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October 1, 2010

The Impossible Dream

Oscar Hidalgo/NYT
Oscar Hidalgo/NYT

The photograph above shows a group of students who are also illegal immigrants spelling out the word “Dream” in South Beach, Miami, in an attempt to sway the vote of Republican Senator LeMieux. Their protest caught the eye of the New York Times, which printed the image as part of its story on the run-up to the Senate vote on the Dream Act. But what the Times story missed was the rhetorical import of the playful quality of the student’s effort to create a “human billboard. This was not just a stunt pulled off by students that had nothing better to do with their Sunday afternoon; rather, it was a concerted effort borne of the recognition that they had no legitimate, recognized voice in a policy debate that directly implicated their future, and thus it warranted staging a protest in a register that would allow them to “speak.”

Originally proposed in 2001 and more recently revived in 2009, The Dream Act addresses the plight of the nearly 65,000 undocumented alien minors who complete high school each year, and yet have no viable route to citizenship.  While technically “illegal immigrants,” these individuals came to the United States because their parent or guardian brought them here, and thus their legal status is not something for which they are directly responsible.  It is thus extraordinarily inhumane to deny them any access or avenue to citizenship.  The Dream Act would make it possible for such individuals who have been in the U.S. for at least five years, who demonstrate “good moral character,” and who complete two years of college or spend two years in the U.S. military to apply for permanent citizen status.  It would also make them eligible for student loans.

In some important ways the image below, which appeared as a random photograph in a recent Wall Street Journal slide show, comes closer to the mark in indicating what is at stake in the failure to vote on the Dream Act.

Marine Cpl. Pablo Olvera, “originally of Mexico,” according to the caption, leads a group of newly naturalized citizens in the Pledge of Allegiance at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.  His eyes are fixed on the flag that stands in front of him and shrouds more than half of the frame of the image, almost—but not quite—dominating the field of vision. All the viewer can see are the red and white stripes, but Olvera’s dress blue uniform completes the nationalist color scheme and thus renders the photograph as a literal embodiment of the flag—and thus by extension, the nation itself.  And more, the shallow depth of field that focuses directly on Olvera renders a soft, gossamer quality to the red and white stripes that drape his field of vision, evoking a soft, (American) dream-like consciousness.

It is not unimportant, in this context, that Olvera is identified as “originally of Mexico,” a characterization that muffles his otherwise prior illegal or undocumented immigration status, just as the characterization of him “leading” the Pledge implies the kind of moral virtue (or “good moral character”) that we affiliate with civic republicanism.  Once “of Mexico,” he is now “of” the United States.

One might be inclined to see this photograph as a melodramatic sop for American exceptionalism, or worse, as a wink and a nod to the idea that we can easily fill the ranks of our “all-volunteer” military with immigrants.  And we should not be too quick to reject these implications of the image. After all, the U.S. Defense department is a major supporter of the Dream Act, and it is hard to believe that their endorsement would be driven by anything other than simple self interest.  But at the same time, the photograph is a reminder that some immigrants (at least) are willing to pay their own freight to become U.S. citizens, to realize the impossible dream, and that is an attitude we should respect.

It is time that we moved beyond the political wrangle and put the Dream Act to a vote.

Photo Credit:  Oscar Hidalgo/NYT; Jim Watson/Agence Fance-Presse/Getty Images

crossposted at No Caption Needed

  • Roschelle

    great post. and so true

  • thebutcher’sapronstring

    udreme idreme wealldreme the icedreme
    raw raw raw

  • Vvoter

    Lucaites’ equation of a) denying citizenship access to individuals who are not responsible for their legal status with b) “extraordinarily inhumane” raises the following question:

    To what extent is citizenship a moral concept?

    That is, when we conceptualize what it means to be humane, is citizenship something that fits naturally into that concept?

    Or, does citizenship confer moral obligations onto the state, where failure to satisfy those obligations can be rightly described as “inhumane”?

    • lucaites

      I think that is a great question! Is citizenship a “natural” category with rigid and stable boundaries? Or is it an malleable category that is open to adaptation and transformation? Historically, I think we’d have to say that what counts as a citizen has always been open to transformation of some sort–and as such, it is open to judgment. The question, then, for me, is do we have a morally defensible or humane conception of citizenship or not? Reasonable people can disagree on this, of course, but my inclination is to say that historically we have been amenable to somewhat open standards of naturalization–operationally, I would say it has been generally a humane standard. And if that has been our history, it seems to me that the presumption rests with at least making it possible for those who are not responsible for their legal status–such as those primarily effected by the Dream Act–to have a way to naturalize. But again, let me emphasize that I think this is the exact right question to ask, especially because those who want to argue for stringent standards of naturalization operate with a narrow and historically incoherent notion of “citizenship” as if it were an ideal category.

  • Vvoter

    Yes, citizenship is a malleable category, historically adaptable, and so forth. That seems right.

    What if we shifted our focus onto the category of the ‘humane’? Does citizenship policy or legal status belong anywhere near this category?

    I am tempted to resist the implication (in your post) that immigration policy entails a potential for the inhumane.

    However, insofar as ‘humane’ refers broadly to a compassionate or benevolent orientation, a minimal causation of pain, etc., I think we can see the potential for both conceptual and material implications for immigration policy.

    Thanks for the post!

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