Communication Currents

Is “Undocumented” the Wrong Word for DREAMers?

April 1, 2016
Critical and Cultural Studies

Over the past 15 years, the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) movement has made significant progress by using a range of rhetorical strategies. In their efforts, many activists have self-identified as “undocumented,” a label around which they could rally and mobilize. To them, and to many journalists and scholars following the movement, “undocumented” is preferable to the racist diatribes regularly hurled at immigrants, and to such criminalizing labels as “illegal.” Can a person be “illegal?” they ask. Doesn’t the term reduce a large group of people to a collective violation of immigration law? The term “undocumented,” then, retains the individuals’ personhood and draws attention to the immigration system itself.  At least, that’s the hope.

In her essay, E. Johanna Hartelius writes that the term “undocumented” is potentially counterproductive, arguing that it invokes a frame or context within which DREAM activists cannot win. The references they use to documents such as a visa, a green card, or a Social Security card place DREAMers' activism inside the polity of documents, which privileges the written text. This polity of documents may be thought of, Hartelius argues, as “the bureaucracy.” Because one of DREAMers’ principal goals is passing legislation that provides immigrants with a path to permanent residency, their advocacy—calling themselves “undocumented” to reject the immigration system's power—cannot be wholly subversive to the bureaucracy as a system.

To examine young immigrants’ rhetorical deployment of “undocumented,” Hartelius analyzes a cluster of texts: two short books—Underground Undergrads and Undocumented and Unafraid—and Web materials from She asks, what is the outcome of designating oneself “undocumented” within the polity of documents? Hartelius references Robert Hariman’s Political Style: The Artistry of Power to explain: If “knowledge is indeed power in bureaucratic life, [and] the key to knowledge is the production, control, and interpretation of written documents,” then to have no documents is to have no power…. For those who are undocumented, then, there is no way to “live well within a bureaucratic world.”

Bureaucracy seamlessly organizes everyday life for those within its confines, but to those waiting in line for their documents, it makes normal social habits and phenomena appear foreign and illogical. A bureaucratic administration also expertly excludes the public, hiding its processes as much as possible. The youth described in the analyzed texts expressed their waning patience and their frustrations with their ineffectual interactions with the bureaucracy. Experiences of alienation in these cases trigger frustration and even anger.

[The DREAMers’] statements of purpose return to the hope that the immigration “office” eventually will recognize young people’s hard work and goodness and change its policies (e.g., by passing DREAM legislation). Thus if the danger of being “illegal” is criminal punishment and physical harm, the peril of the “undocumented” subject is an endless corridor of paperwork deferrals, a temporary status from which no path to citizenship really exists.

Several texts indicated that DREAMers’ activism is directed toward systemic change; their objective is the passage of federal law that provides a path to residency, making policymakers the agents of change. But while DREAMers are seeking change within the existing system, they are not displacing the system or its reliance on the documents they need. The word “undocumented,” Hartelius argues, is being used to try to move the agents of the bureaucracy toward making legislative changes that will benefit DREAMers. The problem is that these rhetorical tactics are not compelling to the bureaucracy, which values only those within the polity of documents, and the word “undocumented” itself excludes those without immigration status.

In an effort to explore how DREAMers get beyond the constraints of the bureaucratic paradigm, Hartelius analyzes Like many other young activists, DREAMers use the Internet for recruitment, organization, and mobilization, and to increase public awareness. Hartelius suggests that web-text is similar to and different from the kind of documentary text upon which the bureaucracy relies. For example, both web-text and documentary text are impersonal, distinguishable from individual creators. Unlike the documentary text, however, the web-text is interactive and multimodal, combining sound, imagery, and moving graphics. The web-text, Hartelius argues, is a hybrid, "somewhere between legitimacy and noise.” It is “a discourse in between ’documentary’ and non-documentary. Although appearing on screen as text, digital writing is less singular and intact than the bureaucratic document, more dependent on reproduction and circulation. On the other hand, web-text is not ’talk,’ and therefore is not wholly dismissible by the bureaucracy’s standards."

The bureaucracy conditions the lives of undocumented youth, whether at home, at school, or at the immigration office. The impact of the bureaucracy is reflected in their narratives of their experiences as immigrants. Their language contains an awareness of operating within the bureaucratic paradigm; the word “undocumented” ties them to the bureaucracy all the more. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic paradigm does not recognize the personal stories of the immigrants or their emotional appeals for change. Instead, the bureaucratic “office” dismisses their impassioned arguments for the reconceptualization of citizenship and the outrage over the injustices faced by immigrants all across the country. The DREAMers advocacy is important, and the author notes that she, as much as other immigration scholars, hopes for policy progress. But, she adds, her “concern is that, because it summons the bureaucratic regime, the ‘undocumented’ motif is fraught.” 

About the author (s)

E. Johanna Hartelius

University of Pittsburgh

Assistant Professor