President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union was, for the most part, scripted and sedate. At times, he almost looked bored with himself. But when he talked about immigration — the issue at the core of his political career — he was having fun.
He clearly enjoyed ad-libbing about the monstrousness of the MS-13 gang and the heroism of American law enforcement officers who fought them by being “tougher” (complete with an inexplicable and unverifiable claim about putting “thousands and thousands and thousands” of MS-13 members in prison or on deportation flights).
He enjoyed giving his spiel about how the diversity visa lottery randomly selects immigrants, and about how “chain migration” allows immigrants to bring “virtually unlimited” numbers of family members to the US. Neither of those claims is true, but both have become Trump standbys in recent months.
And he even enjoyed tying all of this together to make the case for Congress to turn the immigration framework his White House presented last week into a bill, addressing border security, restrictions on family-based immigration, and the diversity visa, in exchange for allowing 1.8 million young unauthorized immigrants to get legal status and eventually US citizenship.
But he never actually addressed why Congress is discussing immigration to begin with, or why it includes the legalization proposal. He never mentioned the fact that he himself ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in September, winding down deportation protections and work permits for 690,000 unauthorized immigrants who came to the US as children — and put Congress on a six-month timer to address the fate of those unauthorized immigrants and their peers.
The only reference he made to it was a winking one. Playing on the use of “DREAMers” to refer to the generation of immigrants who came to the US as children, most of whom are now in their 20s and 30s, he smirked that “Americans are dreamers too”:
Tonight, I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties — Democrats and Republicans — to protect our citizens of every background, color, religion, and creed. My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans — to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream. Because Americans are dreamers too.
Miss that reference and this passage is just standard Trumpian “America First” boilerplate: the idea that America has put immigrants ahead of its own citizens, and that Trump is showing love for Americans by calling for fewer immigrants to be allowed to join them.
But it’s in fact something more pointed: an attempt to reclaim the label of “dreamer” from the group that has used it for the past 17 years.
The DREAM Act — an acronym that stands for Development, Relief, and Education of Alien Minors, if you’re wondering — was introduced in the Senate in 2001 to give legal status to unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the United States as children. The act gave the name to that generation of immigrants: the DREAMers. That moniker is what Trump sought to reclaim Tuesday, to the applause of figures like David Duke.
Thank you President Trump. Americans are "Dreamers" too.— David Duke (@DrDavidDuke) January 31, 2018
This isn’t the first time the president has drawn the connection between Americans being “dreamers” and DREAMers as a group whose status in the US is an urgent policy issue. Trump used the line on the campaign trail, when he capped pleas to turn attention to poverty at home with “let our children be dreamers too.” And he’s done it as president, in his official White House statement after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the end of the DACA program: “Above all else, we must remember that young Americans have dreams too.”
“All Lives Matter”ing DREAM
The DREAM Act has been around for 17 years. Congress never passed it. Instead, President Obama attempted to stick a Band-Aid on the problem by allowing DREAMers to get temporary work permits and deportation protections under DACA — protections that Trump is now slowly ripping away.
But the moniker “DREAMers” persisted. Because at this point, it describes not just the hoped-for effects of a bill, but a set of shared experiences. DREAMers represent the only generation of immigrants in US history to grow up, by the hundreds of thousands, alongside US citizens and often believing as children they would have all the same opportunities as US citizens did — then learning, as teenagers, that wasn’t true.
They’re called DREAMers because the distinction that’s marked their lives is that they learned too late that they wouldn’t have the same opportunity as other Americans to pursue those dreams: to get college scholarships, launch careers, live fearlessly.
To say that “Americans are dreamers too” misses the point of all that. It only makes sense under a misunderstanding of what DREAMers are actually asking for — a belief that they’re getting free college, for example — or under the zero-sum logic of status anxiety, in which any attention paid to a marginalized group must inherently mean that some other group must be losing ground.
It’s the same thing that happens when people respond to the slogan “Black Lives Matter” by saying that “All Lives Matter.” Technically, the statement is true and no one is disputing it. But to say it in this context, as a rebuttal, is to draw attention away from the discrepancy that the original statement was trying to point out: the reality that not everyone is equal, and furthermore, that the people speaking up lack some of the things that their critics take for granted.
Donald Trump has never shown much interest in understanding this sort of inequality, much less made it a theme of his speeches. He knows two ways to talk about America. Trump’s America is either a bootstrapper’s utopia where everyone has equal status and opportunity just because Trump says they do — Horatio Alger by way of The Secret — or the battered but rallying land of the “forgotten men and women” who have been threatened by foreign criminals and abandoned by cultural elites.
The first vein is what he taps into to rebut claims that his administration is fomenting racial divisions or to sweep aside the issues that Republicans often label “identity politics,” such as racial justice and immigrant rights. The second vein is itself, of course, a form of identity politics — in which the only true Americans are cultural conservatives who are under threat any time an athlete doesn’t stand for the national anthem, and in which any dissent (even wearing black to the State of the Union as a #MeToo statement against sexual assault) is somehow an attack on the troops.
No one has ever told those Americans that they have no right to dream. And most likely, few of them, when they hear the term “DREAMers,” see it as immigrants stealing dreams from native-born Americans. But to Donald Trump, the power to use positive language to label yourself isn’t one that immigrants have either.