Reflections on Citizenship from 1619 to 2019

By Kayla Tawa and Vanessa Meraz

In the New York Times’s1619 project” marking the 400th anniversary of enslavement in the United States, Nikole Hannah-Jones reflects on the making of American democracy by contemplating what citizenship looks like in absence of legal rights and recognition. Today, as the Supreme Court hears oral arguments on whether to uphold an injunction blocking the Trump Administration’s termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, we reflect on a similar question: What does citizenship mean in absence of papers?

“They had been forged in trauma. They had been made black by those who believed themselves to be white.”

Since the first ship carrying enslaved Africans arrived on stolen land 400 years ago, American settlers defined themselves and their nation in opposition to the enslaved and the indigenous. Toni Morrison tells us that Blackness became “the projection of the not-me” as “Nothing highlighted freedom—if it did not in fact create it—like slavery.” Racist and xenophobic tendencies are baked into the foundation of this country. Like those fights that came before it, the current movement to grant civil rights to Dreamers responds to these foundational sins. Hannah-Jones reflects that “from the beginning,” the nation “[violated] its most essential principles.”

Centuries of slavery and displacement followed by centuries of institutionalized discrimination created a powerful legacy of labeling some as outside the nation through marginalizing and “othering” their communities. Being othered is an all-too-familiar experience for many Americans, whether it was the Japanese-Americans interned, indigenous peoples forcibly relocated, or immigrants today.

President Trump once claimed to support the DACA program and the Dreamers who benefit from it, yet his empty words preceded loaded attacks on Dreamers, their families, and their communities. Since the president announced he would end the DACA program, Dreamers have suffered increased physical and emotional distress. The attempt to end the DACA program exemplifies how this administration has escalated the othering of immigrants. Among countless examples, the administration has barred asylum-seekers from entering the country and attempted to deny immigrants and their families access to health care and other basic needs. The administration has made it painfully clear that it does not want immigrants, particularly those who are people of color and/or poor, to enter, remain, or exist at all in the United States. Despite the community’s resiliency, the harms inflicted by this administration are permanently rupturing the immigrant community’s collective memory, forging it in trauma.

“They call this new country a democracy, but it wasn’t one, not yet.”

This historical othering haunted the nation, ensuring that at the time of its birth America would fail to live up to its founding ideals; it could not yet be a democracy. By “choosing to stay,” “Black people fought to make it one.” Today, Dreamers proudly assert that they are “Here to Stay.” More than a declaration of defiance, it is a declaration of belonging. Just as enslaved Africans and their descendants declared “We are American, and we’re actually going to work to make these founding ideals a reality,” Dreamers perform the civil obligations of living in American society, and they do so without reaping the full benefits of those contributions.

Dreamers hold the nation accountable for what it promised to be, by understanding — like those who came before them — that citizenship rights are claimed not given.  More than “just about the rights of black people,” the civil rights movement was about “guaranteeing the civil rights of all Americans.” Dreamers are building an intersectional movement that draws on the lessons, strategies, and people power of the civil rights, farmworker, women’s, LGBTQIA+, and other movements. Powered by young women of color and united with other social justice movements, Dreamers are fighting for themselves, their parents, their families, and their communities. Each successive fight for civil rights moves the nation closer to its founding ideals.

“It is black people who have been the perfectors of this democracy”

Through struggles for equal rights and justice, those living in a country that “clearly did not love [them]” forced the nation to live up to its promise of democracy. As Hannah-Jones contends, it is the “very people who were denied citizenship in their own country, who were denied the protections of our founding documents, who would fight the hardest and most successfully to make those ideals real, not just for themselves but for all Americans.” Dreamers today follow the path charted by enslaved Africans denied rights in the nation they built, indigenous peoples denied rights in a country founded on their stolen land, and all other marginalized groups denied rights in the country they call home.

Citizenship in the absence of papers is perfecting a democracy in a nation that has othered you and marginalized your community. Like those who came before them, Dreamers are pushing to make our founding democratic ideals a reality. They do this work, not in the legacy of the founding fathers, but in the legacy of those enslaved Africans who first arrived on this stolen land 400 years ago.