An immigrant’s life as a bargaining chip in US politics

To be allowed to pursue the American dream, DACA beneficiaries first have to be bargained off for a wall.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which was suspended in September 2017, allowed individuals who entered the US as minors and remained undocumented to work legally [Reuters]
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which was suspended in September 2017, allowed individuals who entered the US as minors and remained undocumented to work legally [Reuters]

On the one-year anniversary of his presidency, Donald Trump tweeted, “If there is no Wall, there is no DACA,” pitting his longtime promise to build a fence along the southern US border against the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, introduced by former President Barack Obama in 2012.

For Trump, his base, and a cohort of Republican leaders in states where xenophobia is resonant and the Latinx population is yet to emerge as a political force, opposition to DACA is a cornerstone of the broader view that scapegoats immigrants for everything, from bad economic circumstances to national security.

Last week, DACA, and the more than 800,000 young immigrants enrolled in the programme, were the subjects of a congressional face-off that placed the fate of the programme, and the futures of the enlisted (and eligible) “dreamers”, in the balance. On the Senate floor, the lives of hundreds of thousands of students and workers, sons and daughters, were reduced to a political bargaining chip.

The “dreamers”, the modern archetypes of that mythological “American dream” so central to American identity, were framed more as an inconvenient political issue than a mosaic of lives that contributed immensely to society.

The wall

Shortly after announcing his presidential campaign run in 2015, Donald Trump announced his plan to build a “great, great wall” along the Mexican-American border. The wall, which many pundits dismissed as mere rhetorical bluster, was the most vivid manifestation of a campaign that positioned xenophobia, and specifically anti-Latinx xenophobia, as a cornerstone of the Trump campaign. The wall gave rise to raucous support at Trump’s infamous campaign rallies, and, on election day, registered prominently in the minds of voters.


Immigrants, and specifically brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking newcomers from the south, were caricatured as “criminals, drug dealers and rapists” – vile stereotypes that percolated within the conservative grassroots but were now uttered from the unfiltered lips of the eventual president. Trump’s wall, notwithstanding its extravagant price and “moronic” impracticality, satiated xenophobes’ hate. 

However, the wall was not merely a campaign talking point. It was a promise that Trump’s base demanded him to fulfill after he became president, and he sought to deliver. Just like with the “Muslim ban”, President Trump moved to make this campaign proposal a political reality early on in his presidency. This was evident, again, during last week’s Senate budget hearings, and the fallout during the government shutdown they prompted, when President Trump – and his Senate backers – maintained that no protection or pathway to citizenship for the “dreamers” would be extended without upward of $20bn to build the wall. 

A political deal will likely contain no provision protecting the parents of the “dreamers”, and it will enable the construction of a colossal and colossally costly border fence.

A dream divided

The “American dream” is predominantly told through intimate vignette stories climaxing with individual triumph, whereby an immigrant’s industry fuels his or her ability to scale hurdle after hurdle and attain success in a land where anything and everything is said to be possible. 

This story of transcendence, and making something out of nothing, is the touchstone of the romanticised immigrant narrative and, indeed, the existential gauntlet by which a newcomer transitions from bootstrapping immigrant to bona fide American. The famous Horatio Alger novels, illustrating success stories of impoverished Irish or Italian boys, are deeply entrenched in the American imagination, and prominent in the ubiquitous talking points that echo, “nothing is more American than immigration.”

Yet, the truth of that tenet – and the dream tethered to it – rests largely on the racial identity of the immigrant. The Irish or Italian protagonists of Alger’s stories were white and from Europe, the occident to his oriental “shithole” countries, much like Trump’s coveted Norwegian immigrants and his once-immigrant wife, Melania. Their legal status as immigrants is rendered unimportant by their whiteness, which enables the imagining of their “success” stories and the telling of their dream that is framed in distinctly individual terms. 

This is not true for Juan, the undergraduate political science student at UCLA hoping to attend law school. Or Clara, a registered nurse in Chicago who achieved her professional dream, and is able to provide for her family, because of DACA. Or Jorge Garcia, a 39-year old father of three who lived in Michigan for 30 years and embodied the immigrant triumphs on the pages of Alger’s novels, but who was deported to Mexico and removed from his family because he was “too old for DACA”.  

These names, and their stories, were not part of the debate on the Senate floor last week and the political discourse that followed. The debate was rather the extension of a deeply rooted narrative that sees white immigrants as transcending and triumphant individuals, and Latinx immigrants as a leeching monolith and menacing collective. 

A collective reduced to a political wedge and bargaining chip that, no matter their individual achievements or contributions to American society, will be granted a tenuous promise of the American dream. But this would happen only if their fathers and mothers, elder siblings and grandparents, are permanently walled off from the possibility of also realising it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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