A syllabus for understanding the challenges facing undocumented youth.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which granted provisional work permits and protection from deportation to undocumented youth, has been at the center of a maelstrom of political debate. Signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2012 and rescinded by President Donald Trump in 2017, the DACA program and those who are protected under it have been sent into a tailspin of uncertainty as Congress remains gridlocked on long-term immigration reform. This stalemate triggered a government shutdown in January, and though President Trump gave Congress a March 5th deadline to hammer out a new policy, no progress on a legislative solution has yet to be made.
In the meantime, challenges from federal courts in New York and California have issued injunctions against terminating the program, allowing those young immigrants who already have DACA permits to continue applying for renewals. This stay, however, is only temporary. If no long-term solution is reached, hundreds of thousands of young immigrants whose parents brought them to the United States as children could find themselves unable to legally work and eligible for deportation.
For a more detailed look at the recent political and cultural history that brought us to this moment, we’ve gathered below a short syllabus of books that explore the rhetoric, policies, and activism around the present US immigration debate.
Young people have been at the vanguard of all of the United States’ great social justice movements, and the fight to recognize, embrace, and protect undocumented youth is no exception. In 2010, a flurry of mostly student-led demonstrations spread across the country in support of the DREAM Act—the legislation that would grant the young and undocumented a legal right to remain in the United States. The DREAMers, as they came to be known, made a powerful demand to be recognized not only as US residents but as human beings who have the right to lead a public and political life. Named an outstanding academic title by Choice in 2014, Walter J. Nicholls’s The DREAMers takes readers on a journey through this youth movement, the tenacious energy of which transformed the national immigration debate. Focusing on the experiences of DREAMers in Southern California, Nicholls makes the case that their struggle provides both sobering and inspirational lessons for any marginalized people fighting for rights, whether in the United States or beyond.
Debuting this month, Alexis M. Silver’s Shifting Boundaries offers a timely look into the lives of Latino youth as they navigate the ever-shifting landscape of immigration policy. By delving into the experiences of young immigrants in a small North Carolina town, Silver reveals how each layer of the system—from the municipal level to the upper echelons of the federal government—creates contradictions and barriers that leave undocumented youth with a tenuous lease on the American dream. This incongruent political landscape creates a crisis of belonging: Long-term noncitizen residents aspire for full membership in a society that has arrayed a vast machinery of exclusion against them. Maligned as criminals and national outsiders, these young people find themselves at the center of the United States’ tortuous immigration debates, and Silver’s elegantly written study reveals the unique challenges they face in these tumultuous times.
ALSO SEE: Chapter 1 of Shifting Boundaries.
Now in its second edition, Leo R. Chavez’s The Latino Threat is a contemporary classic in its own right. By unpacking a series of wide-ranging stereotypes, cultural myths, racialized punditry, and media spectacles, Chavez reveals how Latino immigrants, and those of Mexican descent in particular, are denigrated as a dormant menace in US society. These narratives rely on a number of oft-repeated prejudices, the cumulative result of which, argues Chavez, is to paint Latinos as “illegitimate” Americans. This second edition, fully revised and updated, includes new chapters that focus in particular on the children of undocumented immigrants and the undocumented youth whose futures hinge on the caprices of hotly politicized immigration debates. Where we go from here, Chavez argues, will be a defining moment in how we understand what it means to be a US citizen; such debates are really about whom we, as a nation, judge eligible to become one of “us.” And the stories that become media fodder can provide essential information—or misinformation—on the nature of those communities fighting for inclusion.
ALSO SEE: An interview with Leo R. Chavez on nativism and the immigration debate.
Children born in the United States to undocumented immigrant parents have become a flashpoint in the nation’s immigration debate. Pejoratively referred to by some as “anchor babies,” these children enjoy the rights and protections of being natural-born citizens, regardless of the citizenship status of their parents. But the debate over the citizenship status of immigrant children has a long history in the United States. For over two hundred years, Americans have argued over the place of immigrant children, often producing provocative rhetoric suggesting that such children are not “real” citizens, their birthright notwithstanding. In his succinct and timely Stanford Brief, Anchor Babies and the Challenge of Birthright Citizenship, Leo R. Chavez explores the contentious history of birthright citizenship, the vitriol that has been injected into conversations about the children of undocumented parents, and the challenges those children face today—from state policies that deny them birth certificates to the fear of losing their family members to deportation. By examining this derogatory term in its political, historical, and social contexts, Chavez calls upon us to exorcise it from public discourse and work toward building a more inclusive nation.
ALSO SEE: Leo R. Chavez’s talk at Harvard University’s DACA Seminar.
Considered together, the topics of immigration, citizenship, and motherhood stand at the center of contemporary debates over inclusion and exclusion—who really belongs and is a fully entitled member of US society, and who is not. Kathleen M. Coll’s Remaking Citizenship focuses on these questions through an ethnographic dive into a Latina grassroots community organization in San Francisco, Mujeres Unidas y Activas. Weaving the stories of Mexican and Central American women with history and analysis of the anti-immigrant upsurge in 1990s California, Coll explores issues that many immigrant women confront—from economic subordination, to domestic violence, to discrimination. Drawing on the experiences of immigrant women, this book argues for a reformulation of our definitions of citizenship and politics, one inspired by women who are usually perceived as being excluded from both.
ALSO SEE: “24 Books, Essays, and Other Texts to Read Because You’re Still Having Trouble Processing the Election,” compiled by Melissa Harris-Perry and featuring Coll’s Remaking Citizenship.