A right to DREAM: The historical role of youth in the immigrant rights movement

Heidi R. Woll

The movement to defend the rights of immigrants, particularly those of Latinx[1] undocumented immigrants, was spearheaded by youth in the 1980s and 1990s. Most of these youth, having arrived in the United States as children, found themselves in a precarious position when entering adulthood, when many of them discovered – either for the first time or not – that they would encounter significant difficulties when seeking employment or going to college, as well as when embarking on simpler tasks such as obtaining driver’s licenses or boarding flights.

Many of these same youth would also experience the childhood trauma of family separation, on account of the deportation of their parents and/or other family members. All of these distinctive issues ultimately led, and continue to lead, to many youth to be particularly conscious of their own “illegality” – especially when paired with the tangible hostility of many Americans, who view their existence on American soil, void of legal citizenship as “a threat to national sovereignty and the rule of law.”[2]

This essay therefore examines how a state of being formed a movement: How, by adopting the name of ‘Dreamers’ and exposing themselves to the country as a unified group, a vast number of undocumented Latinx youth reshaped their sociopolitical identities in the public sphere; from invaders to contributors, from ‘illegal’ to quintessentially American. This story is integral to the political movement to defend the rights of immigrants that underwent significant growth towards the end of the 20th century and is in full effect today. It also raises inherently difficult questions, particularly regarding the need to strike a political balance that accounts both for the economic viability of adopting a more open-border immigration system, and for the moral drive to hold true to the principles expounded by the founders of a country largely built by and for immigrants.

The role of these Latinx youth in the immigrant rights debate is, however, in a certain way, atypical. Walter Nicholls, author of The DREAMers: How the Undocumented Youth Movement Transformed the Immigrant Rights Debate, points out that the immigrant rights movement is exceptional to recent scholarship on immigration politics in the United States and Europe, which largely suggests that usually, “hostile environments would encourage undocumented immigrants to turn away from the public sphere of receiving countries.”[3] Following this behavioural trend, we would expect to find that DREAMers – the name often used to describe the undocumented youth referred to in this essay, along with non-Latinx undocumented youth – would become less politically active following Congress’s multiple failures to pass the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. This act would have facilitated the granting of conditional and, meeting certain requirements, permanent residency for undocumented persons brought to the United States as minors; therefore, its failure to pass dealt a major blow to the undocumented youth whose lives it would have improved. Contrary to the hypothesis outlined by Nicholls, however, the DREAMer movement – largely led by the children of Latinx immigrants and supported by non-governmental organizations – appears to have provided a safe environment for youth to ‘come out’ as undocumented in spite of the increased risk of doing so since the declaration of the war on terror.

Illegal immigration through the southern border of the United States accelerated in the mid-1970s and even more in the first half of the 1980s, with “apprehension at the Mexican border ([at the time] 98 percent Mexican nationals), arrests of deportable aliens, deportations, and visa overstays all showing an upward trend.”[4] The number of annually apprehended illegal immigrants first surpassed one million in 1977, and by 1986 it had reached 1,670,000.[5] Still, the actual amount of illegal immigrants during this period, as with any other, is however very difficult to precisely quantify, since the clandestine nature of the illegal alien population makes it extremely difficult to count.[6]

The Immigration and Naturalization Service’s (INS) apprehension and deportation figures and studies of visa abuse “indicated that the Central American countries, particularly El Salvador, [had] become the major source of illegal immigrants after Mexico” by the late 1980s. Moreover, The State Department in 1985 “estimated illegal immigration from El Salvador and Guatemala in 1977 at 25,000 and 15,000 a year respectively; with 350,000 Salvadorans already in the United States illegally by 1980 when civil strife in that country began spurring the outflow.”[7]

In the introduction to Dreamers: An Immigrant Generation’s Fight for their American Dream (2015), Eileen Truax holds that “There are about eleven million undocumented people living in the United States. You can’t tell who they are just by looking at them, but we know they are here […] While it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly who’s undocumented and who’s not by sight, we know one thing with certainty: our daily lives wouldn’t be the same without them.”[8] The book goes on to explore the positive impacts of undocumented immigrants on everything from the American economy to their more personal effect on the lives of everyday Americans – showing that any given American is likely to have a DREAMer as a friend, neighbor, lover, even a fellow student or co-worker.

Philip Kasinitz (2008) went on to argue that “the answer to the question of what large-scale migration will mean for American society […] lies less with the immigrants themselves than with their ambivalently American children. […] This new “second generation” – the children of at least one immigrant parent born in the United States or who arrived by the age of 12 – accounted for one out of six 18- to 32-year-olds in the nation and one out of four of all Americans under 18. In many ways, they will define how today’s immigrant groups become tomorrow’s American ethnic groups.”[9] He explains that

Before 1965, immigrants to the United States were overwhelmingly European. Since then, most have come from other parts of the globe. Given how the United States has historically constructed racial categories, they are not generally regarded as “white.” Yet they are not African Americans either. Since the cleavage between the “white” descendants of immigrants and the “black” descendants of American slaves has so strongly marked big cities, the emergence of a large and rapidly growing group that does not fit easily into either of these categories has enormous potential consequences.”[10]

One of these consequences was the Sanctuary Movement, which began in late 1981 when a small number of churches started sheltering Central American illegal immigrants. The motives of the movement’s proponents were usually of a humanitarian nature. Congregations would give sanctuary to Guatemalans or Salvadorans at risk of being detained and deported by the INS; additionally, movement members would bring Salvadorans and Guatemalans into the US, traveling to Central America to accompany displaced communities, organizing caravans to move Salvadorans and Guatemalans to other parts of the US, and enabling undocumented refugees to testify publicly about their experiences. They lobbied Congress, raised bail bond money for detained Central Americans, and helped detainees file for political asylum.[11] While the sanctuary movement at this time was led both by church congregations and nonprofit legal organizations, it would echo later in the discussion of the current sanctuary movement for Central American migrants.

A New York Times Retro Report video entitled “Safe Haven: The Sanctuary Movement” describes the history of Rev. John Fyfe, who explained how, upon attempting to help undocumented migrants from Guatemala and El Salvador file for asylum, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) attempted to deport them on the grounds that they were economic migrants, rather than fleeing persecution. Seeing clear torture marks on their bodies, Fyfe hid them in the basement of his church. Though Fyfe and the many pastors that were involved in this initial movement were not youths, they displayed an interesting pattern of behavior, including a defiance towards authority that appears youthful in nature. “Afraid he might be arrested,” the report goes on to say, “Fyfe did something unexpected. He went public.” Fyfe goes on to explain, “if we went public with what we were doing, then maybe we would have a base of support.”[12]

The Central American youth that attended churches like Fyfe’s saw a supportive environment there, of a kind they had found nowhere else in the United States. Mario Rivas, for instance, was a young man that had been active in student politics back home in El Salvador. Growing up, he had worked with the local priest, who had organized “a kind of Christian base community for children” that played an integral part of the community in Ilopongo, Mario’s hometown, visiting the sick and elderly on Sundays to help with chores.

In contrast, Mario found that mass in the United States was “a cold place” and that the churches he attended lacked the social action commitment he associated with Christianity. He stopped attending until he found La Placita, a church founded by Fathers Olivares and Kennedy, the latter of which had met John Fyfe during his first assignment as a priest in a small parish in San Diego. Fyfe had asked him if that parish could be part of the Sanctuary network, and he accepted, though the refugee work needed to be kept covert since his superior worried about publicity. Years later, Father Kennedy, together with Father Olivares, formed the Centro Pastoral, which provided Central American refugees attending La Placita with somewhere to stay, medical care, legal services and other previously unmet needs.

For Mario, “the public declaration of sanctuary at La Placita in 1985” was a “historic moment,” since “it was a place where [they] could tell [their] own stories – a place from which [they] could challenge U.S. foreign policy toward Central America.”[13] La Placita also worked closely with the Sanctuary Committee of Southern California Inter-faith Task Force on Central America (SCITCA) to “coordinate speaking engagements by refugees in churches and other locations.”[14] Mario actively partook in the creation of the National Alliance of Sanctuary Committees, which promoted dialogue across the many Sanctuary communities across the U.S., emphasizing the link between the plight of refugees and U.S. foreign policy in the region.

Even more relevant to the role of youth in the Sanctuary movement was the decisive role that university student governments took in creating sanctuary campuses. By the end of 1985, the Sanctuary movement had spread to 10 colleges in California, with the Universities of California Berkeley, Irvine, and Los Angeles, California State University Northridge, and Pitzer and Pomona Colleges in Claremont pledging their support for the movement.

Pitzer and Pomona, as Chinchilla, Hamilton and Loucky note, were interesting cases. Several congregations in the Claremont area had already declared sanctuary beginning in 1982, with fifty Guatemalans and Salvadorans settled by May 1985. But unlike the other colleges, the Pitzer and Pomona student representatives themselves did not decide for the student body; instead, they cast a vote so that the student body could choose whether or not to make the colleges sanctuaries. The result was that more than 80% of the students at each college voted in favour.[15] The students invoked the Geneva Convention, as did the students at several other colleges, to defend their choice – as one Pomona student stated: “What we are doing is neither illegal nor an act of civil disobedience. We are upholding international law. We call upon our government to do the same.”[16] Following much debate, and spurred by the impetus of churchgoers and students all over the area, many cities started to issue resolutions supporting sanctuary: Berkeley issued such a resolution in February 1985, and the City Council of Los Angeles declared LA a sanctuary city on November 27th, 1985.[17]

The Sanctuary Movement was an essential precursor to the broader immigrant rights movement that developed in the 1990s and continues to develop into the 21st century. It helped to educate church congregations, college students and the general public about the plight of refugees, which may have also made them more ready to understand the issues of, for instance, Mexican and Central American migrants coming to the US out of economic necessity rather than immediate danger. This, accompanied with the progression of prior decades away from the heightened nationalism of the World Wars to a more global effort towards international cooperation, based on the prevalent shared socialist ideals of youth during and after the Vietnam War. The impression of a more globalized world, wherein the flow of people from one country to another is less a transgression and more a natural result of both economic and humanitarian necessity is emblematic of this new outlook.

Whereas the Sanctuary movement enabled the safeguarding of the undocumented immigrants and their children, spreading awareness about the injustice of their – and their countries’ – conditions, the immigrant rights movement took it one step further. While the first movement dealt mostly with the immigrants and their children, newcomers first coming to the United States, the 2000s, in particular, began to witness the unique circumstances of youth that had been brought to the United States at a very young age by their parents. As such, they were “undocumented involuntarily” – with no Social Security number, proof of residency or any document to legalize their presence in the country they had grown up in[18]. This situation carries on today for thousands of youth, referred to as the Dreamers – a reference, as previously mentioned, to the DREAM Act, a bill introduced in 2001 to the US Senate that, had it not failed, “would have granted undocumented youth conditional residency status and, after meeting a series of criteria—including graduating from college or serving in the military—[…] would [have made them] eligible for permanent residency.”[19]

A second group that the media has paid more and more attention to in recent years has been the unaccompanied minors arriving into the United States across the border with Mexico. Also undocumented, the treacherous journey north has become a risk that an increasing number of these minors are willing to take for the promise of a life free of violence, particularly at the hands of gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18. But these youth and children are faced with an even higher threat of deportation than other illegal immigrants: As immigration attorney Nick Marritz explained to The Atlantic: “The government is trying to deport them as fast as it can. They’re putting them at the front of the line.”[20] The only legal support for unaccompanied minors is the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status law, or SIJS, which was enacted into law following a 1990 amendment of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

However, in 1997, a U.S. Senator from New Mexico claimed that the law was a “giant loophole,” telling Congress that “every visiting student from overseas can have a petition filed in a state court … declaring that they’re award and in need of foster care.”[21] An amendment was then passed that restricted the use of SIJS only to children that could prove that they were dependent upon the state because of “abuse, abandonment, or neglect.” This, Marritz argued, was not a problem, because most of the cases he dealt with did accurately fit that description. Still, this issue – including the broader debate over the failed passing of the DREAM Act – remains one of the immigrant rights movement’s biggest topics since it puts children with supportive parents or guardians at risk for deportation, although returning to their home country is not in their best interest.

The protests against unjust immigration legislation continued well into the 2000s. The year 2006, in particular, witnessed a number of massive demonstrations, specifically against the Sensenbrenner bill – a piece of legislation that would have criminalized assistance to undocumented immigrants in the U.S. that sought housing, food or medical services. On March 10, 2006, a crowd of over 100,000 protesters, filled Chicago’s downtown Loop with chants of “¡Sí se puede!” (translatable to ‘Yes we can!’ or ‘It can be done!’). Following this, demonstrations “cropped up in more than 140 cities in 39 states,” many of which naturally took place in Southern California. These manifestations also culminated in the May 1st “Day Without Immigrants,” when more than 500,000 rallied in Los Angeles to demand a pathway to citizenship, particularly for the immigrant youth that were in the foundation and the forefront of the movement.[22]

While it may not have prompted immediate legislative action, the 2006 protests triggered a change in the political climate regarding undocumented immigrants, especially among college students and youth who grew up with friends that were directly affected by the issues. Furthermore, many young people who “tasted political power for the first time in 2006” were then inspired “to promote the DREAM Act.” By 2010, regaining the attention of the country, they “mirrored LGBT advocates by broadcasting “coming out” stories about their status.” They also “organized marches, building occupations, and traffic blockades to keep their cause in the public eye.”[23]

All these images, arguments and the protests of undocumented immigrants in the United States point to an underlying notion that is highly convincing to youth in a globalized age: that the American Dream must apply to all. That the laws concerning undocumented immigrants, who often should qualify for asylum in the first place, are either outdated or morally unjust. That Central American and Mexican immigrants, undocumented and documented alike, have already demonstrated astounding contributions to American economy and society because their conditions meant that they needed to work harder to provide for their families.

For undocumented youth, the most important issues involve the constant threat of deportation, especially under the more severe Trump administration, and the barriers they face in obtaining higher education and employment. This past September’s rescission of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy has put further strain on the prospects of Dreamers to be eligible for work permits and to receive deferred action from deportation. This action, in the midst of Donald Trump’s descent into very low public support (with a 38% approval rate in September) prompted further rebuttal from Dreamers and their supporters alike, with Facebook profile pictures changing to include a filter demonstrating support for DACA, and protesters gathering in Washington D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, and in front of Trump Tower in New York.[24] Many colleges continue to offer sanctuary to undocumented students in the age of Trump, yet protesters remain aware that the most vulnerable undocumented youth are those that cannot afford a lawyer to represent them – much less a college degree.

Still, those who document the immigrant rights movement today highlight that the discussion mostly poses the questions of what to do about the undocumented youth – from SIJS to the DREAM Act to DACA – and whether or not the United States has a humanitarian responsibility towards them, particularly due to past US foreign policy in Central America. Furthermore, as undocumented immigrants comprise not just newcomers, but also youth that have been in the country since their early childhood, the immigrant rights movement may be benefiting from the solidarity of not only the institutions that support undocumented migrants but their American peers as well.

While the opposition is undoubtedly vociferous, the undocumented youth that are ‘coming out’ appear to feel secure enough to do so, drawing this sense of security from the peer groups that support them and within the broader movement. They may also feel that coming out constitutes a sense of sacrifice for the movement since through this action, more people will find out how many of their most hard-working employees, closest friends, and nicest neighbors are – in fact – undocumented. This act of bravery on the part of these youth, and the support of their peers will hopefully continue to advance the movement towards better immigration legislation in the United States.



  •         Coutin, Susan Bibler. The Culture of Protest: Religious Activism and the U.S. Sanctuary Movement. Boulder: Westview Press, 1993.
  •         Kasinitz, Philip. Inheriting the City: the Children of Immigrants Come of Age. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2008.
  •         Nicholls, Walter. Dreamers: How the Undocumented Youth Movement Transformed the Immigrant Rights Debate. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2013.
  •         Pallares, Amalia. Family Activism: Immigrant Struggles and the Politics of Noncitizenship. Piscataway: Rutgers University Press, 2014.
  •         Simcox, David. U.S. Immigration in the 1980s: Reappraisal and Reform. Boulder & London: Westview Press, 1988.
  •         Truax, Eileen. Dreamers: an Immigrant Generation’s Fight for Their American Dream.Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2015.


[1] The use of the term ‘Latinx’ is flush with controversy, sparking discussion about ethnic and gender identity as well as privilege. I utilize it in this essay for the purpose of including more gender identities than the words ‘Latino’ and ‘Latina’ allow – namely, those individuals that identify as being transgender or otherwise outside the gender binary, but who still identify as ethnically Latinx. For more information, read Reyes (2017), in bibliography.

[2] Nicholls, 10

[3] Nicholls, 7-8

[4] Simcox, 23; for original source see “Surge of Illegal Aliens Taxes Southwest Towns’ Resources,” New York Times, March 9. 1986.

[5] Ibid, 24

[6] Ibid, 25

[7] Ibid, 24-25

[8] Truax, 1

[9] Kasinitz, 1

[10] Kasinitz, 3

[11] Coutin, 3

[12] Haberman, 5:05

[13] Chinchilla et al, 113

[14] Ibid, 114

[15] Ibid, 116

[16] Ibid, 117. Originally quoted by Valle (1985).

[17] Ibid, 117.

[18] Truax, 4

[19] Martinez (2015)

[20] Phippen (2015)

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

[24] Meghan Keneally (2017)

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DACA_protest_Columbus_Circle_(90569).jpg