How young, undocumented organizers fought to bring DACA into existence

By Patty Arteaga

On June 18, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration could not rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy due to the administration’s failure to follow procedures and complete necessary assessments to end the program. As of this writing, over 643,000 DACA recipients are protected from deportation.  

The sudden whiplash between the Trump administration rescinding DACA and the Supreme Court temporarily upholding it is familiar to undocumented immigrants. For the past 20 years, they have faced unrelenting challenges to secure a legal right to stay in the only country most of them have known.

Taking action, undocumented organizers catapulted themselves into the center of one of the nation’s fiercest debates to form an unlikely, yet powerful, political voice. From the DREAM Act, to DACA, to deportation and policing, undocumented organizers ushered in a new era of political activism, shaping policies, influencing elections, and sparking national conversations about exclusion and belonging.  

DACA is just one product of this multipronged, multifaceted movement. To mark the news of the recent Supreme Court decision, the museum’s undocumented organizing collecting initiative explores the roots of how undocumented activists worked to fight for the DREAM Act, create DACA, and expand immigrant rights over the past two decades.

An adjective describing people who lack authorized legal documents to have a liminal (temporary) protective status (such as provided by DACA) to reside in the United States. The word “undocumented” is the preferred usage by organizers in addressing their

Coming Out of the Shadows

In many ways, DACA is remarkable. DACA exists because undocumented youth, without citizenship or the right to vote, compelled Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court to act. By coming forward they exposed themselves to detention, deportation, and family separation. Until the 2000s, most undocumented immigrants avoided direct political action because of the threat to their lives and livelihoods. Youth changed that. When undocumented children, raised and educated in the United States, began to apply for drivers’ licenses, work permits, and access to college educations, they discovered—to their great surprise—that their legal status denied them these opportunities. They suddenly confronted an impossible choice of either being deported or living in the shadows as undocumented wage workers. Individually, they began to come forward seeking help from congressional representatives and immigrant rights groups and asking for a path to citizenship. In 2001 Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) responded, introducing the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, otherwise known as the DREAM Act, to Congress.   

What had seemed like an easy bill to pass became implausible after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Anti-immigrant sentiment spiked, encouraging Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) to introduce highly restrictive immigration legislation in the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005. Using the only tool available to them, hundreds of thousands of immigrants across the United States took to the streets in protest. Many undocumented youth organizers remember this moment as a potent lesson, introducing them to the power of people’s movements.

A t-shirt with the Statue of Liberty on it and the words "Marcha Primero de Mayo."
Across the country, large demonstrations against the Sensenbrenner Bill united immigrant and undocumented communities. The museum is currently adding more objects like this one through a collecting initiative called New Paths to Change: Undocumented Immigrant Activism, 2000 to the Present. Click the image to learn more. Todos Somos América, Todos Somos Inmigrantes T-shirt, 2006

Taking the Stage

Galvanized by the marches, undocumented youth began direct-action campaigns, preferring to stay “on message” and push a comprehensive immigration bill through Congress. Wearing high school graduation robes, they traveled to the U.S. Capitol and conducted sit-ins in congressional offices to push the passage of the DREAM Act. They exposed themselves to deportation in the process. Borrowing from LGBTQ+ organizing, they “came out of the shadows” and revealed their undocumented status publicly. They strategically emphasized their “Americanness” through scripted narratives underscoring their status as high-achieving English-speaking students raised on the American Dream. These strategies paid off. Anti-immigration sentiment still ran high, but public opinion swung in favor of the DREAMers.  

Speaking for Themselves

Established immigration rights groups expressed concern with the undocumented youth’s direct-action campaigns. But undocumented immigrants could not afford to wait. Deportation separated families and left entire communities living in fear. So the undocumented youth broke off and formed their own campaigns centered on deportation, policing, and the DREAM Act.

With popular opinion working in their favor, they coalesced around the DREAM Act from 2009-2010.

In a massive push, activists conducted marches, demonstrations, sit-ins in elected officials’ offices, fasting campaigns, and walkouts to rally support for their cause. Actions occurred all over the country, led by undocumented youth who were putting their entire energy, bodies, and selves on the line to apply pressure for Congress to pass the DREAM Act.  
Yet after nine years of gridlock, Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act by five votes. Suddenly, all the youth and students who had stepped forward were at an even greater risk of deportation.


In the wake of the DREAM Act’s failure, organizers regrouped. A dedicated legal team investigated a largely unknown administrative practice called “deferred action” from deportation. Presidents employed deferred action on a case-by-case basis to protect immigrants from deportation. What if this could be implemented more broadly? Working with immigration attorneys, organizers presented their case to the Obama administration on the possible temporary relief the executive branch could offer them. It went ignored so they took to the streets. They demonstrated and marched and even took over President Obama’s re-election campaign offices. By applying pressure to the presidency, undocumented youth were once again putting forward all their energy to stop their own deportation and arrive at a solution, even if a temporary one. 

On June 15, 2012, President Obama announced an executive action, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The program offered some undocumented youth a two-year, renewable protective status to pursue employment if they could prove the following: that they arrived before their 16th birthday; can demonstrate living continuously in the United States since June 15, 2007; had not committed a felony; and were under 31 years of age.

DACA had been in effect for five years when the Trump administration rescinded the program on September 5, 2017. Challenging the administration in court, undocumented organizers eventually took their case to the Supreme Court. The court’s June 18, 2020, ruling does not secure DACA. The majority opinion made it clear that the proper processes had not been implemented to rescind DACA. They made no judgement on the validity of deferred action. 

A GIF of posters in support of the DREAM Act.
2018 push for the DREAM Act after DACA was rescinded on September 5, 2017. 

For undocumented organizers, DACA and the DREAM Act only scratch the surface of larger issues facing their communities. The policies protect some youth but not their parents. There are other liminal protective statuses such as Temporary Protective Status (TPS) and Deferred Enforced Department (DED) that fall in the shadow of DACA, since it only pertains to a smaller number of people and adults. However, the visibility of the DACA program has expanded the framework beyond precarious immigration statuses and how they affect every facet of daily life. Using media, art, culture, elections, mass mobilizations, and mutual aid, they tackle issues such as LGBTQ+ identities, racial bias, housing, policing, fair employment practices, incarceration, and assault. Much like the people's movements of the 1960s-1970s, undocumented organizers have moved beyond the issue of political inclusion; they are seeking community liberation.

More Information

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is a policy memorandum announced by President Barack Obama on June 15, 2012. The memorandum states that people who came to the United States as children (younger than 16) and met several requirements can obtain deferred action for a period of two years, subject to renewal. Applicants would be eligible for a work authorization. Unlike federal legislation, DACA does not provide a pathway toward citizenship. 
DACA came to be because of a push from community leaders and activists when the DREAM Act of 2010 came five votes short in the Senate. Back to top

First introduced in Congress in 2001, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act) would provide a pathway towards citizenship for undocumented youth who came to the United States as young children and met stringent conditions. The undocumented youth were dubbed as “DREAMers,” a nod to the acronym for the act. For almost two decades, and with slight variations, the bill has received bipartisan support but has yet to pass legislatively. Back to top

Discretionary deferment or postponement of deportation of an individual. Back to top

The museum is continuing to collect from this history as it happens. You can learn more about our collecting initiative, New Paths to Change: Undocumented Immigrant Activism, 2000 to the Present, here. The collecting initiative received federal support from the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center and the Asian American Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

You can find educational resources related to DACA as part of our Becoming Us curriculum. 

The collecting team includes Nancy Bercaw, Patricia Arteaga, and José Centeno-Meléndez. Nancy Bercaw and Patricia Arteaga wrote this piece. Nancy Bercaw is the chair of our political history department and Patricia Arteaga is a curatorial assistant.