Reflecting on DREAMers in Times of Uncertainty

Chaebong Nam

Deferred Action for Child Arrival (DACA) is being challenged at the moment, but the 2012 landmark victory young activists made for  the DREAM  (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act cannot be undermined. Let us look back on the pathways the young activists went through to achieve the milestone legislation under the Obama administration. The Ten Questions help young people streamline complicated processes involved in this decade-long activism, understand its key legacies, and regain the momentum for change.


1. Why does it matter to me?

The DREAM Act affected millions of undocumented young people. Their illegal immigration status was no fault of their own, but those youth bore the legal consequences. Legal and ethical problems surfaced here. Due to the deportation risk, undocumented youth had to stay invisible in public life, and their future opportunities, including college education, were immensely restricted. These young individuals also struggled daily with issues of authenticity and insecurity daily at school, at work, in friend groups, and in their overall social life.

The DREAM Act was the only alternative these young people could take not only for seeking their individual wellbeing but also for participating in democracy building as a visible citizen. Eligibility for citizenship in the DREAM Act required: entry to the U.S. at the age of 15 or younger; at least five years of residency in the country, good moral character, a high school diploma or an equivalent degree, and attending college or military service for at least two years. Many young people were ready to meet these requirements as a sign of their commitment to building a life in the U.S. 



2. How much should I share?

A YouTube video related in 2010, “My name is Muhammad and I am undocumented,” shows a young man who declared himself undocumented. He describes the story around his illegal entry to the U.S. at the age of three, his revoked college admissions in the wake of Congress’s failure to pass the 2007 DREAM Act, and finally his closed future. He was now a DREAM activist. At the end of the video, he urged other peers to join his coming out by sharing their stories, that all together they could make a louder voice and rally around DREAM activism. Mohammad’s story triggered a chain of online coming out, especially during the National Coming Out of the Shadows Week campaign in 2011. Coming out as undocumented was extremely risky, even reckless. Deportation could have been the next call for those undocumented peers, which would literally cost their entire social life in the country. A number of undocumented young people, nonetheless, uploaded their video testimonials of their stories onto media platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo. Enacting visibility, whether brave or reckless, was the only way for them to move on to the next phase.   



3. How can I make it about more than myself?

Hailing from all corners of the globe, undocumented American youth grew up in vastly diverse backgrounds. Uniting them together across differences was crucial to building momentum into deeper engagement. Young activists employed one simple strategy––telling peers “You are not alone.” hosted an archive of stories and struggles of undocumented youth from Brazil, Mexico, Guatemala, South Korea, Taiwan, Croatia, Fiji, Israel, Peru, France, Pakistan, Nigeria, Mali, Ghana, Indonesia, Thailand, Senegal, Lebanon, and the Philippines.[i]

Despite the geographical and cultural differences, one shared message stood out: the agony of invisibility and a dream of citizenship. The coming out strategy was originally adopted from the gay rights movement. Several youth came out both as undocumented and as queer during DREAM activism. They repurposed the coming out strategy from its origin for a new issue, as seeing invisibility a common concern for both undocumented youth and queer youth. And the strategy worked. Stories of someone else who experienced the same affliction of invisibility inspired many undocumented youth to come out, partaking in a shared vision and embracing a shared risk. The coming out campaign arguably produced the biggest momentum in DREAM activism.




4.  Where do we start?

Young activists went where their peers already hung out: YouTube, Vimeo, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter. Those platforms were highly accessible, easy to use, and free. The activists circulated videos, music, messages, news and information, growing their networks across the nation. Instead of creating something new, the activists leveraged what had been already out there and taken up by their peers. The official portal site for DREAM activism,, was launched much later, after the activism had gained national attention.







5. How can we make it easy and engaging for others to join in?

Being part of DREAM activism wasn’t easy. It was difficult, because it required the activists to first come out as undocumented. It was a huge commitment. As the network grew, however, this step became easier, or at least less intimidating, than before. Though still remaining high, the barriers were not as insurmountable. Many more peers were rallying under the slogans “No papers, no fear” or “I am undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic.” Young activists also enlivened their heavy message with a dose of pop culture jokes, such as describing Superman as an illegal alien.[ii] Related memes, videos, and blog posts were circulated widely online, prompting many young folk––not merely undocumented youth but other youth––to think about the DREAM Act from a different angle. The remixing and repurposing of pop culture, a signature characteristic in digital activism, played a role in the movement’s successful progress as making and made participation easy and engaging



6 &7. How do we get wisdom from crowds and handle the downside of crowds?  

The wisdom of crowds was vital to DREAM activism. From crafting riveting messages, figuring out legal recourse and strategies, spearheading obstacles, and making connections with lawmakers to encouraging one another to stay hopeful, young activists made the most use of a body of collective knowledge both online and offline. But the crowds also come with risks. Trolling, hate speech, racial and religious prejudices, and anti-immigration sentiment challenged the activists. How did young activists respond to those problems? The rule of thumb was sticking to democratic values––equality and freedom, human dignity, and nonviolence––in all tactics and strategies.




8. Are we pursuing voice or influence or both?

Both. First and foremost, DREAM activism clearly pursued influence on a policy level. But the activism reached far beyond that. The collective voice also sought community building, identity formation, and vision sharing among the activists and many undocumented young people.



9. How do we get from voice to changes?

DREAM activists directly pushed lawmakers and politicians using both mainstream and social media. Finding allies who could stand up for their cause––granting undocumented immigrant youth an alternative path to citizenship––in the traditional policy-making settings was necessary. In 2012, Benita Veliz became the first undocumented youth to speak at the Democratic National Convention. Young activists also challenged the Obama campaign on its lukewarm stance toward the DREAM Act.

The road to legislation was still rocky. The DREAM Act bill again failed to pass in December 8, 2010. Grievances and frustration mushroomed among those affected. The coming out campaign reached its height, most strikingly, when in June 2011 Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist José Antonio Vargas revealed himself to be an undocumented immigrant.[iii]This high-profile figure’s revelation drew huge attention to the bill, eventually contributing to the bill’s passage.

Benita Beliz
Benita Beliz

José Antonio Vargas
José Antonio Vargas







10. How can we find allies?

DREAM activists made many efforts to grow alliances with non-governmental organizations or lobbying groups such as the DREAM Action Coalition. The allies brokered the legislation process on behalf of young people inside the political realm, but they also fashioned creative media strategies for public awareness-raising and pushed lawmakers from the outside. Aid from legal services organizations (e.g., the Legal Aid Society) was essential for stable and secure participation, too.[iv] On June 15, 2012, President Barack Obama used an executive order to implement Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA); this halted the deportation of young undocumented individuals who matched certain criteria previously proposed under the DREAM Act. It was not an overwhelming victory, but it was a substantial success.



What I propose here is one way to interpret DREAM activism using the Ten Questions. Many other interpretations are possible; various teaching strategies can be applied, which will deepen the educational experience in the classroom. For instance, analyzing an event following the Ten Questions requires intense intellectual effort from students. For investigating core issues of concerns, students need to do fact-checking, discern information credibility, streamline key events in a chronological order, and read articles from multiple viewpoints for balanced thinking. For a different approach, students can focus on one particular activist in lieu of a large event and see how one’s narrative evolves into a greater narrative for social change. The Ten Questions can serve as a guidepost for student action projects in school, too (See the case study examples), that students conducted using the Ten Questions as part of a pilot study. Though this case study project was performed at the college level, the basic format can be easily adapted to a high school or junior-high school context.

The purpose of the example offered here is to present an easy starting point to get to know the Ten Questions. Once being versed in the Ten Questions, social studies teachers can effectively incorporate them into other lessons and projects. They can bring in other angles and questions, of course. The ways in which equity, efficacy, and self-protection are rolled out can vary from case to case; final evaluation on what made civic agency successful for the case in question also may vary. Such variation is good. It enriches one’s understanding of complexity and significance pertaining to digital politics. 




[i] The full list includes Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, South Korea, Taiwan, Chile, Croatia, Fiji, Israel, Peru, France, Pakistan, Venezuela, Nigeria, Mali, Guatemala, Argentina, Haiti, Ghana, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Senegal, Lebanon, and the Philippines (Beltrán,2015).

[ii] Erick Huerta (2010, December 5). The double life of an undocumented student. Zócalo Public Square. Retrieved from

[iii] Vargas, J. A. (2011, June 22). My life as an undocumented immigrant. The New York Times. Retrieved from

[iv] The Legal Aid Society. (2012, August 16). The legal aid society is assisting young undocumented immigrants in New York City Apply for Deferred Action. Retrieved from