I don’t object to the protections that DACA grants (which would be strange, given that I have benefited so much from it), nor am I against efforts to retain it. But DACA is not the endgame, and the fight to keep it needs to adopt a narrative that doesn’t criminalize the rest of the 12 million — many of whom are not valedictorians, have an indiscretion on their record or speak broken English. Without the “good immigrant” vs. “bad immigrant” narrative, and without the pressure for respectability on which our current movements are premised, there would be neither a need nor a justification for a hotline to report immigrant crimes. The president would be unable to pay lip service to only deporting “bad hombres” while actually allowing the deportation of anyone who had crossed the border. People would be unable to support policies that punish immigrants while expressing horror when a “good one” faces deportation.
And as the Black Lives Matter movement makes clear, black Americans who are “respectable” are not safe from mistreatment or violence at the hands of the state. Thus, in fighting for substantive immigration protections, we must understand how creating the status of “illegal immigrant” is not a static occurrence but an ongoing political, legal and social process; this is why it is accurate to speak of immigrants without status not as just undocumented or illegal but illegalized. This denotes a status where the immigrants are made to grovel for a humanity that ought to be presupposed.
Such a position is where we find ourselves. DACA, for all its benefits, was a Faustian bargain that we never should have struck. Our movement must make a fundamental shift in how we frame our experience in the struggle for substantive immigration protections: safety from deportation, citizenship for all 12 million and a reconceptualization of political membership in such a way that the situation we face never happens again. We deserve this not because we are good, but because we are human beings, and as Elie Wiesel proclaimed, “no human being is illegal.” As we look inward to determine where our movement went wrong, we must admit that our readiness to adopt damaging narratives hampered our long-term strategic gains for short-term objectives. Unless we move beyond DACA, we now stand to pay the price for our myopia.
Joel Sati is a PhD student in the Jurisprudence and Social Policy program at Berkeley Law and an immigrant rights activist.