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Undocumented Youth Activism as

Civil Disobedience and Testimonio in the Battle
around Immigration Reform

Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales

Abstract: The increased visibility of undocumented youth in the past decade has chal-
lenged public conceptions of who undocumented immigrants are, what they look like, and
what role they play in US society. Undocumented Latino migrant youth have complicated
the immigration debate not just through their presence, but also through the development
of a vibrant social movement born of their experience, making clear that the country’s
outdated immigration policy does not reflect the complex reality of immigrants, migration,
and the nation. Drawing on Nicholas De Genova’s work on border spectacle, I argue
that activism among undocumented Latino youth serves as a “counter-spectacle” that
challenges dominant conceptions of (il)legality and undocumented workers, disrupting
the link between “criminality” and “illegality.” Using ethnographic data collected from
undocumented youth activists in California since 2007, I examine the ways in which their
civil disobedience and testimonio act as counter-spectacle and shift conceptions of citizenship
in a country entrenched in a debate around who has the right to belong.

In February 2006, the cover of Time magazine featured a middle-aged,

brown-skinned Mexican man in a button-down shirt, standing in a lush
green landscape. The title, “Inside America’s Secret Workforce” (Thorn-
burgh 2006), was followed by cover text proclaiming, “This man came to
America and found success. The problems started when hundreds of his
neighbors in Mexico followed him to the same US town.”
A few years later, in June 2012, Time profiled a very different immigra-
tion story. The cover featured Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer prize–winning
journalist who came forward in June 2011 as an undocumented immigrant
from the Philippines. The bold headline, “We Are Americans,” was

Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies  40:1  Spring 2015   © University of California Regents 87

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followed by an asterisked note: “*Just not legally.” The story, written by

Vargas, began with a daring assertion: “We’re some of the nearly 12 million
undocumented immigrants living in the US. Why we’re done hiding.”
The last several years have seen a marked shift in the public’s con-
ception of who undocumented immigrants are, what they look like, and
what kind of work they do. The DREAMers, undocumented young people
who would be eligible for a path to citizenship under federal DREAM
Act legislation, in many ways have come to constitute the new face of
“illegal” immigration.1 The lack of meaningful immigration reform since
1986, including the recent failure of attempts to move comprehensive
immigration reform legislation through Congress, has produced a genera-
tion of young people raised in this country with no way to incorporate as
full members of the citizenry. Over the past decade, the first generation of
these post-1986 undocumented immigrant children has reached adulthood.
Numbering in the thousands, they are armed with high school diplomas
from US schools and stand on the precipice of an uncertain future, bounded
by their lack of citizenship. They cannot work legally in this country,2 they
cannot drive legally in most states, and they face significant barriers to
entering institutions of higher education across the nation, although some
have managed to do so. These Time magazine covers, separated by six years,
suggest that the prevailing assumption about “illegal” immigrants—that
they are single, Spanish-monolingual, male Mexican laborers—has been
complicated as this generation of undocumented youth has come of age.
The DREAMers are not simply waiting on the sidelines for something
to change, but have emerged as a highly visible and potent political force.
This unprecedented movement is led by undocumented young people
whose political subjectivities have emerged at the crossroads of two fun-
damentally broken systems: the immigration system and the educational
system (López and López 2009). This movement has won significant gains
in legislative and grassroots arenas, mainly in relation to educational
policies. But the youth activists are also engaged in a much deeper and
broader project, one that is shifting the political terrain beneath their feet
(Negrón-Gonzales 2014). As undocumented young people have come to
be seen as the new face of “illegal” immigration, they are also cracking
open space—discursively, legislatively, personally, and politically—for a

Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales is an assistant professor in the School of Education at the

University of San Francisco. Her research interests include political activism among undocu-
mented youth, undocumented students and higher education, the neo-liberalization of higher
education, and California racial politics and Latino immigrant communities.


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Undocumented Youth Activism as Counter-Spectacle

new understanding of “illegality,” citizenship, and what it means to belong

in this country.
In recent years, scholars have begun to document and theorize the
political mobilization of undocumented young people (Gonzales 2008;
Pallares and Flores-González 2010; Seif 2011). Less attention has been
paid to the ways in which the political activism of undocumented youth is
also reshaping common-sense understandings of “illegality” and citizenship.
The undocumented student movement that has emerged over the past
decade must be understood not solely as an intervention in the legislative
landscape, but also as an intervention in the popular imaginary. Inspired by
Nicholas De Genova’s work on border spectacle (2002, 2004, 2010), I argue
that activism among undocumented Latino youth serves as a “counter-
spectacle” that challenges dominant concepts of (il)legality and migrant
labor by disrupting the link between “criminality” and “illegality.” Drawing
on ethnographic data collected from undocumented Latino youth activists
in California since 2007, I examine the ways in which their practices create
a counter-spectacle that alters the prevailing narratives around citizenship
and “illegality.”3

Emergence of the DREAMer Generation

The increased visibility of undocumented young people has highlighted
the fact that the population bound by the category of “undocumented
immigrants” is heterogeneous and varied. Of the estimated 12 million
undocumented people living in the United States, 1 million are children
under the age of eighteen (Passel and Cohn 2011). The (dis)junctures
between their lives and the lives of their parents are complex and nuanced.
Undocumented young people, especially those who migrate at a young
age, are educated in US schools, spend their formative years of identity
development within the US nation-state, and experience many of the same
rites of passage as their citizen counterparts. However, like their parents,
they repeatedly confront the constraints of their “tolerated illegality”
(Oboler 2006, 15). Lack of a Social Security number limits their rights and
opportunities, and they live under constant threat of deportation and family
separation. Despite this set of shared experiences, many undocumented
children experience their “illegality” differently than do their parents, who
navigate US society from the vantage point of the vilified and criminalized
“undocumented worker.” As many scholars have pointed out, restrictive
immigration policy and border enforcement do not actually aim to keep


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out poor migrants, but rather seek to include them conditionally (Akers
Chacón and Davis 2006; Bacon 2008; Oboler 2006), as it is widely under-
stood that that the labor performed by undocumented workers keeps the
US economy afloat. The existence of undocumented young people who
graduate from US high schools and colleges challenges this economic
arrangement by producing a populace prepared to join the formal labor
market but unable to do so, reinforcing the conditionality embedded in
their tenuous status.
Though the Supreme Court’s 1982 ruling in Plyler v. Doe secured the
right to K–12 education for undocumented students, its limitations have
become increasingly apparent. More and more undocumented young people
have graduated from high school and been faced with the daunting reality
that they can neither legally work in this country nor access financial aid to
continue their education. The structural limitations of educational access
for undocumented students gave rise to a nascent grassroots movement in
the early 2000s. Initially this movement focused on questions of educational
access: activists fought several successful battles at the local, statewide, and
national levels to repeal policies banning the enrollment of undocumented
students in institutions of higher education and to allow them some
access to in-state tuition and financial aid. The Student Adjustment Act,
the precursor to the DREAM Act, was introduced in the US House of
Representatives in 2001 as legislation that offered a path to citizenship for
undocumented students. Later that year, Texas passed HB 1403 (see Rincón
2008) and California passed AB 540 (see Seif 2004), which categorized
undocumented students as in-state residents for tuition purposes at state
colleges and universities. The DREAM Act, federal legislation that would
provide a path to citizenship for undocumented young people after two years
of college or military service, has failed to pass Congress despite numerous
attempts since 2001. Although it has yet to become law, the DREAM Act
has been successful in helping cultivate a generation of undocumented
youth activists by serving as a rallying point for their struggle.
In recent years this movement, sparked by the question of educational
access for undocumented children, has developed in both size and scope.
Undocumented youth leaders have explicitly challenged a notion of citizen-
ship that excludes their parents and other members of their community,
and they have pushed for a broad-based immigration politics that does not
privilege one group as “deserving” by counterposing them against another
group deemed “undeserving.” Looking beyond the educational arena, they
have taken part in grassroots struggles to oppose collaboration between local


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Undocumented Youth Activism as Counter-Spectacle

police and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). They

have also built bridges with and played leading roles in progressive struggles
in other sectors, including workers’ rights struggles, anti-gentrification
campaigns, and the LGBTQ liberation movement. In many ways, then,
the undocumented youth movement does not have clear boundaries: it is
scaffolded by and connected to undocumented migrants who are not young,
it has deep connections to grassroots initiatives in other sectors, and it is
rooted in the politics of solidarity, which creates lines of connection to
other marginalized communities facing similar struggles.
This study draws on (a) data collected since 2007 through fifty life-
history interviews with undocumented Latino youth activists aged sixteen
to twenty-eight involved in the DREAM Act campaign in California; (b)
participant observation during the 2007–08 school year at a Northern
California college-based support/activist group for undocumented students;
and (c) ongoing participant observation with the statewide campaign to
pass the federal DREAM Act.4 Though the majority of the research was
conducted between 2007 and 2009, I continued to follow the movement
as a supporter, ally, and researcher, conducting follow-up interviews and
carrying out participant observation at key events between 2009 and 2011.

The Border Spectacle

There are few places where the anxieties surrounding immigration policy
and the changing demographics of US society are performed more inten-
sively than on the US-Mexico border, which has increasingly become
subject to sophisticated forms of surveillance, discipline, and control (Bacon
2008; Nevins 2010). Numerous scholars have theorized how contemporary
racial politics has seen a reinvigoration of anti-immigrant nationalism
(Doty 2009) and a corresponding upsurge in legislative and grassroots
attacks on immigrant communities (Chavez 2008). In a context in which
Mexican (and, increasingly, Central American) migration to the United
States has been identified as a central social, political, economic, and
environmental problem, the solution has been framed as tighter control
of both the physical border and the migrant bodies that cross it (Chavez
2008). The border has been configured as the battleground for the fight
against “illegal” immigration, creating a kind of public performance of
enforcement best understood as “spectacle.” The modern-day US-Mexico
border embodies an approach to “enforcement” that rests on public displays
of violence targeted at and located on the migrant body. Border politics and


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policies are inscribed with the spectacle of border enforcement: surveillance

marks the racialized bodies of migrants with the threat of detention and
deportation; migrants are subjected to disciplinary technologies through
the performance of security.
Nicholas De Genova’s seminal work on the “border spectacle” (2002,
2004, 2010) draws out the nuanced connections and complications that
configure this sociopolitical context. The border has become a focal point
in the concern about the problem of “illegal” immigration, giving rise to a
performative practice that intertwines policing, violence, and human life.
“It is precisely ‘the Border’ that provides the exemplary theater for staging
the spectacle of ‘the illegal alien’ that the law produces. The elusiveness
of the law, and its relative invisibility in producing ‘illegality,’ requires the
spectacle of ‘enforcement’ at the US-Mexico border that renders a racial-
ized migrant ‘illegality’ visible and lends it the commonsensical air of a
‘natural’ fact” (De Genova 2002, 436). The daily lives of undocumented
migrants are affected by this border spectacle because, as De Genova
explains, practices of detention and enforcement are both defined through
and also stretch far beyond the physical border; it is not deportation but
rather “deportability” that is configured as a central disciplinary technology.
Congressional debates in 2013 and 2014 around comprehensive immigra-
tion reform illustrate this unity of “enforcement” and “reform,” as each
round of amendments to the original bill has included an increase in federal
dollars allocated to border security. The militarization of the border is
complemented by ICE raids in workplaces and communities geographically
distant from the border. “These targeted enforcement operations generate
a mass-mediated spectacle of enforcement ‘results’” (Peutz and De Genova
2010, 4). Undocumented migrants occupy a tenuous status, deportable at
any moment and therefore vulnerable to multiple disciplinary technologies
that target their racialized, “illegal” bodies. Thus, this border spectacle is
located at the border but also away from the border, where it is manifested
in technologies of control shaped by popular narratives and understandings
of race, immigration, and “illegality.”
Increased border enforcement and deportation quotas are considered
to be the key to the immigration “problem,” revealing the persistence of
the assumption that the physical border is the place where “illegality” is
configured. Though De Genova identifies border spectacle as the public
apprehension and deportation of border crossers, he argues this process is
deeply intertwined with the revolving-door immigration policy (Cockcroft
1986), which couples mass deportations with the continuing recruitment of


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immigrant labor (De Genova 2002). De Genova’s articulation illuminates this

paradox, identifying apprehension and deportation at the US-Mexico border
as a public performance designed to propagate the idea that immigration is
a crisis that needs to be managed through force, intimidation, and violence,
which are rendered “commonsensical.” The singular focus on the physical
US-Mexico border becomes an effective way to divert attention away from
the dependence on migrant labor, the exploitation of migrant workers, and
the tolerated “illegality” that governs undocumented workers as long as
they remain docile. This sort of disciplinary technology relies also on the
“social legislation of fear” (Estudio Teddy Cruz 2012); as De Genova notes,
“It is deportability, and not deportation per se, that has historically rendered
undocumented migrant labor a distinctly disposable commodity” (2002,
438). It is this border spectacle that creates and continuously reinforces the
notion of the “crisis of the border,” a conceptualization Néstor P. Rodríguez
(1997) reframes in an effort to draw the connections between displacement,
migration, and global capitalism. “The crisis of the border is not that ‘illegal
aliens’ are swarming across the US-Mexico border, but that global capitalist
growth is overwhelming nation-states as units of socio-economic develop-
ment” (Rodríguez 1997, 226). In other words, “while global immigration is
instigated by an increasingly internationalized economy, the reaction to it
has been the retrenchment of national borders and the resurgence of the
politics of exclusion” (Akers Chacón and Davis 2006, 91).
The entanglement of spectacle and surveillance and the regulation of
the nation and the body are alive and well at the US-Mexico border, mani-
fested as the heroic interception of “alien” crossers by the border patrol;
the constant drive for a bigger, better, more lethal border fence; and long
lines, ID checks, and secondary inspections. This very visible disciplinary
performance at the border weaves a particular societal narrative about
safety, legality, and who is to be constituted as victim and who as hero. This
public spectacle of enforcement not only constructs a societal narrative, it
also helps render invisible other aspects of “illegality”: families ripped apart
through deportation, the much less dramatic reality of overstayed visas as
a common mechanism of becoming “illegal,” and the growing generation
of undocumented young people who grow up in this country but are not
eligible for a legal process that would allow them to incorporate as citizens.
Though the concept of spectacle that I discuss in this article is related
to performance studies, I situate border spectacle as a sociological concept.
Rather than emphasizing theatricality, this positioning shows border spec-
tacle to be a critical component of the broader set of disciplinary actions


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and technologies to which migrants are subjected in this political-economic

moment.5 Border spectacle manufactures the illusion of a threat to national
security that demands the policing of migrant bodies.
Drawing on De Genova, I posit that the border spectacle creates
a context that simultaneously fabricates a crisis, implicates the culprit/
aggressor/problem maker, situates the state as guardian and protec-
tor against this foreign invader, and renders invisible the continuous
production of migrant “illegality” and the state’s role in that process.
The intention is to keep a segment of the population in a subservient
position and to divert attention away from the true crisis—a society that
simultaneously exploits undocumented Mexican migrant labor and, at
the same time, criminalizes it.

Undocumented Youth Activism as Counter-Spectacle

The activism of undocumented youth constitutes a counter-spectacle in
relation to border spectacle. I use the term counter-spectacle in the spirit
of the term counternarrative. Just as counternarrative is not simply another
narrative, but rather one that takes on and challenges the dominant nar-
rative in order to create a new one, the activism of undocumented youth
is not simply another spectacle: it tells a different story about the “crisis
at the border.” I utilize Guy Debord’s (1967) assertion that spectacle hides
social realities through the production and reproduction of cultural images.
This function of spectacle is apparent in the popular discourse surrounding
migration and the disconnect it assumes between societal dependence on
migrant labor and the presence of extralegal migrant bodies.6 I define border
counter-spectacle as practices that take on border spectacle directly and
thereby create an alternative point of focus.
This concept of counter-spectacle draws on Debord’s (1967) and
the Situationists’ central dialectical technique of détournement, in which
a work of art is deconstructed and its parts recombined with the goal of
undermining the cultural position of the original as a commodity. Martin
Puchner elaborates:

Since we cannot hope to carve out spaces untouched by the spectacle,

to attack it from the outside, we must turn it against itself—détourn
it—taking its elements, breaking them out of the simulated unity and
totality on which the spectacle depends, and turning them against that
unity. . . . [This] is one component of this attempt towards detourning the
spectacle, towards creating the counter-spectacle. (2004, 9)


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Undocumented students create their counter-spectacle within the confined

context in which they must manage their lives, both spatially and socially.
They conduct their activism within what Ananya Roy calls “securitized
space”: “These sites are practices of enclosure, exclusion, and quarantine,
but they are also sites of disruptive spatiality, where resistance is performed
and inhabitation is possible” (Roy 2011, 4).
Border counter-spectacle not only constitutes a “public performance”
but also interacts with the sociological conception of the spectacle of
enforcement described by De Genova. In addition to using counter-
spectacle pragmatically, to advocate for legislation that will provide a
way out of their legal conundrum, youth activists are also self-consciously
inserting themselves into the dominant discourse of immigration, which
renders undocumented immigrants as lazy, resource-draining law break-
ers who come to take jobs. As an arranged performance, impossible for
viewers to ignore, the activism of these young people provides a different
visual point of focus that challenges the dominant border spectacle. As
a result, it allows for a reconceptualization of undocumented migrants in
the popular imaginary. Border counter-spectacle is a broad cultural and
ideological intervention that intends to recast the mainstream’s idea of who
undocumented people are in this nation. Through their counternarrative,
undocumented young people are staging a performance of democracy in a
space that is considered to be the exclusive terrain of US citizens—those
who have a rightful claim to speak.
The lives of these undocumented Latino youth have been, and
continue to be, profoundly shaped by border spectacle: it marks their
“illegality,” it shapes the discourses they confront daily, it renders them as
perpetual outsiders. Through their counter-spectacle, these young activists
are countering the performance of security and penalty at the border with
another type of performance. The burgeoning movement that they have
created is not only a political mobilization working for pragmatic reform;
it has become a discursive force that challenges ideological categories
and dominant narratives. Their counter-spectacle challenges the border
spectacle, meaningfully rearticulating notions of “illegality” in relation to
undocumented workers.

Civil Disobedience and the Rearticulation of “Illegal” Acts

Two elements of undocumented youth activism are central to its effec-
tiveness as counter-spectacle: civil disobedience and testimonio. Civil


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disobedience embodies spectacle in that it is a large, visible display that

commands attention. Because these young people are risking not only arrest
but also deportation, their acts of civil disobedience quite literally put their
bodies on the line. Undocumented young people use public testimonio
to contest a particular aspect of the narrative around undocumented
­students—namely, the implication of their parents as criminals.
Civil disobedience has been a cornerstone of nonviolent social move-
ments throughout the world for generations. In the United States, the
African American civil rights movement is one of the most well-known
examples, conjuring images of young men and women dressed in their
Sunday best, sitting in at Woolworth lunch counters to protest segrega-
tion. Civil disobedience rests on the idea that good, moral people have
a responsibility to challenge unjust laws and that compliance with such
laws means complicity with injustice (Thoreau 1849). Various scholars
have theorized the important role civil disobedience has played in US
social movements, including not only the African American civil rights
movement (Hendrick and Hendrick 2005) but also the disability rights
movement (Shapiro 1994), the queer movement (Mecca 2009), and the
Chicano movement (Muñoz 1989). Recent political mobilizations among
undocumented communities in the United States draw implicitly and
explicitly from this tradition.
Civil disobedience has not always occupied a central place in the
DREAMer movement. When the Student Adjustment Act was introduced
in 2001, student mobilizations largely focused on actions that were legally
sanctioned. Because this small, nascent movement was operating in a
hostile political climate, undocumented young people were assumed to be
too vulnerable to take the risks involved in civil disobedience. These early
years were marked by press conference, rallies, lobby visits, letter-writing
campaigns, petitions, and educational awareness campaigns that called
attention to the plight of undocumented students and urged politicians
and lawmakers to draft legislation to meet their unique needs.
As the years stretched on, and as many young people who founded
the movement as high schoolers graduated from college with no prospects
of change on the horizon, I witnessed a growing impatience among many
of these students, which ultimately led many movement participants
to question the effectiveness of their tactics. In 2008, undocumented
students from around California converged on the San Francisco office of
Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, then speaker of the house, to urge her to
support the DREAM Act. The activists were refused entrance to her office,


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after which they moved into the hallway, but they ultimately were asked
to wait outside the building. One of Pelosi’s aides came out to meet the
protesters on the plaza, where he nodded and waited patiently for them to
finish before promising that he would “share with Representative Pelosi”
everything they had said. In the post-action debrief, a young participant
named Alma questioned how successful the action had been.

It’s like, we come here, and it’s important. But I mean really, once we
leave, it’s back to their normal lives and they can just put us in the backs
of their minds again. Then we come back, they tell us, oh yeah, we are
working on it, and I mean, it’s starting to feel like a big cycle where
nothing ever gets done. I am tired of waiting. I don’t have time to wait.
We need to step it up, so they can’t just keep ignoring us.

As the campaign to pass the DREAM Act stretched toward the ten-year
mark, many of the undocumented young people who had been fighting for
passage of the legislation since its initial drafting were acutely aware of the
fact that if it ever passed, they would likely be too old to benefit from it.
Nearly a decade after its inception, the DREAM Act movement took
a sharp turn in 2010. Controversy was raging in Arizona around SB 1070,
draconian state legislation that allowed law enforcement officials to demand
documentation of lawful residency from anyone they suspected was in the
country “illegally.” At the height of the debate, after SB 1070 had been
signed into law, five young people, four of them undocumented, staged a
sit-in at Senator John McCain’s Tucson office, calling for an end to the
criminalization of immigrants and for passage of the DREAM Act (Preston
2010). The action triggered arrests and deportation proceedings for the four
who were undocumented. Lizbeth Mateo, one of the protesters, explained,

We wanted to take ownership of our lives and our future. We decided to

do it inside his office, because outside—they would close the office, lock
us out. We need to be in their space, it’s a direct thing, that’s the purpose
of direct action. You need to be completely unafraid and face your biggest
fear. Putting ourselves in front of a huge obstacle. Doing it face to face.
Going to his office.

It was, so far as is known, the first-ever act of civil disobedience by undocu-

mented students in the nation. The event would radically recalibrate the
undocumented youth movement, though that could not be fully appreciated
at the time.
A few months later, undocumented students in Georgia risked arrest
(and thus deportation) by occupying a downtown intersection in a daring


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act of civil disobedience to protest the passage of HB 87, repressive

statewide legislation targeting undocumented immigrants (Associated
Press 2011). The following months and years saw more civil disobedience
actions erupt throughout the country, in California, Illinois, Georgia,
Alabama, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Washington, DC. Though young
people risking deportation as political strategy was unimaginable a decade
ago, it has come to be a cornerstone of this movement. Even in the face
of profound risk, undocumented student activists have been resolute
in their response, proclaiming a clear message: We are undocumented,
unafraid, and unapologetic.7
Civil disobedience is spectacle in the truest sense of the word: it is
the creation of a visual disturbance, the disruption of business as usual.
Conceptualizing civil disobedience as counter-spectacle positions it as
a response to the human rights abuses that take place on the border; it
is the voluntary surrender of one’s body in order to call attention to the
instances of involuntary surrender that take place through detentions and
deportation policies on a daily basis. Mike Davis’s concept of the “third
border” (1999) is useful here, invoking the ways in which the primera
frontera, or first border, is reinforced by a widespread constellation of
disciplinary practices and policies that are situated miles away from the
geographic border. Though McCain may be able to ignore repeated public
pleas by undocumented young people to co-sponsor the DREAM Act,
it is much harder to ignore these young people when they are sitting on
his carpet and leaning up against his desk. Though Georgia citizens may
vote to bar undocumented students from setting foot on the campus of
the state’s most prestigious public universities, it is difficult to pretend
they are not there when they block traffic from passing through major
downtown thoroughfares. The power in these actions lies precisely in the
reality that the political actors are those who are indicted by the border
spectacle—the “aliens,” the “illegals,” the border crossers who mobilize
from the place of disenfranchisement in order to indict the system that
systematically engages in the production of their migrant “illegality.”
Civil disobedience is not just a strategic means of calling attention
to the young people’s struggle; it is also a powerful intervention that
questions the legitimacy of unjust laws and the blurry line between
“legal” and “illegal.” When speaking with Nicolas, a college student,
about his participation in a civil disobedience action, I asked him if he
was worried about risking arrest, since the consequences are potentially
much worse for him than for activists who are citizens. He dismissed the


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question, saying, “Everything we do is illegal! Living our lives is illegal.

Every morning, I wake up in my bed, and that’s illegal. Living my life,
trying to be a good person, a member of the community, trying to get
my degree—it’s illegal. I mean, at a certain point, you just gotta say,
whatever.” In a deeply personal way, Nicolas deals with the ever-present
reality that everything he does is deemed “illegal” because his entire
existence is bound by the constraints of the laws that criminalize his very
presence in this country. As a result, Nicolas has come to understand the
limits of the legitimacy of the law.
One particular form of activism that deserves attention in this analysis
is the common visual protest tactic known within the movement as mock
graduation. These are “pop-up” graduation ceremonies that are often
integrated into larger public actions such as protests, press conferences,
and rallies. Mock graduations provide a dramatic representation of the
65,000 undocumented students who graduate from US high schools every
year with uncertain futures. Students dress in ceremonial caps and gowns,
often holding signs with sentiments like “What next?” or “My dreams can’t
wait.” When mock graduations are coupled with acts of civil disobedience
and arrests occur, a powerful image is created: bright-eyed students in
graduation gowns, handcuffed, being led away by police.
Mock graduations as counter-spectacle work on multiple levels.
Graduation itself is public performance, built around and reinforcing a set
of ideas about hard work, education, and merit. Mock graduations take
common, culturally understood symbols—graduation gowns, diplomas,
caps with tassels—and reappropriate them as symbols that challenge their
traditional association to new beginnings, hopes, and bright futures. A
student named Araceli commented, “The mock graduations really help
people understand who we are and what our struggle is, you know? We
are students, we have worked hard to get here, we want to contribute to
our communities. But we can’t. This system won’t let us.” Conducting
participant observation at various mock graduations, I often witnessed
passersby stop and smile—recognizing the caps and gowns, thinking they
had happened upon some sort of graduation ceremony. And as the slow
recognition dawned on them, as they read the signs, listened to the words,
surveyed the broader scene, their smiles faded and they would hurry on,
trying to not make eye contact. Mock graduations are a way to create a
spectacle around the crux of the DREAMers’ plight—I am educated yet I
have no future—using a common point of cultural reference as a way to
expose the hypocrisy of immigration law.


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Recently, undocumented youth activists engaged in an action that

perfectly embodies the use of civil disobedience as counter-spectacle to
directly confront the disciplinary technologies deployed against migrants
at the US-Mexico border. Called the “Bring Them Home” campaign, it was
spearheaded by two national organizations that have been a leading force
in the undocumented youth movement: the National Immigrant Youth
Alliance and Launched in the summer of 2013, the
campaign used radical, direct action at the US-Mexico border to call out
the contradiction in US immigration policy. Three undocumented young
people willingly left the country and returned to Mexico, their country of
origin. After a couple of weeks, the youth activists, wearing graduation robes,
attempted to recross the border into the United States, together with six
other undocumented long-term US residents who had been deported earlier.
This group presented themselves at the US-Mexico border as undocumented
young people who had grown up in the United States and requested entrance
to this country, their home. They were accompanied by a camera crew,
allowing the entire action to be live-streamed over the Internet.
As expected, the ICE officials denied them entry. The activists refused
to be turned away and were taken into custody. Once in custody, the young
activists began gathering information by talking to other detainees, who
confirmed what immigrant rights activists and allies have emphasized: that
despite President Obama’s verbal assurances that his administration is not
deporting “low-priority” detainees with clean records, ICE detention centers
are in fact teeming with these supposedly low-priority cases. The youths’
action was groundbreaking in several respects. It was a blatant confronta-
tion with state power that took place at the border, a site of both geographic
and symbolic importance where immigrants come in direct confrontation
with border patrol personnel, where disciplinary technologies are enacted
upon migrant bodies, and where border crossers are made “illegal.”
This first action was followed by two more rounds of the Bring Them
Home campaign. The third action, rather than focusing only on youth,
involved a large, multigenerational group of undocumented people. One
was the well-known activist Elvira Arellano, who became a symbol of the
broken immigration system when she took refuge in a Chicago church
with her US-citizen son for over a year before she was finally deported
in 2007. In these subsequent actions, protesters explicitly challenged the
prioritization of DREAMers over other undocumented groups by arguing
for humanitarian visas or asylum for migrants who were not raised in the
United States, did not attend school here, and could not easily pass as


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Undocumented Youth Activism as Counter-Spectacle

“Americans.” Their message was clear: these migrants also deserve to be

treated with respect, dignity, and due process.
When undocumented students engage in civil disobedience, they shift
the focus from the “illegal” action of crossing the border and residing in this
country without papers to the “illegal” action of putting their bodies and
safety on the line to bring about social change, in a long and respected civil
rights tradition. Civil disobedience is a campaign tactic in which protes-
tors disrupt the normal functioning of daily life in order to call attention
to their plight, but it is also a counter-spectacle that weaves a different
narrative about unjust laws and the place of undocumented young people
in challenging these laws.

Testimonio and the Reconceptualization of Undocumented Workers

A great deal of the legislative and discursive defense of undocumented
young people by their advocates relies on the distinction between them
and their parents. William Perez, a leading scholar in the field, proclaims,
“Their parents brought them to this country when they were infants, in
most cases, and for many of them, this country is the only home they
know. They have grown up ‘American’ in every way possible” (2009,
xviii). This statement, intended principally as a pragmatic intervention
in mainstream discourse, is meant to portray these young people as deserv-
ing of full citizenship in the society they have grown up in. Ultimately,
however, many of these undocumented young people have challenged this
message, fearing that it risks further embedding the distinction between
them and their “undeserving” parents. It reflects the argument that is the
basis of the landmark 1982 Plyler v. Doe case, which secured the right
to K–12 education for undocumented children (López and López 2009).
Though this case shaped educational access for generations of undocu-
mented children, the plaintiffs won by constructing a distinction between
(innocent) undocumented children and their (law-breaking) parents. In
summarizing its decision, the Supreme Court noted, “These children can
neither affect their parents’ conduct nor their own undocumented status”
(López and López 2009, 32).
The framework created by the ruling reinforces the idea of undocu-
mented migration as a crime and indicts the parents as guilty in order
to prove the children’s innocence. This notion, embedded in the “ideal
immigrant” narrative (Delgadillo 2011), has been contested by many
undocumented youth activists, who, aware of this critique, have pushed


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back against the “innocent child” narrative, arguing that it reinforces the
assumption of criminality and implicates their parents. At a statewide
campaign meeting at the height of the DREAM Act campaign in 2007,
an undocumented youth activist named Carmen explained:

Look, sometimes when people talk about this, when they get on the news
and stuff, they say “I shouldn’t be held responsible for the decisions my
parents made when I was a baby.” But we don’t say that. We don’t say that.
We don’t criminalize our parents, we don’t take the blame and put it on
them. That’s not something we are willing to do to pass the DREAM Act.

These young activists walk a fine line, trying not to perpetuate a parent-
child dichotomy while simultaneously arguing for their own rights on the
basis of their identity as immigrant students. This has come to be a central
concern of the undocumented youth movement: they strive to use legisla-
tive victories and public sympathy toward undocumented students to crack
open space for broader and deeper reform that would benefit undocumented
people not eligible for relief under the federal DREAM Act.8
Testimonio is an important site for the reconfiguration of this punitive
framework. Testimonio is a practice of “documenting silenced histories”
(Latina Feminist Group 2001), a way of telling one’s story in one’s own
words in order to make meaning of it and reclaim its power. Testimonio
as a written form has a long history in resistance movements in Latin
America, and it has been utilized widely in the undocumented student
movement to challenge fundamental public notions of what an undocu-
mented person looks like (Negrón-Gonzales 2014). Clara Han provides a
historical discussion of this trajectory and explains how testimonio has been
used to change political subjectivities. “Testimonio, as a practice of being
with others, not only can inspire the possibility of political community
but also can be understood as an ethical practice of the self” (Han 2012,
113). As the Latina Feminist Group writes, “Testimonio [offers] an artistic
form and methodology to create politicized understandings of identity and
community” (2001, 3). John Beverley’s work (2004) analyzes testimonio
as an expression of agency. This approach intersects with the notion of
counter-storytelling, a concept central to the work of critical race theorists
such as Daniel G. Solórzano and Tara J. Yosso (2002), who identify counter-
storytelling as an individual act of resistance as well as a broad-based social
process of disrupting the master narrative.
In the course of my research, I witnessed testimonio in controlled
spaces such as press conferences and congressional hearings, testimonio


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Undocumented Youth Activism as Counter-Spectacle

as a part of political actions such as a protest at city hall, and testimonio

in public awareness campaigns such as National Coming Out Week, first
organized in 2010, in which undocumented students across the country
uploaded “coming out” videos to YouTube to announce their presence in
this country and encourage others to do the same. The undocumented
youth activists who were part of this study spoke explicitly about using
testimonio as a component of their political strategy—what I describe
as a “re-articulatory practice” (Negrón-Gonzales 2014). Testimonio is
integral to the work of Students Informing Now (S.I.N.), a campus-
based organization at the University of California, Santa Cruz that is
composed of AB 540 students and their allies. The organization states
that its members “emphasize the role of testimony within S.I.N. and the
importance of S.I.N. as a zone of safety that enables the development of
a critical consciousness and political identity as AB 540 students” (S.I.N.
Collective 2007, 78).9
How is testimonio, in this context, counter-spectacle? Testimonio is
fundamentally about counter-storytelling. Yet, as a central political tactic
that is part of a grassroots movement, it is also a public performance—that
is, the public articulation of stories that have been silenced through the
technologies of fear and the hostile political climate undocumented resi-
dents must navigate daily. Testimonio ruptures the survival mechanism of
silence that undocumented residents often use out of fear of discovery, yet
it also provides a counterpoint to this silence; it is a counter-story that
embodies Guy Debord’s concept of détournement.
Their parents’ “choice” to migrate features prominently in almost all
undocumented student testimonios. Rather than shying away from this
aspect of their stories, undocumented students explicitly confront it, placing
their parents’ action—the same law-breaking activity that anti-immigrant
forces invoke to argue against any sympathy for the undocumented—in
the foreground. There is no attempt to divert attention from the “illegal”
border crossing. Instead, undocumented students illuminate this aspect of
their personal and political trajectories, and as they make this interven-
tion, testimonio as counter-spectacle articulates a reconceptualization of
the undocumented workers that their parents represent. In doing so, the
students engage in a public reframing of this activity, changing it from a
criminal, neglectful choice to an action marked by bravery and parental
devotion. Thus, for undocumented young activists, testimonio is where
counter-narrative meets counter-spectacle. It is the public performance
of one’s story, intended not only to challenge hegemonic conceptions of


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migrant “illegality” but also to disrupt the silence that often accompanies
life as an undocumented person.
Though testimonios are personal accounts and vary greatly from
student to student, I found that the undocumented students almost always
positioned their parents as central actors in their personal stories and
emphasized the value of their parents’ sacrifice. Undocumented youth
constantly negotiate the disconnect between their experiences and the
societal narrative about “illegal” immigration that casts their parents as
law-breaking criminals trying to steal resources. Time and again, these
young people speak of the pain of that dominant image and contrast it to
their own perceptions of their parents. Miguel explains,

My parents didn’t come here to take the jobs of a CEO or a professor at

UCLA. They put aside everything, sacrificed everything, to be able to
come here. We came here for a better life. They wanted a better life for me.

Felicia echoes this sentiment:

My parents work so hard, cleaning houses and working in the restaurant,

sometimes for twenty hours a day. It is expensive to live here. But they did
it for us, for me and my sister. My mom hasn’t seen her family in fifteen
years. When her mom died, she couldn’t go back to Mexico. . . . That’s
why I am here. To honor my parents’ sacrifice.

These testimonios position undocumented students, their work, and their

movement in a broader discursive project that casts undocumented people
as protagonists in a struggle for human rights. This reframing posits migra-
tion as a mechanism of survival and lauds undocumented parents as model
parents who would give anything for their children.
Testimonio is counter-spectacle in that it breaks the silence that is a
central part of the undocumented experience and reframes the “criminal”
act as an act of courage in a struggle for survival. Undocumented children
must learn to navigate questions about their status and decide under
what conditions to disclose it. The “tolerated illegality” Oboler speaks of
punctuates this reality, reinforcing the idea that undocumented workers are
welcome as long as they are compliant and fulfill their role as subjugated
workers who are neither seen nor heard. Georgina Perez, an undocumented
protestor in Georgia, says:

I’m tired of politicians always using us as scapegoats, always criminal-

izing us, in order for them to win a seat. I’m not going to apologize for
my mother bringing me here. I’m not going to apologize for speaking


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Undocumented Youth Activism as Counter-Spectacle

my native language. I’m a proud Georgian. I’m a proud Mexicana. I was

brought to this country by a very courageous woman. She’s my hero. She’s
my mother. She left everyone and everything she knew behind in order
for her to give me a better life so I’m not, I’m not going to let anyone or
anything stop me from getting my higher education. I’m not going to let
her sacrifices be in vain. I’m not going to blame her. . . . I thank her for
bringing me here. (quoted in Hing 2011)

Julio Salgado, a visual artist and activist who is a prominent figure

in the undocumented youth movement, captures this sentiment in one
of his art pieces that features an undocumented family. The text reads:
“My parents are courageous and responsible. That’s why I am here.” These
interjections interrupt a discourse in which migration is widely understood
as optional. According to the dominant narrative, people make the choice
to come illegally, and if they would just “wait in line” and follow the rules,
they would eventually be called up to enter with the full seal of approval of
the immigration authority. There is also a growing legislative and discursive
labeling of undocumented parents as “bad parents,” who may be deemed
unfit because they do not speak English or deprived of the right to parent
their US citizen children because they are undocumented and cannot
provide a legal residence.10 Undocumented testimonio—unafraid and
unapologetically defensive of these parents—is shifting this conversation.
In 2007, undocumented student activists in California organized a
statewide fast and caravan that culminated in a multiday encampment
in front of San Francisco City Hall. This was more than five years before
Occupy Wall Street, and encampments in public spaces were still newswor-
thy and attention-grabbing. The action was covered by major news outlets,
both English- and Spanish-language, bringing it to the attention of nation-
ally syndicated conservative radio host Michael Savage, who proclaimed
that the city should ignore the protestors and let them “starve to death.”

Then there’s the story of college students who were fasting out here in
the Bay Area. They’re illegal aliens, and they want green cards simply
because they’re students. I don’t understand how this two and two adds
up. I would say: let them fast ’til they starve to death. Then it solves the
problem, because then we won’t have a problem about giving them green
cards, because they’re illegal aliens. They don’t belong here, to begin with.
They broke into the country. They’re criminals. Why do I owe them a
green card? Because they’re going to my colleges for free? This makes no
sense at all. Go give your talents to your home country. Go be an engineer
there. You stole the education from us; now give it back to your home
country. Go make a bomb where you came from.11


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Savage proceeded to name participants, by first and last name, who

had been quoted in the newspaper, calling for their deportation. Under-
standably, the student activists were shaken. Some received phone calls at
their homes, and many feared retaliation by the state or, perhaps a more
frightening prospect, by right-wing Savage listeners acting as vigilantes.
There were lengthy discussions about what the response should be. The
following day, undocumented students at the site of the encampment
invoked Savage’s comment and made a proclamation of their own: “We
won’t be ignored, and we won’t be silent!” Amid cheers from supporters, the
students took turns sharing testimonies on the steps of San Francisco City
Hall, positioning their families’ stories of migration and their own struggles
as undocumented students as a central part of the immigration debate and
refusing to be bullied into silence. Student after student, speaking before
print journalists and television cameras and a crowd of onlookers, came
forward to identify themselves as undocumented and share their stories.
Each one spoke specifically in defense of their parents.
It would be easier, and perhaps more pragmatic, for undocumented
students to steer away from a conversation about their parents and their
parents’ decision to cross “illegally.” As young people who grew up here,
they are socially located in a position that would allow them to focus on
themselves and their “good citizen” activities. Instead, I found that undocu-
mented youth activists consistently engage in testimonio that valorizes and
humanizes their parents, who are recognized as more than just undocu-
mented workers; they are responsible parents and courageous individuals.

The border spectacle has, in many ways, been effective. Devious, schem-
ing, uneducated immigrants have been set up as the “problem,” rendering
invisible the United States’ economic dependence on migrant labor. The
solution, according to this narrative, is more enforcement, including
bigger and more lethal border defenses. This spectacle takes no account
of the real issue: the humanitarian crisis, fueled by US foreign policy,
that has caused large-scale displacement and migration. The “right” way
to interface with the immigration system—applying through the proper
legal channels and then waiting in line for up to twenty years—disregards
the fact that for many of the nation’s 12 million undocumented residents,
there is no waiting line because there is no process within current law
to legalize their status.


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Undocumented Youth Activism as Counter-Spectacle

Arizona’s SB 1070 and Georgia’s HB 87 are emblematic of the resur-

gence of anti-immigrant nativism, as is the federal enactment of Secure
Communities, a program in which local police collaborate with federal
immigration authorities. At the federal level, HB 4437, a highly restrictive
“border protection” bill, passed the House in 2005. Though it did not pass
the Senate, the legislation further illustrated a political climate hostile
toward Latino immigrants.
Undocumented migrant students are located squarely in the center of
this debate. Their lives are intimately intertwined with distinct forms of
regulation like SB 1070 and HR 4437. They are implicated in the discourses
and imaginaries that constitute the problem space of immigration and the
figure of the immigrant—the talk of “anchor babies,” the debate to repeal
the 14th Amendment, the call for a closed border. They have been raised
in this country, but they are labeled as intruders at a sociopolitical moment
in which the right to belong is evaluated through the metrics of race,
citizenship, and nationality. In this context, undocumented students have
emerged to tell a different story, identify a different problem, and provide
a different vision for a shared, alterative future. The hopeful developments
of the past few years are the fruits of this powerful and vibrant movement.
In this article I have called for understanding undocumented student
activism as counter-spectacle, specifically in relation to the tactics of civil
disobedience and testimonio. Undocumented youth, through their brave
actions, are shifting the citizen gaze away from the border spectacle to
illuminate a very different “crisis at the border”: the crisis created by their
marginal position in this country. Understanding their movement work as
counter-spectacle allows us to understand how the undocumented youth
movement is articulating a reconceptualization of “illegality” and undocu-
mented laborers. One young man, Raul, reflected on what it means to be
undocumented at this particular sociopolitical moment:

I’m happy I’m undocumented. I mean, I’m not happy. But I am grateful to
have this experience. Because being undocumented right now, you know,
it’s like, we are in the position to change history. Just based on who we
are, and what we have gone through, it’s like, we’re the ones. This is in
our hands. And I am happy. I’m happy that’s me.

It is clear that this battle around immigration reform—and more

broadly, about race, belonging, and inequality—will not be fought at the
ballot box or in the halls of government alone. It is also a battle being
fought in the heart and minds of the people who share this country, and


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undocumented youth are uniquely positioned to take up this fight. They

are both insiders and outsiders in this society, positioned halfway between
their US citizen counterparts, whom they have grown up alongside, and
their undocumented worker parents, who occupy the bottom rungs of the
social, political, and economic hierarchy.
Three things have become clear. First, many undocumented youth
activists are using their position as “deserving” to crack open space and
demand a kind of immigration reform that will also address the needs of
the “undeserving” immigrants, whom they are unwilling to leave behind.
Second, they are articulating this fight as a struggle for civil rights, drawing
on the long tradition of challenging unjust laws and positioning themselves
as part of that heritage. Third, they are willing to do whatever it takes to
bring about this change. Far from merely a pragmatic effort that has yet to
achieve its goal of passing the DREAM Act, the movement led by undocu-
mented youth is a much bigger project. These young people are risking
deportation to put pressure on the political structure and call attention to
the plight of the undocumented. Such actions reflect the daring strategy
and radical tactics that guide this movement and that quite possibly will
reconfigure the political terrain around immigration in this country.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank the undocumented student activists who
contributed to this article by inviting me into their lives and sharing both their
stories and their daring, unapologetic vision for justice. In specific, I would like
to thank Blanca Hernandez, Lizbeth Mateo, and Mohammad Abdollahi for their
generous editorial help.
1. In this paper I use the word illegality in quotes, following Nicholas De
Genova, to denote the sociopolitical process by which undocumented migrants are
subject to particular forms of regulation and criminalization. De Genova explains,
“I deploy quotes in order to denaturalize the reification of this distinction wherever
the term ‘illegality’ appears . . . Thus, the appearance of quotes around these terms
should not be understood to indicate the precise terminology that pertains in any
. . . particular author’s usage, so much as a general analytic practice on my part” (De
Genova 2002, 420). I consciously resist using the term illegal as a general signifier
for undocumented migrants because of its criminalizing connotation. However,
I use illegality in quotes to denote the process of subjugation that undocumented
migrants face within the context of a hostile, anti-immigrant political context.


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Undocumented Youth Activism as Counter-Spectacle

2. An Obama administration executive order, Deferred Action for Child-

hood Arrivals (DACA), does allow some undocumented young people who meet
a set of stringent criteria to qualify for temporary work permits. But this is not
a long-term remedy for this vulnerable population because of its time limit, the
difficult of meeting the criteria, and the fact that it could be overturned by a
future administration.
3. The population of undocumented young people across the nation is
ethnically and racially diverse, a reality these young activists are quick to point
out. This is true also of the movement in California, where undocumented young
people of various ethnicities have come together to fight for reform of the broken
immigration system and are building multiracial alliances in that process. Though
my study focuses on Latino youth, who make up the majority of the undocumented
youth activist movement, this focus is not intended to obscure the important pres-
ence and involvement of other ethnic groups.
4. Participants were contacted through their participation in the DREAM
Act campaign and/or in a student group based on a Northern California college
campus, as well as through snowball sampling. These methodologies were chosen
in order to capture the multifaceted, complex realities of these young people’s lives.
Unless otherwise noted, all excerpts were drawn from the interviews. All names
of individuals are pseudonyms.
5. Thus, spectacle as utilized in this article draws on the performance studies
conception of the term in that it conceptualizes the policing of migrant bodies at
the US-Mexico border not simply as a naturally occurring phenomenon but as
an “arranged display” intended for an audience. However, a nuanced engagement
with scholarship in the field of performance studies (Beeman 1993; Brecht 1964;
Rony 2012; Taylor 1997) on the question of spectacle is outside of the scope of
this analysis.
6. The interconnected nature of performance, social critique, and political
engagement, an idea developed by Debord and the Situationists, is particularly
relevant to this analysis of the undocumented student movement.
7. This phrase is attributed to the Immigrant Youth Justice League, whose
members coined the phrase “undocumented and unafraid” during their National
Coming Out of the Shadows Day in 2010 in Chicago. In 2011 the league amended
the phrase to “undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic.”
8. Evidence of this is Obama’s 2012 executive order to grant temporary work
permits to some undocumented students and to stop the deportation of DREAM
Act–eligible youth.
9. “AB 540 students” are undocumented students paying in-state tuition at
public universities in California.
10. See the cases of Cirila Baltazar Cruz (Padgett and Mascareñas 2009) and
Emily Ruiz (Dolnick 2011).
11. Savage made the comments in a radio broadcast on July 5, 2007. See
“Latino Support for GOP Drops Amidst Increasing Hysteria Over Immigration,”
Democracy Now, November 2, 2007.


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