Documenting DREAMS: New Media, Undocumented Youth and the Immigrant Rights Movement

Civic Paths is a team of graduate students, faculty, post-docs, and staff researchers within the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, who are seeking to better understand the role of new media tools and practices in shaping the political socialization and mobilization of American youth. The faculty leads on the research team are myself and my Journalism colleague, Kierstin Thorson while Sangita Shreshtova is the Research Director.

The team is linked to a larger research hub on Youth and Participatory Politics, headed by Mills College Political Science Professor Joe Kahne and funded by the MacArthur Foundation. Our team’s contribution consists of developing a series of ethnographic case studies of innovative networks which have proven effective at encouraging youth to become political activists. Next time, I will be sharing some quantitative research recently released by Kahne, Cathy Cohen, and other members of the YPP network.

Civic Paths recently released the first of the white papers which over the next two years will start to emerge from our research: this one written by our Post-Doc Arely M. Zimmerman and dealing with the groups of undocumented youth who have been trying to rally behind the DREAM Act. The report was released the same week that President Barack Obama announced a major shift in the country’s immigration policy that reflected in many ways the success of these DREAM activists in reframing the public’s perception of the experience of being undocumented and in calling out the fact that the Obama administration had deported more people in its first three years in office than George W. Bush had in his two terms as president.

Zimmerman’s white paper takes us behind the scenes, identifying the tactics which had led to this political victory and sharing the stories shared with her by the participants in her study.

Zimmerman’s research was the focus of an earlier blog post, describing a program we hosted at USC where young immigrant rights activists talked about their use of new media to mobilize supporters.

You can find the full report on the DREAM Activists online at the Youth and Participatory Politics homepage. But, to give you a taste of the report, I wanted to share two excerpts here today. The first comes from the introduction to Zimmerman’s report:

On October 12, 2011, five undocumented youth wearing graduation caps staged a sit-in at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices in downtown Los Angeles to urge the Obama administration to stop deporting undocumented youths. The sit-in launched the national E.N.D. (Education Not Deportation) Our Pain campaign, comprised of a network of immigrant youth organizations and allies demanding an immediate moratorium on deporting youth eligible for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. This proposed legislation would grant conditional legal status to those brought to the United States under age 16 if they attend college or join the military.

The action took place on a busy Wednesday morning when most Angelenos were at work and most students were in school. Fearing a low turnout, Dream Team Los Angeles, a local youth-led community group, and their allies used social media to send links of a live broadcast of the action from a free video-streaming site. While 300 people attended, over 4,000 users watched online as the youth entered ICE headquarters and demanded a hearing with officials. The attendees and online audience looked on as handcuffs were placed on the youth. Immediately after the arrests, users were able to make donations and petition for the arrestees’ release through another website.

The E.N.D. campaign’s direct action is an example of a strategy to amplify youth voices in the immigrant rights movement by combining traditional community organizing

with new media strategies. One of the arrestees and leader of one of the DREAM advocacy groups in Los Angeles acknowledges that a mixed media strategy is key for reaching diverse participants:

You have to be able to use Facebook and Twitter, but you have to be intentional about it, and strategic. At the same time, you have to also utilize traditional media outlets because our ‘tios’ and ‘tias’ are not using social networking. They are still watching Univision and the nightly news. So you have to engage in both.

DREAM Activism is an exemplar case of youth capitalizing on new media affordances to recruit, mobilize, and sustain broad-based youth political participation. While initial organizing in 2001 focused on states with high immigrant populations such as California, Illinois, and New York, undocumented youth and student organizations are now active at the national level with chapters in 25 states. The California Dream Network, a network of undocumented youth organizations, boasts chapters on over 30 college campuses. Student and youth organizers credit both their rapid growth and public outreach to the power of new media. Prerna Lal, co-founder of DreamActivist.org, a media-centered youth organization, states in an online video, “New media has indeed taken a small group of undocumented students to new heights and fueled a movement that was stagnant.”

Immigrant youth’s participation in the DREAM movement provides an opportunity to examine the intersection of new media and grassroots youth-led social movements in the context of a politically disenfranchised and legally vulnerable community. Drawing from field research, event observations, media content analysis, and 25 semi-structured interviews with DREAM activists residing in California, Illinois, Georgia, and Texas, this report examines the role of new media in mobilizing undocumented youth’s participation in the movement.

Only three of the youth I interviewed were U.S. citizens. While Mexico was the primary country of origin, some of the youth came from Colombia, Nigeria, El Salvador, Poland, and Chile. All but three of the youth were enrolled in an institution of higher learning or had completed their bachelor’s degree at the time of the interviewee. The semi-structured interviews allowed me to reconstruct the history of Dream Activism and account for existing organizational networks through youth’s narration of events, stories of participation, and the re-telling of their experiences as members of Dream activist organizations. On an individual level, the interview protocol was directed at capturing youth’s stories of involvement, the contextual factors and supports that sustained their civic participation, and their use of new media platforms and practices. Additionally, I probed how their participation in the Dream movement had shaped their experiences of inequality and identity, feelings of membership and belonging, and conceptions of citizenship.

As the effects of new media on political participation continue to be sharply

debated, this case study suggests that youth’s online and political participation are

mutually reinforcing. Despite the barriers they face because of their legal and socio-

economic status, undocumented youth activists in this study are highly engaged online as bloggers, documentarians, artists, or social media activists. The positive correlation

between levels of civic engagement and online participation is due to several factors.

Online communities have served as spaces to develop associational bonds, forge social

networks, and amass forms of social capital that are particularly useful given the legal

and political vulnerability of face to face activism. Online communities have also

increased youth’s sense of political efficacy by offering spaces for collective identification and shared memory. The sophisticated use of new media by undocumented youth has enabled youth to negotiate, resist, and respond to their political and socio- economic marginalization. Through new media, undocumented youth have uplifted the voices, experiences, and stories of an often-ignored segment of the immigrant population in the United States. Simultaneously, these activists have brought attention to the youth voice within the social justice community more broadly….

The second selection from the white paper comes from the conclusion and focuses more directly on the personal trajectories of the DREAM activists that Zimmerman interviewed for the project. She deals honestly with the challenges these undocumented youth confront, both in preserving personal dignity in their everyday interactions and in finding ways to access the digital media which is so vital to their efforts. This passage gives us a snap shot of how people are living with and working around the digital divide and the participation gap and the ways these inequalities of access are tied to larger social, political, and economic inequalities. Their stories help us to understand how current immigration policies are squandering the potential of a generation of young Americans who seek to make a contribution with their lives but who are often blocked from doing so as a consequence of the political stalemate which surrounds efforts to change the process for acquiring citizenship:

During the research on this MAPP case study, I met many individuals who defied the presumption of civically and politically disengaged youth. Like Jose, who used Facebook to confront the social isolation he felt by posting photos of his drawings online, these youth have used new media tools to overcome rather than succumb to barriers to their political participation. Sammy, an aspiring filmmaker, did not have the means to buy a camera with HD capabilities, but produced a short documentary on the plights of undocumented students. El Random Hero was an avid blogger and yet did not have a computer at home. He accessed the internet through public libraries. The stories of these youth provide a glimpse into the positive impact that new media can have on the ability of youth to become civically and politically engaged.

Through this research, I also met disaffected undocumented youth who were less engaged both in their schools, communities, and empowering forms of digital social networks. Though these youth had access to new media, they had not used this access to empower themselves and engage politically. Anna, a high school student, felt that

Facebook was a detriment at times even, pulling her into a web of high school “drama” causing her to deactivate her account. Anna was graduating high school that summer and hadn’t any idea of what she would do next. Would she be destined to work in a low- skilled job for minimum wage?

These varied DREAMer youth experiences show the range of outcomes that are possible. For those individuals that experienced positive outcomes in their civic, political and digital lives, it seems to be a result of access to new media combined with a range of other contextual supports. One important contextual support is institutional, namely the college campus. Most of the youth in this study who were politically engaged are also college graduates or on the way to obtaining a degree. Of course, there are exceptions. El Random Hero, for instance, has not been able to afford to attend community college. But for the most part, DREAMers seem to become more involved once they’re enrolled in an educational institution. Students like Agustin, who had been exposed early on to Chicano or Ethnic studies, had a framework to understand their struggles in relation to historical patterns, increasing their sense of belonging and group pride. Several youth in this study started their activism by joining a college campus group. Others found each other online. Some later become active in community-based organizations or national coalitions, but they generally began when a peer or a mentor introduced them to a student support group for undocumented students. This happened both online and face-to-face.

While much research needs to be done in this regard, this study suggests that new

media do provide extended opportunities for political advocacy and social engagement

for undocumented youth. DREAMers find each other online. They strengthen their sense

of community through collective storytelling. They mobilize for action using social media. They use their online media savvy in combination with more traditional social movement tactics. The youth use new media to make the DREAM movement personal, networked and visible. What remains a question is whether the degree of empowerment and the sustainability of youth’s political participation in this movement relates directly to institutional supports and contextual capital. If so, how can we strengthen these to create powerful avenues for broader youth participation in politics and the public sphere?

While community groups like Dream Team Coalition of Los Angeles or the United We Dream national network are youth-driven, these groups have also successfully drawn on resources and support from more traditional allies in the advocacy and nonprofit sectors. These contextual supports may enhance DREAMer youth’s new media affordances towards more sustained political action. For example, in the Los Angeles area, community-based organizations such as the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) and UCLA’s Labor Center have been at the forefront of undocumented youth organizing. These centers provide both formal and informal supports such as mentorship, scholarship, organizing and leadership development, along with access to the broader social justice community. In 2011, the Labor Center sponsored an event called “Dream Summer”, which provided 60 undocumented youth with paid internships and a trip to Washington DC. Such programs help sustain youth’s political activism and involvement by providing a means of both emotional and financial support and motivation.

In California, especially in cities like Los Angeles, the immigrant rights community has well-established organizations with a long trajectory of facing an uphill battle to organize and sustain their political involvement. While new media and online social networks are a way to counter social and political isolation, DREAMer youth may benefit by seeking out the support of institutions that can help sustain their activism. Kendra and Jenny, for instance, found it hard to plug into the social justice community in their hometowns in Texas and Illinois, respectively. Because immigrant rights are often framed as a Latino issue, most organizations cater to Spanish speaking, newly arrived immigrants. Kendra and Jenny were not Latin American and were not Spanish speakers. The lack of ethnic ties made it more difficult for them to participate in local organizing activities, so they turned to the Internet. Kendra was more successful than Jenny at connecting to a social network of undocumented students, but she also was pulled further into the immigrant rights struggle when she visited Washington, D.C. for a collective action. Joining others in a solidarity march on Capitol Hill was a catalyst in her political activism.

Clearly, there is still more research that needs to be done in understanding why some undocumented youth become politically and socially empowered, while others, to put it in their words, remain “in the shadows.” Further analysis of this research will begin to answer these questions as well. Still, it is already clear that new media placed in the hands of DREAMer youth, inspired by a collective vision and supported by the community, has created a powerful movement for social change.

Civic Paths is very proud of the timely and ground-breaking work which Zimmerman has done on this case study, and we hope you will take the time to check out her full report.

Future Civic Paths white papers will deal with the network of fan activists around the Harry Potter Alliance, the Nerdfighters, and Imagine Better; the activities and institutions supporting the Students for Liberty movement; and the politicization of Moslem-American youth in the wake of 9/11.