What’s the point of designating a so-called American Dream “if we’re not willing to extend it to anyone and everyone who works hard to make this country a better place?”
Such is the query posed in this video by Dan-el Padilla Peralta, author of Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey From a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League. Dan-el has a wonderful story: He went from being an undocumented immigrant child in a NYC homeless shelter to an Ivy League success story and in turn became one of the faces of immigration reform when he was featured in The Wall Street Journal in 2006. To Dan-el, there are few people in the U.S. who best embody the traditional idea of what the American Dream is… and they’re the exact people most often labeled “un-American.”
We’ve seen plenty of pushback against the Dream as a concept in recent work by authors such as Ta-Nehisi Coates. Padilla builds on that line of questioning with regard to undocumented immigrants. What’s the point of the concept if it can’t be applied to everyone?
Dan-el Padilla Peralta: We need to think very carefully about what we mean when we use the term "American Dream." And this has been the subject of several recent books that have come out, including Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, in which Coates really pushes back against the dream as a concept. I'm interested in work that asks us to consider what is at stake when we imagine someone who has met or checked off the boxes that we associate with the American Dream. So on the one hand, I went to all of these institutions that are viewed as markers of a certain kind of success. At the same time, though, it's imperative that we think about ways of succeeding in American society that go beyond some of the traditional attributes of the American Dream.
And this now brings me back to undocumented migrants. So on the one hand many undocumented migrants are not in my position. They, for many reasons, are hindered or have been hindered in obtaining their dreams. But one of the reasons that we think of dreamers and one of the reasons why the undocumented youth movement has taken up that label enthusiastically is because we believe that it is even at the margins of American society, these margins that are created by U.S. immigration policy, that so much amazing work is being done by families, by communities to commit wholeheartedly to the pursuit of this thing we call the American Dream. These are migrants who have contributed to their communities, who have worked hard and with persistence to ensure the very best for their children. In a word, they exemplify everything that we conventionally associate with the American Dream. And for those migrants to be labeled as un-American almost beggars the mind. It calls into question why in fact we have this designation "the American Dream" in the first place if we're not willing to extend it to anyone and everyone who works hard to make this country a better place.