant alone.

A majority of Americans (58 percent, including 47 percent of self-identified conservatives) will say that growing diversity makes their country a better place to live, according to Gallup data. And just 7 percent say that growing diversity makes the country worse. This contrasts to most European countries, where most view diversity as neutral. Yet Americans seem perfectly comfortable criticizing immigrants for withdrawing into isolated communities, even as they themselves make little effort to meaningfully engage with other cultures. Americans will talk happily of learning opportunities, yet avoid putting themselves in the intercultural context in which learning occurs. At the same time, our idea of what cultural engagement looks like is narrowly defined. For example, there is a large Brazilian community in a town near mine. Most of its residents speak little English, yet many have started successful small businesses and work in other majority-white suburbs. Many times I’ve heard negative commentary on how they’ve “segregated themselves”—even though the town I live in is overwhelmingly white. Why is it an immigrant’s fault for not integrating into the surrounding society instead of everyone else’s fault for failing to invite immigrants into it, or for pushing immigrants away with social ostracism? Why does “cultural engagement” seem to necessarily entail substituting American culture for an immigrant’s original one, and not native-born Americans actively seeking to connect with what is native for someone else?

Of course the DACA repeal is controversial. What about the over 40 million other immigrants in the U.S., documented or otherwise? That DREAMers have the right to remain here is indisputable. DREAMers remain the face of pro-immigration activism; however, we do little to undermine the expectation of assimilation that overshadows our claims to diversity.

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