Abstract and Keywords
Although the dominant rhetoric in the media about “illegal” immigration continues to be that undocumented immigrants are not, and can never be, part of the “American” nation, stories by Latino/a writers as well as by the undocumented themselves are increasingly challenging such discourse. What we have witnessed is a mass mobilization of stories, including the stories of Latino/a writers who have come to themselves as inextricably tied to a larger community that includes undocumented immigrants.
Although the dominant rhetoric in the media about “illegal” immigration continues to be that undocumented immigrants are not, and can never be, part of the “American” nation, as we have seen, stories by Latino/a writers as well as by the undocumented themselves are increasingly challenging such discourse. The New Sanctuary Movement constituted an effort to give a public hearing to the personal stories of families at risk of being separated because of immigration proceedings (Caminero-Santangelo, “The Voice”). It was inspired in part by Elvira Arellano, an undocumented Mexican immigrant and the mother of a young U.S. citizen son. Arellano became the first prominent spokesperson of the undocumented when she took sanctuary in a Chicago church in 2006–7 in order to avoid deportation. As she explained later, “I wanted to talk about what was happening in my case in particular and to call attention … to what is going on … and ask what we want to do about it. I wanted to give us a voice” (Terry 43). Upon leaving her yearlong sanctuary, Arellano declared in a public statement:
I believe … that we must come forward in the witness of faith to bring a resolution to this crisis…. On September 12th, I will go to Washington, D.C. I will go to pray and fast in front of the Congress…. But I ask my community, the families facing separation, to join me…. I ask all people of conscience and good will to join me…. Together in faith and prayer I hope that we can join together to heal the will that is broken in Congress.
(p.262) Arellano’s call imagined forth a collective “people” formed out of the challenges of immigration legislation and enforcement, and recognized that this collective extended—that it must, of necessity, extend—beyond the undocumented themselves.
Arellano’s very public “coming out of the shadows” was eventually followed by an even more public statement by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who revealed his own undocumented status in 2011. Vargas launched the “Define American” campaign in a specific effort to present a challenge to the dominant narratives that define the U.S. “nation” in narrow and exclusive ways. In a similar vein, the “We Are America” project posts personal stories of the undocumented on its website and in YouTube videos. A Time magazine cover for June 25, 2013, featuring a picture of Jose Antonio Vargas leading a crowd of others, carried the headline “We Are Americans” and then, asterisked and in smaller print, “Just Not Legally.”
In a Facebook post in summer 2012, Vargas wrote, “In this golden age of story-sharing—powered by social media and technology—storytelling has been at the heart of the modern immigrant rights movement. Led by DREAMers, who insist on being seen and heard fully and humanely, telling our stories, individually and collectively, has been a true game-changer. Let’s keep doing it.” Immigrant rights movements such as the New Sanctuary Movement and the Dream Activist movement, and prominent undocumented figures such as Elvira Arellano and Jose Antonio Vargas, have in the past decade begun to make undocumented voices more “hearable.” The United We DREAM website has claimed credit for having pressured Obama to issue the memo which instantiated the new DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival) provisions, announced by Obama in June 2013, allowing undocumented youth who arrived in the United States as children to defer deportation and obtain work permits. No doubt, the persistent efforts of DREAM Activists and others raising their voices were instrumental in this development. In June 2013, the “Immigration Modernization Act,” an immigration reform bill that would have offered many undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, was passed by the U.S. Senate in a bipartisan vote, but it was never brought to the floor of the House of Representatives. In November 2014, declaring frustration at congressional failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform, Obama announced a new executive action granting temporary legal status and work permits to qualifying undocumented immigrants. (p.263) In December, seventeen states filed a constitutional challenge to the action in federal court.
And the struggle continues.
James Dawes asks, “When does the story become real enough to change you?” (7). Perhaps it is fair to speculate that no one story by itself can change the landscape of immigration in the United States. What is needed, and what we have witnessed, is a mass mobilization of stories, including the stories of Latino/a writers who have come to see themselves as inextricably tied to this larger community. Perhaps it is just possible that this unprecedented telling of the stories of the undocumented might, in fact, change lives. (p.264)