Dear well-meaning liberals who want to show solidarity with DREAMers by wearing a “WE’RE ALL DREAMERS” T-shirt:
If you’re not a DREAMer, you’re not a DREAMer. Your T-shirt doesn’t make you one.
DREAMer refers to a specific group of people facing a specific problem that requires a specific fix. Appropriating that label, even for the sake of solidarity, is a mistake. At best, it’s foolish—the difference between saying “I support Syrian refugees” and “We’re all Syrian refugees.” At worst, it’s harmful; it feeds into something much more perverse.
This isn’t just about semantics. Identifying as a DREAMer isn’t an aspirational statement. It’s a second-rate legal status. No DREAMer actually dreams of being a DREAMer. They want citizenship, or at least a path to it. What they got instead was a visitor’s pass—one that expires on March 5.
DREAMer is a term that refers to people who are being denied the right to exist legally in the country they call home. So if your right to live and work in the United States isn’t under threat, you’re not a DREAMer. And you shouldn’t wear T-shirts saying you are. Many DREAMers are brave, bold, and fighting for a just cause in a high-stakes battle that could end in their deportation. They’re not mascots for a T-shirt.
Legally speaking, nobody is a DREAMer. The term usually refers to immigrants who were granted a precarious and temporary legal status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an executive stopgap measure signed by President Barack Obama after Congress failed for the millionth time to pass the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. So instead of getting a path to permanent citizenship under the DREAM Act, these young immigrants got a DACA day pass. Then Trump took that away, too.
Now they have no country, no clear status, and no real label. They’ve been strung along, jerked around, and utilized for years. And their entire future rests in the hands of politicians who can’t even pass a budget.
Not all appropriation is nefarious, but when it is, it is. And when Donald Trump said during his State of the Union address that “Americans are dreamers too,” the intent was most certainly corrupt. It was Trump appropriating language to belittle a legitimate cause, and doing so in a backhanded and racist way.
This is part of the right wing’s continuous campaign to reduce civil rights to a zero-sum equation: The idea that giving rights to one group means taking rights away from someone else—the oppressed majority. It’s why their answer to “Black Lives Matter” is “All Lives Matter,” and their response to immigrants fighting for citizenship is “We’re all Dreamers.”
But don’t take my word for it. Just look at who applauded the loudest when Trump said Americans are dreamers, too.
And this guy.
Racists can often be at their worst when they appropriate the language of inclusion. Good Americans who are trying to show solidarity with marginalized groups need to avoid falling into the same trap.
Those of us who believe in an America that welcomes immigrants need to stand with DREAMers without stepping on their toes. We can be compassionate and empathetic without appropriating their message. We can champion their cause without trying to squeeze under their tent.
Wear your activism on your sleeve, not your T-shirt.
Watch The Feed Tuesday night on Fusion for more on the DREAMers.