In 2012 Dreamers, immigrants who came to the United States as children, were granted an opportunity to legally contribute. Through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), nearly 700,000 Dreamers came out of the shadows. However, in 2017 President Trump terminated DACA through a tweet. In the space of 140 characters, the President put nearly a million Dreamers in fear of deportation to a country most have never visited.
Dreamers came here as children. They grew up in the United States just like our neighbors and friends. For many, this is the only place they have known as Juan Mascorro, a Dreamer, explains, “because I have been here since I was 6 years old, I feel I am an American. I do not know another country. Michigan is my home!” In spite of many adversities, Juan, like other Dreamers, managed to succeed. From graduating at the top of his class, to volunteering and empowering other students to excel, this has only been possible because of the audacity of President Obama to act. DACA allowed him, and thousands of others to contribute.
Although a federal judge has temporarily blocked the attempted phase-out of DACA, it now falls to Congress to pass legislation to right this national nightmare. However, as Congress seeks a legislative solution, it is important to remember that DACA is only the next step in a long-line of immigration laws codifying the idea of Americanness and what it means to be an American.
At the time of the Founding, only white property-owning men were regarded as true Americans and enjoyed the most freedoms and protections of the newfound Republic. Gradually, the idea of Americanness morphed into the Jacksonian Farmer. They were the true Americans exemplifying a rustic lifestyle, militant self-reliance, and a firm moral compass. To President Jackson, and many in the Jacksonian Age, they idealized the inner-character of America.
This idea changed in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which concluded the Mexican-American War. Under the terms of the treaty, dictated by the United States, former Mexican and Native American citizens living in ceded territory were guaranteed American citizenship. However, through questionable jurisprudence and policy acts, this guarantee never materialized. Native Americans in fact were not given full citizenship rights until 1924.
That same year, women gathered in Seneca Falls to demand equal rights as men. It would take nearly a further hundred years for women, over half of the population, to enjoy full citizenship rights with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.
The Fourteenth Amendment, passed in 1868, guaranteed citizenship for anyone born on American soil, reversing the dreadful errors of Dred Scott. And finally, in 1869, in Standing Bear v. Crook, Judge Elmer S. Dundy ruled that “an Indian is a person.” It took nearly 100 years of American history to establish that exceedingly obvious judicial precedent. Despite the Amendment’s passage and gradual increasing scope of citizenship, many assumed it would only be applied to newly freed slaves, their descendants, and white Americans.
In 1898 a Chinese-American fought this interpretation when an immigration officer refused to believe he was a citizen in United States v. Wong Kim Ark. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled, to the surprise of many, that the Fourteenth Amendment applies to those so-called “others” born within the United States.
However, despite these advances, the Chinese Exclusion Act was made permanent in 1902 and became the first law to deny immigration from a specific ethnic group. Tensions remained high throughout World War One when President Wilson banned Eastern-European and Middle Eastern ethnic groups for fear of them being Central Power sympathizers. The idea of Americanness continued to change with the country. Gradually non-Northern Europeans were accepted but still stigmatized.
Such as one of the first race riots in 1943 Los Angeles when white servicemen attacked Mexican Americans youth. The Zoot Suit Riots exemplified the rising racial tensions as more immigrants entered the United States.
Following the War, the United States saw an influx of new arrivals, and in 1965 Congress passed the Hart-Celler Act abolishing national quotas that discriminated against non-northern Europeans. However, for the first time in US History, it limited the number of North American immigrants at 120,000 per year. Despite this, immigration to the United States from Central and South American countries continued. The growth from 1960 to 1980 correlated to rising economic prosperity and the growth of the American middle class.
Once again, we are debating the idea of Americanness. We are asking ourselves if Dreamers qualify as Americans and if so, can they be allowed to legally contribute to society. Although the question of Americanness remains, the central premises are different.
Today, we are not questioning new immigrants; instead, we are discussing children and individuals whom have lived in this country their entire lives. They are already American and have enhanced society. They did not have a voice about whether to move to the United States, but just as Wong Kim Ark and Standing Bear, they are as American as any other native-born citizen. The idea of Americanness has adapted throughout history with some major changes taking place in our relatively short history. This time however, no changes are needed. Instead, we simply must say “yes” to existing protections. This time, the debate is simple.