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What It Means to Be a ‘Good Immigrant’ in America

Blogger and ‘burnt-out DREAMer’ Erick Huerta takes us inside his ‘quasi-undocumented’ life — and the perilous future of immigrant rights in the U.S.

Erick Huerta can barely remember the journey from Mexico to his uncle’s house, tucked into the tight-knit community of Boyle Heights in L.A. He was just 7 years old, and the most vivid recollection is the suddenness of it all: “It’s like I fell asleep at my great-grandma’s ranch and woke up in America, and that was that.” 

Huerta is one of the millions of Mexican and other Latin American migrants who found their way to the U.S. during the 1990s. Major reforms to federal immigration policy played a big role, but so did a growing cultural understanding from migrants that rebuilding a life on American soil wasn’t just doable, but preferable. A series of financial crashes, debt crises and recessions in the 1980s was a disaster for the middle class in Mexico as well as Central and South America. 

“When I was that age, in 1991, I didn’t know anything. I was told it was happening and that’s it. Now that I’m 35 and had a chance to talk about it with my parents, it’s good to know we weren’t in a situation where we had to leave immediately,” he recalls. “So many people crossed the border because of trauma and violence, trying to escape something. For my family, it was more like, ‘Hey, everyone we know is moving, and we should do that too.’” 

The community he discovered in Boyle Heights served as a sort of bubble, given that being undocumented wasn’t a point of stigma or even curiosity. Everyone in the neighborhood knew someone whose paperwork wasn’t completely in order. Everyone knew someone who struggled with employment and the bills. “Your status never really came up, because it was obvious we’re all here, black and brown people, all struggling and just trying to do what we need to,” Huerta explains. 

As he grew up, however, Huerta started pondering about how immigration status could shift the course of an entire life. A Chicano studies course in his first year of college helped connect him to student groups who were unpacking how identity, class and immigration policy were intertwined. He joined the local movement to push the DREAM Act, a law that would provide a strong pathway to citizenship for undocumented adults who migrated as minors. For a moment in time, it felt like something huge could change under the Obama administration. 

Then it fell short by a handful of Senate votes, first in 2007 and again in 2010 — a disheartening blow for the young activists who had made immigration reform a top national issue. Looking for some small fix, President Barack Obama in 2012 flexed his executive power to create the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which allowed Huerta and others to apply for work permits and remain in the country as long as they kept a clean criminal record. Huerta has blogged about the “quasi-undocumented” life through all those years, offering an earnest look into his “burnt-out DREAMer” head as well as observations on a new generation of activists.

“I know I’m just an old guy compared to the young people leading now. But I can’t help but think about all the work we did a decade ago, and both how far and how little we’ve come since then,” he tells me. 

It’s a tenuous time for everyone in the immigrant rights fight: The Trump administration rescinded DACA in 2017, and the future of the program depends on a critical Supreme Court decision this year. Huerta, who works as a social media consultant, is the first to admit that he’s no longer a part of the activist fight. But over the course of an hour, he spoke to me about the long, winding, oft-frustrating cycle of political movements — and what it feels like to step away from activism and watch from the sidelines as a youth movement forges ahead.

What do you remember about how your parents learned to survive in America after moving here?
Obviously, being undocumented, they made do with what they could. They had limited education to begin with, so it’s not like they were able to help me go through school or navigate the system. They just focused on earning money with manual labor. A lot of the time, my parents worked for themselves because it was easier. Less questions to be asked, and if you own your own business, you know what you get out of it is what you put into it. So, that was easy for them, because they always had that kind of drive to hustle.

It’s funny to think about what seeing that hustle does to you. Some kids saw their parents working so hard, struggling just to remain above water — and that had the effect of instilling a value to themselves to work twice as hard, and be the best they could be, and find success so they can take care of their parents. To be frank, I saw that and just thought, Yo, that’s not going to be me. I went the complete other direction. For a long time, I stayed at a level where I could just work minimal hours at minimal jobs, with minimum wage, and get by. I took the mindset of, Your parents worked so hard so you don’t have to, and kind of ran with it. 

But getting older and seeing how things will likely pan out, you start to think about what you really want out of your future. It’s mostly more work and more responsibilities, which I begrudgingly take on [laughs].

You mentioned how living in Boyle Heights became this safe “bubble” where the people around you were relatable and the community thrived regardless of people’s citizenship status. When did the bubble burst, though?
I mean, it wasn’t overnight. It wasn’t like a single experience that lit the switch and made me care about politics and organizing. I wasn’t politicized in high school or anything. Like with a lot of folks, it started in college. I took an intro-level Chicano studies course at East L.A. Community College, and that was an oh shit moment. What I was learning about why things are made so much sense. Things I’d seen and experienced from a young age in my community. A lot of it was obvious: Why are black and brown people poor? Why do we live next to freeways? Why is there more violent crime here, despite us being overpoliced? 

They were the most basic questions to engage someone on, and for me, it started rolling the snowball down the hill. I went to school for journalism, and that helped connect my own experiences to what was going on with other people. The turning point was me starting to write about my dreams and being undocumented in the school paper, back in 2006 or 2007. A support group for undocumented students got in touch with me, and I saw this large network that was being built by undocumented students, forming clubs all across California. They were already pushing for the DREAM Act. And it was a foundation for all the national work that was going to happen, too. 

I was a part of local advocacy groups for immigration reform, with a big focus on the DREAM Act. It was a lot of the same faces coming together again and again, having more meetings than we probably should’ve had. I was always an extra set of hands to do busy work, but I also did a lot of communications — reaching out to reporters, filing requests for comment, social media, etc. In the beginning, it was just this simple motivation of, Hey, I’m undocumented, I should be doing something. I found a place in which to start advocating. A lot of my political thought and action came from being involved with DREAMers, and because a number of movements were being led by women and queer folks, I had this opportunity to hear and learn from them.

What do you remember about the energy around DREAM activism back then? And how did the half-measure of DACA land with you and the people around you?
Desperation. It was a real desperation. And with the failure of the DREAM Act, it was the desperation of wondering, What am I going to do? What am I going to do with my life? With my family? It’s compounded if you have kids and are the sole provider for your family. I mean, some of us were casual about it, like me. That was a privilege. But it felt world-ending for anyone who was providing for the family. But beyond that, the effort around DREAM was a desperation to just be seen. To have recognition and payoff for all the work you’ve been doing — in activism but also just being in America. Never getting in trouble with the law, being a straight arrow always, going to school, getting a higher education — doing everything by the quote-unquote book. 

There was a craving for that to be rewarded by someone saying, “You know what? You’re a good example of what an immigrant should be, therefore you deserve this.” Instead, people got the feeling of having worked so hard for all of it to go nowhere. 

Honestly, I see that same desperation today in a lot of folks who are younger and have never been part of any social movement or political group. They were just handed DACA. That’s thanks to organizers and leaders who were forward-thinking, who knew that getting a work permit for undocumented people was critical even with the failure of DREAM. But it happened quick. That one June in 2012, the president got on TV, and no one knew it was really going to happen. I sure as hell didn’t. I was hungover from the night before. And Obama announced it, and I was looking over at Twitter, just like, What the fuck happened?

You have some criticisms in your last blog about some of the assumptions around DREAMers and assimilation. What do you regret about the dialogue back then? How do you see it differently today?
It’s about tying your status to success and achievement. A lot of that good-immigrant versus bad-immigrant talk. A lot of folks, especially in the official-looking national movements, clung onto that idea. Even the way the DREAM Act was written — for example, providing a clear pipeline to citizenship if you joined the military. It took time for me to take the 180-degree turn and see from the outside in, how toxic that mentality was. At that time, maybe 10 percent of the people we were working with had the critical take. But at the time, I was saying that those criticisms were from haters. It really was, though, an important back-and-forth of, why should only these immigrants get access to higher education, and not those immigrants?

With DACA now, we’re living in a situation where people ignore how the federal government is making undocumented people register. You ever watch the 1990s X-Men animated show? I felt like DACA was just like the Mutant Registration Act. Like, in order for me to exist and be who I am, I have to be in a federal log. Should the government ever decide that’s not the case anymore, well, I’m on the record and they know everything about me. I’ve literally done the paperwork for them. And the benefits of having a job, having some deportation protection, only comes from participating in this registry. Most people don’t think of it that way, even today, I think. 

But hey — if I was young when the DREAM Act passed, I wouldn’t have thought of it in this negative light. I would’ve seen it as, Holy shit, these are tangible steps to improving my life and moving ahead with my immigration status. It’s still sad that DACA was just a stopgap. 

So what happens if DACA is ruled unconstitutional? I mean, ignoring what states like California could to do maintain protections for undocumented people, how would that change your life?
Now that I’m older, it would mean just going back to what I used to do, which is working as an independent contractor. This country does a great job of criminalizing immigrants, but apparently the government has heard all the arguments about immigrants contributing a lot to Social Security, taxes, all that stuff. Because the government still makes it pretty easy for someone like me to work. 

Even if you don’t have a Social Security number, there’s a program where you can apply, work and pay taxes. So for me, it would just be a shift in figuring out what kind of work I’ll do. Probably multiple jobs. Maybe an independent business with a side hustle. 

You know, it’s hard for young people. It will feel like a loss of liberty, like taking a huge step back. Kids will lose a chance at a college degree to do the work they want to do. A lot of dreams get swept away with that kind of change. But to survive in this country, you gotta do what you gotta do. 

What do you consider the best-case scenario for the future, given the potential bleakness?
I mean other than DACA just continuing, it goes back to something related to the DREAM Act. And it is insane to see the politics compared to 10 years ago. Just from how so many more people are aware of what’s going on, and self-aware of their place in it. What I said earlier, about that intro Chicano Studies class opening my eyes and connecting the dots for me — that’s happening a lot faster, at a younger age, for a lot of people. I’m 35, so when I see 20-year-olds who are way more woke than me, I can’t help but think, Wow, where did y’all learn that from? It took me a long-ass time to learn about toxicity when it comes to identity, sexuality, masculinity. So I see young activists where I just think, You’re going to be amazing once you’re my age, damn. 

But it’s also the process of reflecting inward, and realizing that my disagreements and unhappiness about activism today, the feeling that they’re not doing things “right”… I just have to remember, Shut up, Eric, you don’t know what you’re doing anymore. I’m thrilled to make myself available to talk to anyone who wants to talk history, or what I did. But I can’t be the guy who thinks, Let me talk to the youngsters about what we did back in the day. Even if I want to criticize how faceless nonprofits have become leaders rather than local organizations and grassroots workers. 

You say in your blog that you’re no longer a part of the immigrant rights movement. Why say that out loud? What does that mean to you?
All the friends I had and made in the struggle, in the political fight, we were more or less the same age. Everybody’s goal at that time was, “We’re fighting for this. This is the endgame. And we’re going to use different strategies to get there.” But a lot of people went in the direction of wanting a house, a family and running for City Council or something. That was a very weird turn for me. I wasn’t about any of that. I never even finished college. So once I turned 30, those friendships and connections to activism faded away.

For me, I just needed me to say it out loud — that it’s okay to leave this work behind. It took a long time for me, in terms of reflecting and sharing with other people, especially older people who were there for other movements. They gave me reassurance that, you know what? You could dedicate your life to this, but it doesn’t have to be your entire world.

I think now, the culture of organizing, politics and working in nonprofits is starting to change, although there’s a lot of toxic stuff still there. There’s a whole thing about self-care now. It’s easy to get overburdened by social media alone. But yeah, someone has to say it: You don’t have to sacrifice your life for a movement, even though it feels like you should.