Must Dreamers “Hibernate” Again?

Ralph Ellison statue (or invisible statue)

Monday

After President Obama used prosecutorial discretion to stop chasing the undocumented-but-otherwise-law-abiding parents of American citizens, I wrote a column about Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man entitled “Invisible Men (and Women) No Longer.” I was also talking also about the “Dreamers,” undocumented young men and women who had grown up in this country and were now in high school, college, the military, or pursuing careers. Just as Invisible Man declares that one day he will emerge from his “hibernation,” so, I said, they can now come out of the shadows.

I’m not the only one who applied Ellison’s novel to this situation. A recent New Yorker article by a high school teacher says that, upon reading the novel, he was reminded of essays he had received years before from immigrant kids living in the shadows:

The students were asked to write their own short memoirs, and many of them used the exercise as an opportunity to write about what it meant to be an undocumented person in the United States. Their stories narrated the weeks-long journeys they had taken as young children to escape violence and poverty in their home countries, crossing the border in the back of pickup trucks, walking across deserts, and wading through rivers in the middle of the night. Others discussed how they did not know that they were undocumented until they attempted to get a driver’s license or to apply to college, only to be told by their parents that they did not have Social Security numbers.

One student stood up in front of the class to read his memoir and said that, every day, coming home from school, he feared that he might find that his parents had disappeared. After that, many students revealed their status, and that of their families, to their classmates for the first time. The essays told of parents who would not drive for fear that being pulled over for a broken taillight would result in deportation; who had never been on an airplane; who were working jobs for below minimum wage in abhorrent conditions, unable to report their employers for fear of being arrested themselves. It was a remarkable scene, to witness young people collectively shatter one another’s sense of social isolation.

After Donald Trump was elected, Smith received a note from one of his former students expressing her fears. She was responding to Trump’s declaration, on Sixty Minutes, about deporting and incarcerating two to three million undocumented immigrants once he took office. We will also, he said, “make a determination” on the rest “after everything gets normalized.” What would she do if she were deported, the student wondered, since the United States is the only country she knows.

Smith, who now teaches Invisible Man in his classes, wonders how it would go over if these former students were to read the novel:

I imagine that if I were to read this book with my students now, our conversation would be different. I wonder if any of my students would ever stand up in class to read their own stories, or if they would instead remain silent. I think of all the young people who, because of daca, had emerged to be seen by their country as human, as deserving of grace, as deserving of a chance. I think of how they turned over their names, birth dates, addresses to the government in anticipation of a pathway out of the shadows. I revisit the final pages of Invisible Man and think of how many things that once existed above ground in our country might now become trapped beneath the surface.

One of the relevant passages is the following:

Hence again I have stayed in my hole, because up above there’s an increasing passion to make men conform to a pattern. Just as in my nightmare, Jack and the boys are waiting with their knives, looking for the slightest excuse to . . . well, to “ball the jack,” and I do not refer to the old dance step, although what they’re doing is making the old eagle rock dangerously.

Yes, the “old eagle” is rocking very dangerously. Pray for strength, courage, and wise guidance in the months and years ahead.

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