Meet the Dreamers Who Walked 1,500 Miles to Stay in America

Meet the Dreamers Who Walked 1,500 Miles to Stay in America


Originally published by The NY Times

How a Group of Young Undocumented Immigrants Helped Change What It Means to Be American
By Laura Wides-Muñoz
Illustrated. 361 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $27.99.

On Jan. 1, 2010, four student activists began a 1,500-mile walk from Miami to Washington, D.C. They wore white Nikes and, later, white T-shirts that said “Undocumented.” They chose the start of a new decade for their walk because it seemed auspicious. Exhausted by years of lobbying for immigration reform that never came to pass and a Dream Act that never materialized, the friends wanted to stage a protest. When they got to Washington, they hoped to persuade President Obama to address their predicament, one shared by hundreds of thousands of young people.

That quandary, aptly summarized by the veteran journalist Laura Wides-Muñoz in “The Making of a Dream: How a Group of Young Undocumented Immigrants Helped Change What It Means to Be American,” was this: They were “kids raised in a country whose language and culture they identified with, whose Pledge of Allegiance they recited every morning in school — and yet a country that sought to render them akin to ghosts the moment they became adults, making it impossible for most to seek a college education, work legally or have any official say in the political system.” Consigning young immigrants to illegitimacy makes no sense, Wides-Muñoz points out, because taxpayers invest about $130,000 to educate a given student, and can only recoup that investment when students go on to work legally and pay taxes themselves.

“The Making of a Dream” is a sweeping chronicle of the immigrant rights movement in which the four walkers took part. The teenagers profiled by Wides-Muñoz refused to accept their parents’ ghostlike status, and instead evolved into some of the most politically engaged student leaders in the nation. Wides-Muñoz casts their fight as the latest chapter in the civil rights movement; as they planned their march, the Latino students from Miami read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” and selected a route that allowed them to visit important sites from the civil rights era.

The young Dreamers wrestled with one question in particular: What should they ask of Barack Obama? Initially, the country’s first biracial president had signaled that he wanted to pass comprehensive reform, but then Wall Street melted down. After that, Obama became consumed by the raucous debate over health care. It had been thus for years. Early in George W. Bush’s presidency, the proposed legislation known as the Dream Act, which would have granted a path to citizenship to children who had been brought into the country without legal permission through no fault of their own, received promising support from key leaders like Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. But its first big hearing in Congress was slated for Sept. 12, 2001. After 9/11, the Dream Act sputtered, and Congress instead passed the Patriot Act, allocating more technology and personnel to domestic security, including surveillance along the borders.

Yet the Dreamers kept fighting. Wides-Muñoz expertly describes the broader reform movement, through vivid thumbnail portraits of key students. The walk to Washington by the four activists provides one of the more dramatic sections of her narrative. The students believed Obama might sympathize with them because he had a Kenyan father. But they knew comprehensive reform would be a tough sell. At the same time, asking for passage of the Dream Act felt like a betrayal of the family members who had sacrificed so much on their behalf. The Dreamers did not want to choose between saving their parents and saving themselves.

One of the walkers, Gaby Pacheco, had an idea: Instead of picking between competing solutions, one that would grant a path to citizenship to minors only, the other that would grant it to every undocumented immigrant regardless of age, why not ask for “deferred action” for all Dreamers — in other words, a guarantee that law-abiding students would not be targeted for deportation. Then they could continue to support both comprehensive reform and the Dream Act. Gaby and a friend hatched the idea after getting to know Marie Gonzalez, a Missouri student who had been allowed to remain in the United States even after her undocumented status was publicly revealed. Marie’s father had overstayed a visa, and wound up on the evening news because he worked for the state governor. After Marie began blogging about the family’s ordeal, federal officials deferred her deportation because she had not broken laws of her own volition (though they deported her parents). The four students from Miami envisioned making deferred action available to all who shared Marie’s circumstances. And that was what they asked for when they finally made it to Washington: deferred action for childhood arrivals, or DACA, as the program eventually became known.

Wides-Muñoz covered immigration for The Associated Press, and she capably depicts how the Dreamer movement grew out of two decades’ worth of political activity by students, attorneys, politicians and grass-roots advisers, all of whom helped make DACA a reality. That program, which went into effect in 2012, transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of undocumented students by granting them temporary permission to remain in the country and to work legally, even though it offered them no path to citizenship.

It is deeply ironic that a book about the achievements of these student activists must conclude with the election of Donald J. Trump, who campaigned on the idea of ending DACA entirely. While Trump has since expressed sympathy for Dreamers, one of his first actions as president was to appoint as his attorney general Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Sessions appears throughout Wides-Muñoz’s saga as one of the primary critics of the immigrant rights movement, a figure who blocked any attempt at comprehensive reform and every iteration of the Dream Act.

Even as Trump vacillates, it seems likely that his administration will take a hard stance against immigrants who lack legal status, and the tenuous victory for belonging that the student activists worked so hard to achieve is likely to unravel. The only real solution to structural illegitimacy that will adequately protect these immigrants is comprehensive reform with a path to citizenship. For that to pass Congress, however, these brave kids and their allies will have to take up the fight once more. Wides-Muñoz reminds us that thanks to the ability of young people to dream, what seems impossible today may yet prove achievable tomorrow.

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