At least two dozen Democrats are scheduled to bring young undocumented immigrants to President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address.
Representative Nita Lowey of New York is bringing a “DREAMer” who was born in El Salvador and is currently a technology specialist at Apple. Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon is skipping the event in protest, but is sending a model “DREAMer” from his district in his place.
Meanwhile, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois announced that he will be hosting Cesar Montelongo, a medical student who graduated from New Mexico State University. Montelongo was a triple major in biology, microbiology, and Spanish. He also minored in chemistry and biochemistry, graduating with a 4.0 GPA. (Meanwhile, Trump is filling up the House gallery with a guest list partially made up of the families of people who were killed by immigrants—never mind that several studies, over many years, have concluded that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States.)
This is part of a pattern for Democrats. In the past two decades, they have highlighted the stories of countless undocumented immigrants who all seem to share a few things in common. They are all wildly high achievers. They often graduated at the top of their class. And, of course, they were brought here as children and are not to “blame” for the situation they find themselves in.
Durbin in particular has been peddling the same extraordinary immigrant narrative since he introduced the DREAM Act in August 2001. Yet his strategy hasn’t worked. The DREAM Act has never passed, and the immigrant rights movement has evolved over the years. It’s more inclusive of different experiences and focused on keeping families together. But Durbin and his fellow Democrats haven’t evolved—and by continuing to highlight only “good” immigrants, what they’re really doing is making it tougher to help the other 9-10 million undocumented people who may not qualify for the DREAM Act but who deserve exactly the same sorts of protections.
There is no shortage of undocumented people Democrats could have chosen to bring to Capitol Hill tonight. What about bringing a young undocumented person who had to drop out of college to help pay for bills after Trump deported their father? Or a resilient DACA recipient who is an artist producing meaningful work in response to this administration’s shithole policies? Or a DACA recipient who is still organizing in their community despite representing everything this administration hates? Or what about—heaven forbid—someone who isn’t a DACA recipient at all, but is just one of the millions of people in the United States who happen to be undocumented? Instead, Democrats keep pushing the supposedly “worthy” people forward, as if the rest aren’t worth fighting for.
At a Senate hearing on the DREAM Act in June 2011, Durbin spoke about a young woman named Tereza Lee. He brought a huge portrait of Lee to the Senate floor and introduced her as a young, undocumented, accomplished Korean concert pianist who was brought to the United States at the age of two.
Durbin said she had amazing talent and noted she had already played Carnegie Hall and was working on her Ph.D. in music. He said Lee had inspired him to introduce legislation that would give young undocumented people “who had no voice in what their families were going to do” a path to citizenship.
The familiar elements are all there—from the emphasis on an extraordinary person to the deliberate differentiation between the “good” Lee and her parents who brought her to the United States.
The narrative didn’t even work back then. The DREAM Act died in the Senate, with five of Durbin’s fellow Democrats voting against him.
That should have been enough to show that the “good immigrant” narrative was a failure. Even Lee, who is now a U.S. citizen, rejects it. “That narrative has changed,” she said in an interview with Splinter last year. “Now it’s about keeping families together.”
Lee has also joined in with the immigrant rights movement’s increasingly muscular tactics. She was arrested last December for blocking an entrance to Senator Chuck Schumer’s office last year. She was calling on Schumer to pledge to vote no on a spending bill that didn’t include a DREAM Act, and to pass a a “clean DREAM Act” that didn’t fund a border wall or increase immigration enforcement for people without DACA.
Durbin, though, has not caught up with his onetime poster child, even as the far-right seizes control of immigration policy and the situation for immigrants—both documented and undocumented—grows more and more dire.
We have an even longer fight ahead of us for broader immigration reform, Which means Durbin and other elected officials have to get their shit together and stop touting the incredible immigrant story.
The DREAM Act will give an estimated 1.5 million young immigrants permanent residency status. The Trump administration’s immigration proposal would cover around 1.8 million people in exchange for $25 billion for a border wall. But there are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. They need help too.
What is Durbin going to do to fight for them—especially after spending years only picking out the people he believes to be the best among them? It’s only when he and his fellow Democrats start advocating for all immigrants and stop fueling the myth that some are “better” than others that we’ll make any real progress.