The Supreme Court Case That Created the ‘Dreamer’ Narrative

Many organizers embraced the Dreamer label. Some came out as undocumented in public ceremonies. Others staged protests in caps and gowns to emphasize the coming-of-age milestones that were out of reach. Still others took their activism to the state level, where initiatives like Arizona’s Proposition 300 explicitly made undocumented students ineligible for in-state tuition in 2006. “A lot of Dreamers, to put it candidly, spoke English very well, had college degrees, were telegenic and appeared non-threatening — kind of this view that we are exotic, but safe,” says José Magaña-Salgado, director of policy and communications for the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, a coalition of university leaders pushing for immigration reform. By 2010, activists had garnered enough public acceptance to be present in the Senate chamber to watch as the DREAM Act died, five votes short of passage.

In response, the Obama administration — which in statements advocated for the passage of the DREAM Act as “limited, targeted legislation” meant to help “the best and brightest”— tried to step in. In 2012, exactly 30 years after the Plyler decision, President Barack Obama enacted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, exemptingyoung immigrants from deportation and giving them work permits if they had come to the United States before they turned 16 and met other requirements. “It makes no sense to expel talented young people … who want to staff our labs, or start new businesses, or defend our country simply because of the actions of their parents — or because of the inaction of politicians,” the president said in a speech from the Rose Garden. Although he did not cite Plyler by name, Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel and senior deputy director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a civil rights group, told me, “DACA had the practical effect of extending Plyler to post-secondary education.”

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