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'The Epic of America' and the case of the Dreamers

Is the American Dream dying under President Trump, or will the nation restore faith in the phrase first coined in 1931 by the son of Venezuelan immigrants, James Truslow Adams.
Protesters supporting DACA hold balloons in the colors of the American flag during protests in Washington, D.C.
Crédito: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Let there be no doubt: for no other group of Americans is the mantle of “Dreamer” so fitting.

The “Dreamer” label is, of course, a play on the phrase “American Dream.” It is a designation that places the recipients of a temporary federal program, known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), at the center of an historical narrative, protagonists in a story they are perfectly suited to lead.

The history of the phrase “American Dream” is unequivocal: those words were always meant to celebrate new immigrants like the Dreamers, not despite their status as immigrants, but because of it.

The specific phrase “American Dream,” from which the moniker is derived, first rose into the public’s consciousness in 1931. In his best-seller published that year, The Epic of America, writer and historian James Truslow Adams became the first person to coin the term “American Dream, repeatedly using the construct to weave together themes of hope and self-determination. And he explicitly describes the “ American Dream” as endemic to the immigrant’s imagination:

“The American dream that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century… has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations…”

Adams' vision of the dream is a shared aspiration held by people from far-flung places about America, a land rich in the freedom and opportunity lacking in their country of origin.

In the context of an administration that is determined to build a border wall as long in distance as it is short on reason, it is notable that Adams specifically derides “barriers erected by older civilizations.”

Adams stressed:

“… there has been also the American dream… a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

Adams is depicting an idea of America that, for all its banal simplicity, has enduring resonance: it is not where you are from, but who you are that counts. That the essence of America Adams describes is empathetic to an immigrant’s point of view is no coincidence. America was then, as it is now, a nation of immigrants. Adams was no exception.

Venezuelan immigrant family

The man who first popularized the 'American Dream had roots outside the United States. Adams’ father was born in Caracas, Venezuela, a country where his family’s ancestry ran several generations deep. And the understanding of America informed by his family's own immigrant story permeates Adams' 1931 book, and by extension the phrase that is his greatest legacy.

When Donald Trump, as he’s often done, laments that “the American Dream is dead,” while in the same breath threatening Dreamers with deportation, he is obtusely working to kill the very dream he purports to defend. Trump habitually uses language that diminishes immigrants, relegating them to invaders of the American Dream, instead of rightfully casting them as central players in bringing that Dream to life.

Amnesty has become a four-letter word on the right- more hissed than spoken. But amnesty is just another word for forgiveness. The average age of arrival for DACA recipients is six years old. Can our society call itself just if it cannot forgive the inherently innocent?

As of March 6 2018, when the first DACA protections begin to expire, the Department of Justice will have the authority to arrest and deport the Dreamers. That 80 percent of Americans, including almost 70 percent of Republicans, think the DACA recipients should stay is cold comfort when our representatives in Washington fail to reflect the will of the people.

The DREAM act, a bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship for immigrants meeting the same criteria as DACA, and on which DACA was largely modeled, has been failing in Congress since 2001. (The name of the DREAM Act is an acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act)

But efforts taken before Donald Trump’s election did not carry today’s sense of urgency. Now, the president is using the Dreamers as leverage, as sympathetic hostages to trade for funding his anti-immigrant policies, like the border wall. Until now, Congress has declined to consider either; relief for the Dreamers, or funding for Trump's wall. Linking the two might be a clever political ploy, but ignores public opinion, which favors the Dreamers over the wall. Doing the right thing should not require strings attached.

So, the Dreamers should take heart: you are not alone in this fight.

A new chapter in The Epic of America is being written, another chance to prove that when a law is inhumane, it's not our humanity that changes, it's the law.