The Power of Stories in DREAM Act Advocacy

September 20, 2010

By Anne Galisky

It has been quite a week. Our documentary film, “Papers” went on sale the same day that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that the DREAM Act would be brought to the floor as part of the Defense Authorization bill. The DREAM Act would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented youth who graduate from high school and attend two years of college or serve two years in the military. It was first introduced in 2001, and many believe it has the best chance of passage this year, starting with a cloture vote tomorrow.

I have had the extraordinary privilege of getting to know a number of DREAMers (a term many undocumented youth use for themselves) as I have traveled around the country filming for the documentary. In 2008, when we began filming, there were only a handful of DREAMers who were willing to go public about their status as undocumented. We did not know if we would need to have actors play their parts or read their stories. The act of going public, or “coming out” as many of them call it, carries great risk. Undocumented youth, even unaccompanied minors, can be arrested, detained, and deported to countries that may be completely foreign to them.

Ultimately we found five courageous young people who were willing to share their lives and struggles: Yo Sub, Monica, Jorge, Simone, and Juan Carlos. They live in all corners of the United States and come from a variety of countries of origin: South Korea, Guatemala, Mexico, and Jamaica. Dozens more gave interviews and shared their written stories. El Grupo Juvenil, the “Papers” youth crew, grew to include hundreds of students from across the country who participated in the project.

Since the completion of filming in June 2009, the youth movement for passage of the DREAM Act has picked up incredible momentum. Young leaders have sprung up all over the country, from rural North Carolina to Orange County, California, from Idaho to Florida. At the center of their movement is the belief that “coming out” or going public about one’s status is the key to winning over opponents and building alliances.

The Immigrant Youth Justice League of Chicago, very much the super-heroes that their name suggests, hosted the first “Come Out of the Shadows” event in March 2010. We were there to film this historic moment. An hour before the march was to arrive in Chicago’s Federal Plaza, I shook with fear about what was about to happen. Police canine units, ICE vans, and mounted police were assembling. However, by the time the march arrived at the plaza, the tenor of the police presence changed drastically. Bicycle police replaced mounted police and the atmosphere in the plaza felt somehow safe, especially as the students’ peers filled up the plaza and encouraged their friends. Undocumented students all over the country started “coming out” that day and I believe that one of the reasons that the DREAM Act is finally coming to the Senate floor this week is because of this extraordinary bravery.

All over the country students started taking greater and greater risks in order to have their stories heard. Four undocumented students walked from Miami to Washington, D.C., approximately 1500 miles, calling their walk the Trail of Dreams. We were with them in Greensboro, North Carolina, as they visited the infamous Woolworth Lunch counter where, in 1960, four African-American students launched the famous sit-in, paving the way for desegregation. The Trail of Dreams had to deal with bad weather, blisters, the Ku Klux Klan, and sleeping in a new place every night for five months. Just weeks later, the students walking from Miami met up with another group that had walked from New York and another that walked from Delaware, all arriving in Washington, D.C. on May 1. Immigrant rights leaders, led by the Trail of Dreams, held a rally and conducted a sit-in in front of the White House.

In July, DREAMers held another “DREAM Act graduation” and conducted civil disobedience at Senate office buildings, asking that the Senate bring the DREAM Act to the floor this year. Jorge, one of the main characters in “Papers,” participated with other DREAMers in a hunger strike in front of Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office in Los Angeles. All of these actions and countless others were designed to bring attention to the stories of undocumented students. These events, along with many other courageous and extraordinary acts, are included in the “Papers” DVD extras in a short called “Scenes from a Youth Movement.”

The movement by DREAMers is centered on the telling of their stories. Everything that they do is with the goal of bringing attention to their stories, because they believe that if only they were known and understood by their neighbors, their request for inclusion into American society could not be denied.


Anne GaliskyAnne Galisky is the Director of “Papers: Stories of Undocumented Youth” and co-founder of Graham Street Productions in Portland, Oregon. “Papers” is a feature length documentary film about undocumented youth and the challenges they face as they turn 18 without legal status in the United States. The film is available for educational institutions (as well as individuals) for use as a teaching tool regarding topics of immigration, labor, scapegoating and education.

“Papers” has screened to more than 500 live audiences in all 50 states in the last year, including at the NAFSA 2010 Annual Conference in Kansas City, Missouri. Anne believes that educators are by far the greatest allies and advocates for undocumented youth and the wide distribution of “Papers.”

Learn more about how you can support the DREAM Act on Connecting Our World.


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