The Undocumented Speak

Rick Ayers
Feb 5 · 4 min read

–a book review of We are not dreamers: Undocumented scholars theorize undocumented life in the United States by Leisy Abrego and Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales

American schooling reflects and contains all the contradictions, all the inequities that characterize the broader society. And the condition of immigrants, the designation of some people as legal and worthy while others are “less than,” is a central problem facing our students.

Now Leisy Abrego and Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales have produced a book which challenges the myths, both the vicious xenophobic ones and the problematic liberal ones, about who the undocumented students are and what should be done.

We are not dreamers: Undocumented scholars theorize undocumented life in the United States (Duke University Press) breaks important ground in research on undocumented young people. Most importantly, the volume contains ten insightful chapters, each one a project written by an undocumented researcher, theorizing the reality of our immigration debate as subject, not object, of consideration. These compelling pieces shine a clarifying light on questions of citizenship, of migration, of queer and trans immigrant lives, and of the way forward.

This book helps us consider the fundamental truths that lie beneath the rhetoric and political opportunism of our times. Joel Sati reminds us that the very language, the metaphors deployed to discuss undocumented workers, structure our thinking, frame the immigrant as an existential threat. Phrases like alien outsiders, wave of illegals, waiting in line, all dominate the consideration of these people. Indeed, the debate is framed in such a way that the undocumented represent a pathogen, invading the US body politic. The designation of citizen, the identity as “American,” is synonymous with personal power.

We are pushed to consider that the ideology of American exceptionalism claims innocence for the US, that we are just better, more civilized, more orderly and prosperous But such self-congratulation fails to account for colonial exploitation of the global south, for US sponsored military repression, and for conditions of desperation created by that history. Those who come to the US southern border are not on a lark, are not looking for a trip to Disneyland. They are following their extracted resources in an effort to survive. In a sense, the movement of those oppressed in the exterior neo-colonial zones, a phenomenon in the US and in Europe, is simply a matter of the war, the contradictions, coming home. For most immigrants, offered the most exploitative and insecure jobs, moving to the US is a matter of moving the colonial exploitation inside the borders of the metropole.

We are reminded also that many of the elements of exclusion are invisible — one cannot tell if a person is “worthy” just by looking at them, there is nothing inherent in people that makes them undocumented. But these invisible chains make some among us vulnerable on a daily basis, and as Carolina Valdavia reminds us, constantly experience fear and danger as well as economic hardship. That hardship is only compounded when a family member is deported.

One of the more illuminating insights the book provides is a critique of the liberal arguments about the DREAM Act (the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) — not the term “alien.” The narrative of the “dreamer” is the exceptional youth, the hard working, brilliant student who is pursuing the American dream. Certainly it was useful to break the charge that immigrants fit the Trump stereotype of “criminals and rapists.” But the “deserving immigrant” narrative positions the youth who are strong students as idealized neoliberal subjects who contribute to “the economy.” This approach seeks to split the community, drawing a line between these “good immigrants” and their parents, who are apparently criminals, as well as those who are struggling in school, going in and out of school because of work and survival demands.

The DREAM narrative and its proponents position the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) as the liberal, white savior story. And we also see schools and other institutions claiming their respectability by increasing diversity, a concept that itself has been commodified. Too often, this book reminds us, diversity is mobilized for self-congratulation and to reinforce notions of normative citizenship. At its best, though, the fight for diversity should be about transforming institutions to make them serve communities.

To begin to understand the fundamental questions regarding migration, refugees, and the movement of humans (today, globally, 210 million people live outside of their country of origin) we need to look at the bigger picture. White North Americans generally think of Central America as dysfunctional and violent while the US is a safe space. But in fact the treatment of people fleeing home conditions is itself a form of institutional violence. The government, acting for the wealthy, maintains monopoly on violence as well as control of resources, safety, and representation. Living a life in shadows because of constructed citizenship divisions constitutes legal violence.

The tale told by We are Not Dreamers is not only about defining the negatives, the barriers, the challenges. It is heartening to encounter Gabriela Garcia Cruz describing the way that immigrants, even without official acceptance in their new home, manage to create new, contingent communities. Through love, self-acceptance, and resilience, many learn a sense of belonging and develop the community cultural capital to thrive. We see this happening in the best of cases in our schools, where identity and community are daily contested, challenged, and reconstructed.

This volume opens up these and so many more perspectives and insights to the lives, the struggles, and the prospects of undocumented workers in the US.

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