DACA Isn’t What Made Me an American

Being a Dreamer is.

Jin Park
Stephanie Mitchell / Harvard University / The Atlantic

When the Supreme Court announced its ruling in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals case on Thursday, I—like many other DACA recipients in America—felt an incredulous relief. For months, the possibility that our lives in America would be upended by just five people’s votes hung over us. Indeed, a central part of the undocumented experience for the past eight years has been to weather constant whiplash from a never-ending cycle of highs and lows across all three branches of government. But now, it seemed, the law would make room for what had always been true for us: Home is here.

These were the words DACA recipients chanted outside the Court last November, as we waited to enter oral arguments in the case. We still don’t know if we can count on staying for good, but we have always known that we are Americans, and that our advocacy for our place here is an essentially American endeavor. This is a country whose vision of citizenship is one of common responsibility—about making this place a home through our commitment to it, and constantly improving it for all who participate in its customs and institutions.

A persistent belief about America is that it is exceptional because it is governed by its people. Phrases like “To form a more perfect Union” and “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth” replay in our national memory, reminding us that American self-government, as well as the most durable features of its political culture—separation of powers, rule of law, principled pluralism, and a scheme of ordered liberty—can best allow popular sovereignty to flourish. Indeed, a core assumption of American republicanism is that citizenship entails this responsibility of self-governance.

Our activism was, in a key sense, always an endeavor of self-government, and it required an exquisite appreciation of the benefits and burdens of American self-government: that citizenship is not about picking a political party, nor is it about transmitting a list of preferences through the ballot box. Rather, it is a constantly discursive process to create the United States as a political community, a place where every member of this society is able to partake in its common political life. It is what Frederick Douglass challenged America to live up to: a nation where, despite its profound contradictions, citizens agitate their neighbors and collectively use their voices to bring the country to “have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own Constitution” and its values.

Constitutional scholars such as Bruce Ackerman argue that the U.S. Constitution “presupposes a citizenry with a sound grasp of the distinctive ideals that inspire its political practice.” Legislators, educators, and scholars lament the lack of awareness of these ideals, pointing out the disintegration of “civic catechesis” and the difficulty of inculcating republican virtues in modern America. As the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas noted, “The institutions of constitutional freedom are only worth as much as a population makes of them.” In the course of our political and social activism, we have come to deeply appreciate and fully wield the institutional and procedural features that distinguish the American experiment in self-government.

This happened in 2010, when a group of young people from Chicago stated boldly and publicly that they were “undocumented and unafraid,” then later that year when four activists marched the “Trail of Dreams” from Miami to Washington, D.C., to urge President Barack Obama to hear their stories. It has happened in countless acts of civil disobedience and coordinated anti-deportation campaigns, both public and private. It has happened in state legislatures across the country, where undocumented immigrants—understanding the tradition of American federalism—have fought to secure public education, permits, and licenses for all immigrants. It has happened countless times in Congress, where they testified before committees and advocated for themselves and their livelihood by sharing their stories in all their complexity. It happens every day, when we urge consideration of our embedment in this nation despite our lack of papers and the possibility of deportation. At all levels of society, in communities across the country, in every profession, and in government, we show up. We show up to question political authority, and partake in public deliberation about issues that deeply affect our lives.

Practicing self-government as an undocumented person therefore goes beyond voting or running for office and extends to the everyday actions required for us to do our jobs and provide for our families. We use the law, the media, grassroots organizing, and the legislative process not only because we seek to move the country to deliver on its aspirations, but also because it is the vehicle through which we humanize our lives and the lives of those we hold dear. It is the way we individualize our lives, thus resisting the ways in which the political process often homogenizes our experiences. We practice a rich self-government, one that has also been practiced out in the streets over the past month by protesters calling for the end of police brutality and institutional racism.

Some critics nonetheless point out that undocumented immigrants have broken immigration laws, and reject our agenda as merely a lawless and purely self-interested movement, unconcerned with the broader values that bind Americans to one another. Many of these critics repudiate our advocacy as a set of unscrupulous demands that lacks dispassionate civility, motivated instead by what James Madison called in “Federalist No. 10” a “common impulse of passion.”

Setting aside the notion that one should be “dispassionate” when advocating for one’s livelihood and rightful place in one’s home, what the Court couldn’t ignore is that we, despite not being recognized as Americans, have directed our energies to mobilizing the vision of America as a republican accomplishment that is achieved through constructive politics and dialogue—an America that is more than an aggregation of individual preferences. Precisely because we don’t have access to the established channels of the political process—the ability to vote or run for office, for example—our activism demands an exceptional commitment to an America made better by persistent action that stirs the sentiments of the community. For this reason, we seek to be recognized not as a depraved faction destructive of the common good, but as full Americans—part and parcel of the body politic. When DACA recipients argue that “home is here,” we are also saying that we are part of a whole.

Our activism is therefore an act of hope. We help breathe life into a contradictory ideal: that despite its deep imperfections, America can be perfected through collective civic action. Undocumented immigrants practice self-government to secure what the Supreme Court in Trop v. Dulles called “the right to have rights”—the set of social and political rights (health care, education, voting, safety-net protections, etc.) that have come to be attached to “legal” citizenship in America. But, we also practice self-government to achieve “the right to have rights” in the way Hannah Arendt used the phrase—to be seen as more than faceless abstractions in the political community, and to have our voices count in the issues that affect us. And, by lodging protest, creating legislation, and participating in institutions, we have been actively working toward the latter; we are members in the common political world that all Americans share. Now we are just waiting for the law to catch up—for the law to see us as individuals and recognize what we mean when we say, “Home is here.”

Despite the Court’s decision on Thursday, this is a dream unfulfilled. Eleven million undocumented immigrants still remain legally excluded from citizenship, despite participating in American civic culture. Although undocumented immigrants are physically present in America, making it our home is a difficult proposition, because engaging in public speech and persuasion can leave us and our community members vulnerable to immigration enforcement. We are excluded from the political process, but we advocate for our lives and count on America’s ability to change. Many speak out—both publicly and privately—to declare that the inclusion of our voices is part of perfecting the union. Practicing self-government as an undocumented immigrant, with its cycles of progress and disappointment, reveals its urgency and fragility. It often feels as if we have come to exemplify what the American political philosopher John Dewey called “the democratic faith”: an abiding belief and insistence that our system of government can deliver progress for us, despite the cynicism and disillusionment that it often reinforces.

To the Court, the question at hand was largely procedural. The judicial reviewability of DACA and the legality of its rescission under the Administrative Procedure Act seemed to have no relationship to the fact that DACA recipients had structured our entire lives around the program and its attendant benefits. During oral arguments, our reliance on DACA was discussed only under a single heading—as so-called reliance interests. Seeing this, I felt hemmed in by the law’s procedural focus, and its inability to see and understand each of us as individuals. Thankfully, the Court’s decision seeks to account for the depth of our reliance on DACA. As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion, “Access to these types of benefits is an interest ‘courts are often called upon to protect.’”

And they should. But these “reliance interests” do not capture the other side of the equation—that America relies on us, too. For example, I am a medical student, and without DACA, I would be unable to treat patients. The same is true for nearly 30,000 other DACA recipients, who now, as health-care professionals, actively contribute to the country’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic. DACA has allowed us to heal the nation, take care of our elderly, educate our young people, and more. These are contributions that cannot be understood as reliance, but rather as membership, and with membership comes reciprocity—that as Americans, we rely on one another to achieve our life plans, the ends and aims that give meaning to our lives. We must resist the urge to understand undocumented immigrants as a distant faction whose only role in our democracy can be summed up as net “benefits” and “detriments,” or as inputs on a national balance sheet. We make trade-offs when we simplify human experience—we see people through only the structural constraints they face, not the lives they have made within them.

This has always been intuitive to me. We are taught in medicine that humans embody an interconnected network of complexities—genetic, medical, social, and environmental. Thus, we are often told to “listen to your patient—because he is telling you the diagnosis.” Medicine instructs us to individuate not only because it is the ideal we aspire to, but also because it is essential to our job; to “do no harm,” one must know what will harm a patient given her needs, background, peculiarities, and future.

But in many contexts, DACA recipients are still homogenized. The label “DACA recipient” has been ascribed to a small portion of all undocumented immigrants and refers more to the executive order that initiated the program, rather than our individualities. Furthermore, in political debates, we are frequently portrayed as one of two things: disposable lawbreakers or precocious savants. What gets lost is the immense variety of backgrounds, beliefs, and attitudes represented in a group of 700,000 Americans. And in the process of our advocacy, we often help construct the DACA recipient—a young, precocious dreamer—as a cultural feature, a line arbitrarily drawn to contain those most “worthy” of citizenship. Going forward, I hope all 11 million of us will be seen as complex individuals who, by upholding institutions and participating in civic life, are already wrapped up in the mutual obligations that all Americans have to one another—obligations that make democratic politics possible.

Last November, as we walked down the steps of the Supreme Court to leave oral arguments, uncertain of the Court’s decision, we were greeted by an explosion of cheers from the hundreds who had joined to affirm the truth of our status as full Americans. What was clear in that moment is that during the course of our movement, we have never sought change in a manner that is unmoored from the country’s deepest commitments. We tell America a familiar story, stirring the country to recognize a central principle of its construction—its guiding vision of citizenship not as pieces of paper that serve as a means to possessive individualism, but rather as a creed of common responsibility. A creed that, as contested and fragmented as it may be, says that American democracy is exceptional because it is maintained by all Americans who value its ability to serve common ends.