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Dynamics of Distinction and Solidarity within Social Movements: Explaining Relations between Privileged and Underprivileged Groups in the U.S. Immigrant Rights Movement

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Undocumented immigrant youths, known as the Dreamers, rose to exceptional prominence in the American immigrant rights movement in the 2000s and 2010s. The Dreamers had considerable success in presenting themselves as assimilated and hard-working patriots worthy of regularization. While this strategy worked well in the media and politics, it also created a distance between the Dreamers and less privileged groups of undocumented immigrants. In 2013, just when they were widely recognized as legitimate, the Dreamers made the remarkable move to change their strategy: rather than presenting themselves as model immigrants uniquely worthy of regularization, they began mobilizing for policies benefiting all undocumented migrants. By documenting and explaining this change in strategy, this paper addresses the broader question of what separates and binds privileged and underprivileged subgroups in social movements.
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Dynamics of Distinction and
Solidarity within Social Movements:
Explaining Relations between
Privileged and Underprivileged
Groups in the U.S. Immigrant
Rights Movement
Walter Nicholls1, Justus Uitermark2,
and Sander van Haperen2
Abstract
Undocumented immigrant youths, known as the Dreamers, rose to exceptional prominence
in the American immigrant rights movement in the 2000s and 2010s. The Dreamers had
considerable success in presenting themselves as assimilated and hard-working patriots worthy
of regularization. While this strategy worked well in the media and politics, it also created a
distance between the Dreamers and less privileged groups of undocumented immigrants. In
2013, just when they were widely recognized as legitimate, the Dreamers made the remarkable
move to change their strategy: rather than presenting themselves as model immigrants uniquely
worthy of regularization, they began mobilizing for policies benefiting all undocumented migrants.
By documenting and explaining this change in strategy, this paper addresses the broader question
of what separates and binds privileged and underprivileged subgroups in social movements.
Keywords
political sociology, racial and ethnic minorities, labor and labor movements, collective behavior
and social movements, community and urban sociology
Introduction
This paper analyzes the dynamics of distinction and solidarity in social movements. It does so by
examining the relations between comparatively privileged undocumented youth activists, the so-
called Dreamers, and less privileged groups constituting the immigrant rights movement (Lauby
2016; Patler and Gonzales 2015; Seif 2010; Unzueta Carrasco and Seif 2014). The immigrant rights
movement in the United States has long been made up of many different organizations, coalitions of
various sorts, and campaigns addressing a range of issues (from workplace rights to refugee rights)
1University of California, Irvine, CA, USA
2University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Corresponding Author:
Walter Nicholls, University of California, Irvine, CA 92697, USA.
Email: wnicholl@uci.edu
990067SPXXXX10.1177/0731121421990067Sociological PerspectivesNicholls et al.
research-article2021
2 Sociological Perspectives 00(0)
(Nicholls and Uitermark 2016; Voss, Silva and, Bloemraad 2019; Zepeda-Millán 2017). The Dreamers
emerged in the early to mid-2000s as a project of several large advocacy organizations. Advocacy
organizations worked with Congressional allies to draft a bill to legalize the status of undocumented
immigrant youths: Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act).
These efforts contributed to creating a new subgroup within the general immigrant rights
movement: the Dreamers. Their campaign in 2010 ultimately failed but Dreamers and their sup-
porters did successfully pressure the Obama administration to use its executive authority to pro-
vide undocumented youth relief from deportation through the Deferred Action for Childhood
Arrivals (DACA). Within the general immigrant rights movement, Dreamers had constructed a
specific narrative about themselves as being “good immigrants” and pursued policies that bene-
fited their specific group. By stressing the attributes that made them distinctive from other undoc-
umented immigrants, Dreamers were able to increase their status and legitimacy, attract funding,
gain favorable media coverage, and enhance their access to elite politicians. While Dreamers
profited from distinction, they also became differentiated from the broader immigrant rights
movement. Non-Dreamer immigrant activists soon criticized the Dreamers because their strategy
reinforced negative stereotypes of less privileged immigrants and undermined solidarity within
the broader immigrant rights movement. These criticisms struck a chord since the Dreamers had
social ties to less privileged family members and friends (Dreby 2015; Pallares 2014).
At the peak of their prominence, in 2013, many Dreamers pivoted away from the Dreamer
narrative and began mobilizing for policies benefiting the broader population of undocumented
immigrants (Nicholls, Uitermark, and van Haperen 2016). Feelings of solidarity drove many to
extend support to some of the most stigmatized immigrants constituting the movement. Dreamers
allied themselves with immigrant day laborers in a campaign to terminate federal enforcement
programs like Secure Communities and, more broadly, end all deportations: the Not One More
campaign. Thus, relations between the factions of the movement were characterized by the con-
flicting dynamics of distinction and solidarity.
The dynamics of distinction and solidarity are by no means unique to the Dreamers. We find
similar relational dynamics in the LGBTQ, civil rights, and women’s movements (Armstrong
2002; Bloom and Martin 2013; Valocchi 1999; Warner 1999). Privileged members within these
movements highlight attributes of their group that conform to established social norms. For
instance, gays and lesbians with the U.S.-based Human Rights Coalition elevated middle-class
monogamous couples, using their abilities to conform to dominant norms to enhance political
legitimacy. Such a strategy works but it also makes normative conformity a condition of political
legitimacy, weakens the legitimacy of those who do not conform, and generates cleavages
between more and less privileged constituencies of a coalition. The dynamics of distinction and
solidarity therefore appear in a wide variety of social and political movements consisting of more
and less privileged groups (Ferree and Roth 1998).
This paper’s empirical focus is on the immigrant rights movement in the United States but its
theoretical aim is to identify the forces responsible for pushing apart and pulling together differ-
ent groups constituting social movements. The following section examines these dynamics as an
interplay of distinction and solidarity. We then examine how the Dreamers emerged as a distinc-
tive political group. Finally, we examine how the solidarity between Dreamers and other groups
developed within the context of the Not One More campaign.
Distinction and Solidarity: Pushing apart and Pulling together a
Social Movement
Distinction
Stigmatization is a process of ascribing labels and stereotypes to a group, separating the group
from the established population, and denying it equal rights, resources, and legitimacy (Bourdieu
Nicholls et al. 3
1984, 1991; Elias and Scotson 1994; Goffman 1963; Lamont 2000; Lamont and Mizrachi 2012;
Lamont and Molnár 2002; Link and Phelan 2001). Stigmatized people are said to lack the cul-
tural, economic, and moral attributes needed to be recognized as legitimate political subjects
(Alexander 2006). Stigma is naturalized when it is ascribed to “objective” features of the outsider
group such as physical attributes (color), dispositions (taste, accent), and legal status (Elias and
Scotson 1994). For instance, the common slogan “What part of illegal don’t you understand?”
(e.g., Downes 2007) employs the “objective” attribute of legal status to naturalize the outsider
status of undocumented immigrants, thereby denying this group political legitimacy (Menjívar
and Abrego 2012; Ngai 2004).
Outsiders pursue various strategies to shed stigma and achieve legitimacy (Goffman 1963;
Lamont and Mizrachi 2012; Tyler and Slater 2018). One prominent strategy is identification with
mainstream society (Alexander 2006; Goffman 1963; Nicholls 2013a). The strategy consists of
hiding stigmatized attributes and calling attention to those that conform with the values and
norms of the established culture (Alexander 2006). Undocumented immigrants, for instance, may
seek to gain legitimacy as “de facto Americans” by emphasizing their cultural assimilation,
embeddedness in the receiving community, and economic contribution (Bosniak 2007; Carens
2010; Motomura 2012; Nicholls 2013a).
Identification, Walter Nicholls (2013a) argues, provides a path to recognition for stigmatized
groups, but some undocumented immigrants are more privileged than others because they are
more culturally assimilated, more embedded, and more economically active. Those who possess
these attributes are better able to shed their stigma, depict themselves as “de facto Americans”
and achieve recognition as a legitimate political subject. The unequal distribution of identifica-
tory attributes contributes to differentiating subgroups by degrees of “deservingness.”
Stigmatized activists bolster identification by emphasizing their distinction from the broader
stigmatized group, brightening the line between the deserving and the undeserving (cf. Bourdieu
1984, 1991). Distinction enhances status by marking boundaries between groups and attributing
moral values (good and deserving versus bad and undeserving) to those on either side of the line
(Lamont 2000; Lamont and Molnár 2002). “Social subjects,” Pierre Bourdieu (1984) explained,
“distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the
distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed
or betrayed” (p. 6). Distinguishing oneself as good and deserving is, in other words, achieved by
demonstrating distinction from the bad and undeserving. Consequently, elevating the status of
privileged subgroups in “objective classifications” often comes at the cost of further marginal-
izing the less privileged who lack the attributes needed to conform.
Distinction enhances legitimacy and status while producing what Pierre Bourdieu (1991) calls
a “profit of distinction” (p. 5). A subgroup that has successfully accumulated legitimacy and
status can “convert” those qualities into other forms of capital, including money from founda-
tions, media exposure, and access to the political elite. The profit of distinction further bolsters
the subgroup’s positioning within the political field, further distancing it from the broader stig-
matized population. By profiting from distinction, the privileged subgroup becomes, in
Bourdieusian terms, the dominant faction of a dominated group (Bourdieu 1984).
Solidarity
Asserting distinction allows political subgroups to enhance legitimacy and status in a hostile
political field. Nevertheless, there are reasons for privileged subgroups to assert solidarity with
less privileged group members, even when expressions of solidarity risk undercutting their own
status and legitimacy. By solidarity, we mean “the emotional cohesion between the members of
these social movements and the mutual support they give each other in their battle for common
goals” (Bayertz 1999:16). Such solidarity generally comprises a factual dimension (shared inter-
ests) and a normative dimension (mutual obligations to aid each other) (Bayertz 1999) but in our
4 Sociological Perspectives 00(0)
case, and arguably in other social movements, there is a tension between these dimensions: privi-
leged and underprivileged groups do not necessarily share the same interests, meaning that soli-
darity cannot be taken for granted. Under what conditions do privileged subgroups identify with,
or as, a stigmatized group? We highlight three factors that explain for solidarity despite inequal-
ity: shared plight, social bonds, and instrumental incentives.
Privileged subgroups are not fully spared the denigration of their less privileged group mem-
bers. While they may be able to cast themselves as exceptional on certain occasions, they will
still face discrimination from dominant groups on other occasions (du Bois 1903). Research
shows that as immigrants move up in the social hierarchy (and into a world dominated by estab-
lished, white groups), they are continually reminded of their membership to stigmatized groups
(Slootman 2014). To account for such experiences, Bourdieu developed the notion of a “cleft
habitus” (habitus clivé), which refers to a disjunction between the primary habitus (i.e., the
embodied dispositions and schemes of perception developed early in life) and the secondary
habitus required in a new field (Bourdieu 2000:64; Friedman 2016). For upwardly mobile indi-
viduals, there is a persistent and agonizing tension between their primary and secondary disposi-
tions, producing “a habitus divided against itself, and doomed to a kind of double perception of
self, to successive allegiances and multiple identities” (Bourdieu, cited in Friedman 2016:312).
Relatively privileged immigrants like the Dreamers have a cleft habitus: risen from the ranks and
achieved recognition, but constantly reminded—by their memories and hurtful encounters with
the dominant population—that they originate from underprivileged and stigmatized groups. This
cleft habitus can induce feelings of solidarity for the larger group.
Privileged subgroups like the Dreamers have intimate relations with less privileged sub-
groups. Immigrant communities are diverse in terms of their legal status, cultural and economic
capital, and degree of affiliation in the receiving community (Dreby 2015; Pallares 2014). While
Dreamers may be able to say that they are exceptional students who live the American Dream,
this is not necessarily the case for their parents, siblings, or friends (Gonzales 2011). Strong
social bonds serve as reminders that privileged subgroups belong to the outsider groups from
which they rose (Lauby 2016:383). Feelings of guilt that their success has come at the expense
of their community can propel privileged subgroups to solidarity.
Privileged activists may also have instrumental reasons for aligning with underprivileged
counterparts. Solidarity originates not just from shared experiences but from what Alejandro
Portes and Julia Sensenbrenner (1993:1325) refer to as “enforceable trust,” that is, the disciplined
compliance with group expectations for the sake of anticipated rewards. Despite favorable posi-
tions, activists representing a privileged subgroup may still depend on a broader community for
political support. Privileged actors risk their good standing in the activist community and the
possibility of drawing on that community’s future support when they constantly emphasize their
distinction vis-à-vis less privileged others (Vermeulen 2013; Vermeulen, Michon, and Tillie
2014; Nicholls and Uitermark 2015). Distinction can be detrimental to activist alliances, incen-
tivizing efforts to identify and work with less privileged subgroups. Reaching “down” and “giv-
ing back” help demonstrate commitment to “the community” and bolster one’s reputation as a
standup actor within the social movement.
In sum, we argue that stigmatized groups entering a hostile political field face the cross-
pressures of distinction and solidarity. As activists enter the field, they face enormous hostility
that encourages some to identify with dominant norms and mark their distance from the broader
group. The strategy raises the status of the subgroup and transforms it from an object of scorn
into a sanitized and sacralized subject. The symbolic capital derived from the strategy can be
converted into other resources including funding, political capital, and media exposure.
Combined, these “profits of distinction” solidify and institutionalize inequalities between more
and less privileged subgroups. Despite the growing chasm between subgroups, solidarity remains.
On one hand, dispositions, familial ties, and instrumental interests encourage the more privileged
Nicholls et al. 5
to maintain their ties with their less privileged comrades. On the other hand, less privileged
groups may hope to draw upon the status of the more privileged to bolster their own campaigns,
despite certain hard feelings. Thus, distinction and solidarity are competing imperatives that cre-
ate perennial dilemmas for activists. Privileged subgroups feel pressured or tempted to claim that
stigmas do not apply to them, inadvertently yet inevitably confirming that they do apply to other
groups. But, they also feel pressured or called upon to declare their solidarity with, and member-
ship of, the outsider group, foregoing the possibilities of distinction in the public sphere. How
these countervailing pressures play out in individual cases or for the movement cannot be speci-
fied in advance but have to be explained through empirical research.
Methods and Sources
The paper makes use of several different sources of data to assess distinction, profits of distinc-
tion, and solidarity. Though our data come from different sources, our aim is to use them to
identify three very distinctive moments in social movements of stigmatized people.
We draw on 34 semi-structured interviews with California-based activists and advocates. We
use the interviews to assess the strategy of distinction and the factors that precipitated a move
toward solidarity. The state, and in particular the Los Angeles area, was a major hub of immigrant
and Dreamer activism. The political opportunities and constraints of the Los Angeles context are
marked by its distinct and rich history of immigrant rights activism (Bloemraad and Voss 2011;
Milkman 2006; Milkman, Bloom, and Narro 2010). We focused on two types of activist net-
works: California Dream Network (mostly campus-based organizations) and community-based
activist groups with constantly changing appellations (Dream Team Los Angeles, California
Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, and so on). Interviews were also held with Los Angeles-based
immigrant rights organizations that supported and allied with youth activists.1 Finally, a number
of interviews were performed with representatives of national advocacy organizations and coali-
tions.2 Participation in interviews was voluntary and could be withdrawn at any time. We note
that many of our respondents are engaged in political action, often from situations of marginal-
ization, which makes them vulnerable to risks of harm (Crenshaw 1991; Weiss 1994). This is
particularly true for respondents in precarious legal situations, who risk legal action or immigra-
tion enforcement should they be identified. We are careful not to identify such respondents and
use pseudonyms. To ameliorate biases, we sought to triangulate findings with a variety of sources
and methods (see below).
To assess the profits derived from distinction, we use three different indicators: media expo-
sure, revenue from foundations, and political access. First, to assess media exposure, we devel-
oped a newspaper dataset based on the claims analysis method developed by Ruud Koopmans
and Paul Statham (1999). The database contains claims on immigration issues in the United
States over the period of 2000 to 2014, collected through LexisNexis with the keywords “immi-
gration reform” and “immigration protest.” Except for editorials and opinion pieces, all relevant
articles on immigrant rights were included: 1,254 newspaper articles, from which 5,422 claims
were extracted. The claims were coded for a number of aspects, including addressee, mode (pro-
test, press release, etc.), scale (federal or local), and the number of people involved (only appli-
cable in case of a protest). Second, to assess financial resources, we drew a non-random sample
of 49 immigrant advocacy organizations from the newspaper database. This is a mix of promi-
nent national organizations, important state and regional organizations, and smaller grassroots
organizations. Financial information was derived from IRS 990 forms. These forms, acquired
through Guide Start, provided information on the “grants and contributions” most of these orga-
nizations received from the early 2000s to 2014. Third, to assess political access, we examined
access to the White House by creating a White House visitors’ database for 49 organizations over
first 5 years of the Obama Administration (2009–2014). From among many other possible
6 Sociological Perspectives 00(0)
indicators of political access and influence (Dahl 1961; Mills 1956), we think meetings at the
White House indicate access to the highest levels of the federal government. An organization
gaining access to the President enhances its influence in the policy process (Austen-Smith 1995;
Sabato 1985). Political access was not limited to the executive branch though. Dreamers criss-
crossed the legislative and executive branches in their efforts to pass the DREAM Act and then
DACA (Nicholls 2013b). During their fight for the DREAM Act, Dreamers developed strategic
alliances with important congressional allies including Dick Durbin and Charles Schumer in the
Senate and Luis Gutierrez from the House of Representatives (Nicholls 2013b). Following the
failure of the DREAM Act in 2010, Dreamers pivoted away from a legislative strategy and
embraced a strategy to pressure the Obama administration to use its authority to extend relief
to undocumented immigrant youth (what would become DACA). Though activists continued
to engage congressional allies during this process, the primary target was the White House.
Though Dreamers were certainly working to gain access to both branches of government we
use White House visits as an indicator because such data are well-documented and more easily
accessible than visits to congressional representatives and their staff are not (Nicholls et al.
2020).3 In sum, three different sources are used as indictors of the kinds of profits derived from
distinction.
Solidarity is the last key concept we assess. In addition to the interviews discussed above, we
study solidarity through social media data associated with the Not One More campaign. The
campaign represents a high-profile effort of Dreamers and other immigrant activist groups and
helped to pressure President Obama to introduce Deferred Action for Parents of Childhood
Arrivals (DAPA), on November 17, 2014. We draw on Twitter data to examine Dreamers’ rela-
tions with other groups as well as the ways Dreamers represented themselves on social media.
Twitter and the hashtag #not1more were fundamental to the Not One More campaign, and instru-
mental to the Dreamers’ rise to prominence (van Haperen et al. 2018). Twitter data introduce
selection biases (Freelon, McIlwain, and Clark 2018, González-Bailón et al. 2014) and we are
consequently careful not to conflate activity on social media with the immigrant rights movement
more broadly. The data span two periods: between January 1, 2013 (when the hashtag was first
used in the context of this campaign) and May 1, 2015, and between June 1, 2015, and June 1,
2016. The database includes 158,630 tweets, containing 267,116 relations between 42,237 unique
users. Account names or bios with variations of the word “Dream” (n = 815 or 1.9 percent) are
identified as Dreamers and others as non-Dreamers. We also examine how distinct Dreamers are
in the campaign over time by examining how they present their claims and relate to others.
We use these different sources of data to assess through different conceptual moments in this
movement. Interviews are used to assess distinction and solidarity; newspaper data, tax docu-
ments, and White House visitor data are used to assess the profits deriving from distinction; and
social media data on the Not One More movement are used to assess solidarity within this par-
ticularly important campaign.
Findings
Distinction
As explained above, relatively privileged subgroups within social movements often highlight the
attributes that signal conformity with established norms of the dominant population and mark
distinction from less privileged groups. This subsection describes how some early Dreamers pur-
sued this strategy and, consequently, generated divisions within the immigrant rights movement.
In the 2000s, pro-immigrant advocacy organization mounted a decade-long effort to pass the
DREAM Act (Enriquez and Saguy 2016; Nicholls 2013b). These organizations recruited undoc-
umented immigrant youth and trained them to be advocates for the DREAM Act. An important
part of the training involved communicating why undocumented immigrant youth deserved legal
Nicholls et al. 7
status. Nonprofit organizations maintained their own divisions of Dreamers, but they also spon-
sored a Dreamer-specific organization: United We Dream (UWD).
The communication strategy centered on elevating the attributes that demonstrated their
affiliation with mainstream American values and distinction from sending countries. Campaigns
to pass the DREAM Act employed a “poster child strategy” whereby “exceptional” undocu-
mented youths—selected on the basis of their unique attributes (assimilation, school perfor-
mance, and potential contribution to the country)—were presented to media and political elites
(Enriquez and Saguy 2016; Nicholls 2013b). Fanny Lauby (2016:3) refers to the narrative of
the “perfect Dreamer” which “relies on frames relative to achievement, innocence, meritoc-
racy, individualism, and injustice, which together create the story of the ideal, high-achieving
undocumented youth who is unfairly prevented from gaining access to college and pursuing
his or her dreams.” Sofia, an early leader in the movement, largely agrees with this assessment:
“We’ve always been intentional about choosing the best story, the most easily understood, the
most emotionally convincing—the soccer coach for little league, the volunteer at the hospital”
(Sofia, personal interview, April 1, 2011). Sofia goes on to explain, “It was very new and there
was a lot of uncertainty. It was like ‘you better cover all your bases, show the top student and
let them know that we’re not like they think’” (Lauby 2016).
Elevating attributes to demonstrate national affiliation and identification was coupled with
distancing from attributes that made them foreign. America was their home and their parents’
countries were as foreign to them as any normal American. In one early press account, one
Dreamer noted that, “All I’m hearing now is that I’m Colombian, but I’ve never really been there.
I have no memories of the country where I was born and I do not speak articulate Spanish. They
are taking me from my home in America” (Preston 2007). Two years later, a leading member of
the newly formed UWD emphasized his identification with his new country by highlighting
value differences with immigrant parents. He notes, “Maybe our parents feel like immigrants, but
we feel like Americans because we have been raised here on American values” (Preston 2009).
Tensions arose as early as 2010. Advocates in national organizations believed that Congress
would pass comprehensive immigration reform in spring that year. Many youths close to these
advocacy organizations agreed with this assessment. Other youth activists, however, believed
that comprehensive reform would not pass but that a standalone DREAM Act would. The dissi-
dent Dreamers did not only advocate for a new strategy, but they also embraced more subversive
mobilizing frames that stressed their undocumented identity as a source of pride rather than
shame. Slogans like “undocumented and unafraid” and “coming out of the shadows” were cou-
pled with frames that stressed their identification with white middle-class Americans. There was
awareness that the continued emphasis on distinction posed a risk with regard to the broader
immigrant community. One Dreamer, Lisa, described the dilemmas posed by the strategy:
Interviewer: There was this idea that the old frames of “good immigrant” and ‘it’s not our fault’
were problematic. Was there also recognition that the “good immigrant,” that the poster
child actually worked?
Dreamer: Yeah, yeah, so for us, we know that it works [laughs]—it works extremely well! We
wanted to use it strategically, right? So kind of use it, but be careful to not demonize our
parents or other immigrants. We definitely used it. We understood the importance of it.
(Lisa, personal interview, March 15, 2011)
In the period following 2010, many activists also targeted state-level governments for laws that
would specifically benefit this group, such as in-state tuition for undocumented youth. Facing
little opportunity to revive the DREAM Act in 2011 and 2012, they shifted their efforts to pres-
sure the Obama administration to use its executive authority to provide undocumented youths
with temporary legal status. In short, a Dreamer-specific strategy was pursued primarily until and
8 Sociological Perspectives 00(0)
shortly after the passage of DACA in 2012. Youths cultivated a public representation of the
Dreamer and pursued goals that would most benefit this particular group.
The Profits of Distinction
Bourdieu (1984) noted that the status generated from distinction can be converted into other
forms of capital. In the case at hand, newly gained status allowed the Dreamers to attract greater
media exposure, financial capital, and access to political elites.
Looking at media exposure first, we note that Dreamers do not appear in the newspaper data-
base until 2009 and only achieve prominence in 2012. UWD became the most prominent among
all pro-immigrant advocacy organization (Table 1), accounting for 12.4 percent of all claims
made during this period, surpassing longstanding pro-immigrant organizations like National
Council of La Raza, America’s Voice, and National Immigration Forum. Within the short period
of its existence, UWD became the go-to immigrant rights organization for producers and
reporters.
Equally important, UWD converted its growing prestige into financial capital. According to
its Internal Revenue Service 2013 tax filings, the organization claimed $5,188,991 in revenue. In
our survey of 49 immigrant rights advocacy organizations, UWD stood as the eighth top funded
immigrant advocacy organization in the United States, placing it ahead of insider organizations
like America’s Voice and outsider organizations like National Day Laborer Organizing Network
(NDLON). Increased funding enabled the young organization to employ 27 professionally
trained workers, many of whom hail from the undocumented immigrant community. The organi-
zation has specialized teams of employees doing high-level communication, legal services, out-
reach, lobbying and organizing.
There is ample anecdotal evidence of the Dreamers’ prominence within political circles. In
May 2015, the Hillary Clinton campaign hired Lorella Praeli—Advocacy and Policy Director of
UWD—to become its Director of Latino Outreach. The campaign announced that “We are
thrilled to have Lorella Praeli, a Dreamer, join our team because of her courage and perspective
in the fight for Latino families across the country” (Lilley 2015 emphasis added; cf. Attanasio
2015). More systematic evidence on visits to the White House suggests Dreamers also had strong
access to the Obama administration. According to the White House Visitor dataset, there were 17
meetings between UWD employees and White House officials between 2009 and 2014. This
does not account for several informal meetings held outside the White House (informal commu-
nication with Dreamer activists). Between 2009 and 2012, there were only three official meetings
with White House officials, but this increased to five and nine meetings in 2013 and 2014. Of the
17 meetings, 11 were headed by UWD’s Lorella Praeli. Most meetings were held with Julie
Rodriquez, a key White House official on immigration policy and Latino outreach. Five of the
meetings were directly with President Obama. In our survey of 49 advocacy organizations that
visited the White House between 2009 and 2014, UWD ranks at 14, placing it above strong
regional organizations like the Center for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA)
but well behind traditional leadership organizations like National Council of La Raza (115
visits).
Dreamers, therefore, profited from the strategy of distinction, which further distanced them
from the broader social movement. They enhanced their presence in the media, acquired impor-
tant financial resources, and gained access to the White House.
Solidarity
Many immigrant rights advocates began to criticize the Dreamer strategy for exacerbating differ-
ences between “good and deserving immigrants” and “bad and undeserving” ones. Dreamers
Nicholls et al. 9
were increasingly portrayed as selfish and treacherous by various advocacy organizations and
some elected political officials:
So, it was this nasty battle, that really wasn’t Dreamers versus Dreamers. It was more like [advocacy]
organizations painting this image that we didn’t care about our parents, that we were selfish, that we
were turning our backs on the immigrant rights movement. (Janet, personal interview, April 28, 2011)
During the occupations of offices of leading national politicians in 2010, another leading activist
recalled how allies labeled the Dreamers as selfish:
Even during the July action [2010] in the D.C. offices, there were four or five students that did the
sit-in at Senator Reid’s office, and they even got a call from [Congressperson] Luis Gutiérrez
accusing them of dividing the movement, and accusing them of being selfish. (Rhonda, personal
interview, March 3, 2011)
Table 1. Number of Claims by Pro-immigrant Advocacy Organizations in the Newspaper Dataset,
2000–2014.
Organization N %
United We Dream 47 12.4
National Council of La Raza 39 10.3
American Civil Liberties Union 32 8.4
National Immigration Forum 28 7.4
America’s Voice 28 7.4
Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles 18 4.7
New York Immigration Coalition 17 4.5
Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights 17 4.5
Southern Poverty Law Center 11 2.9
National Immigration Law Center 11 2.9
Center for Community Change 11 2.9
Workplace Project 10 2.6
American Immigration Lawyers Association 9 2.4
Central American Solidarity Association de Maryland (CASA) 9 2.4
International Socialist Organization 9 2.4
National Capital Immigration Coalition 8 2.1
Center for American Progress 8 2.1
Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund 8 2.1
Central American Resource Center of Los Angeles 7 1.8
National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed
Officials Educational Fund
6 1.6
National Day Laborer Organizing Network 6 1.6
Workers Defense Project (Proyecto Defensa Laboral) 6 1.6
Texas Criminal Justice Coalition 5 1.3
Antelope Valley Raza Rights Coalition 5 1.3
League of United Latin American Citizens 5 1.3
Immigration Works USA 5 1.3
NAACP 5 1.3
New Jersey Immigration Policy Network 5 1.3
Canal Alliance 5 1.3
Total 380 100
Note. NAACP = National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
10 Sociological Perspectives 00(0)
Constant criticisms were particularly painful because of many Dreamers’ cleft habitus
(Friedman 2016): while they identify as successful and assimilated Americans, they also carry
within them the experience and stigma of marginalized immigrant communities (Fiorito 2019,
2020). The criticisms sting because they appeal to solidarities and feelings of belonging that
Dreamers must push to the background as they perform their role as assimilated Americans. Even
when they achieved success, their family members and friends were still vulnerable. A survey
among DACA recipients found that 49 percent of respondents worry “all of the time” or “most of
the time” that friends and family members will be deported. Almost two-thirds of the respondents
personally knows someone who has been deported, while 14 percent experienced the deportation
of a parent or sibling (Gonzales and Terriquez 2013). These findings suggest that beneficiaries of
distinction continue to suffer when others in their community remain vulnerable to deportation
or other penalties. One activist remembers, “I think that was the big message: you’re splitting up
the movement; you’re being selfish. What about your parents? Oh my God!” (Sam, personal
interview, March 13, 2011). The denigration of Dreamers as selfish or elitist bore down emotion-
ally on many who did not want to betray their community members (Fiorito 2020).
Dreamers also had instrumental concerns. They continued to depend on non-Dreamer allied
organizations for important levels of legal, financial, and political support. They needed to main-
tain good relations and contribute to the campaigns of these allies in order to sustain general
support. For instance, Los Angeles-based Dreamers in 2012 participated heavily in a coalition
created by the NDLON against Secure Communities, a prominent federal immigration enforce-
ment program. During a Dreamer meeting in October 2012 (several months after the passage of
DACA), one youth leader was explicit about how their investment in this campaign should be
used to counterbalance negative portrayals of Dreamers as selfish and privileged profiteers:
We know that we are part of communities and families and we will have to ask for their solidarity.
We also know that we have been supporting our communities with anti-S-Com [Secure Communities]
work and that we have put a lot of our time and energy into that. In response to these critiques, we
should mention our involvement in these actions and should respond to the selfishness argument by
claiming that we’re doing anything that pushes the pro-immigrant agenda. (Observation, notes,
October 16, 2012)
Thus, recriminations by other activists, strong ties to the undocumented family members and
friends, and continued dependence on allies propelled many to question the strategy of distinc-
tion. Many began, as will be shown in the next section, to use the label “undocumented youth”
instead of Dreamers, and began to invest more heavily in anti-deportation campaigns rather than
Dream-specific campaigns.
Solidarity Work in the Not One More Campaign
Dreamers became heavily involved in anti-deportation campaigns following 2012. The NDLON’s
Not One More campaign was among the most prominent. For Dreamers, the campaign marked a
departure from Dream-specific campaigns, capturing the slow process of moving away from
distinction and toward solidarity.
NDLON was created in 2001 in Los Angeles. It was an effort to create a nationwide network
of local immigrant advocacy organizations that had begun to organize day laborers and form
work centers (Dziembowska 2010). Pablo Alvarado, NDLON’s executive director, worked with
other organizations to create a national organization dedicated to some of the most stigmatized
undocumented immigrants in the country. Gustavo Torres from CASA Maryland, a founding
member, remembers,
Nicholls et al. 11
I was the first president of the board of directors of NDLON with Pablo Alvarado and the other
organizations. All of that energy was creating a great momentum right here locally but also at the
national level with day laborers. (Gustavo Torres, CASA Maryland, personal interview, July 26, 2016)
NDLON grew from 12 founding organizations in 2001 to 40 in 2015. NDLON invested heav-
ily in fighting against restrictive local anti-immigrant laws and would go on to become one of the
most important organizations in the fight against federal enforcement and deportations
(Dziembowska 2010).
NDLON helped launch the Not One More campaign in early 2013 with UWD and other
undocumented youth activists. NDLON stressed that Obama’s deportation policies would nega-
tively affect his legacy if he failed to enact an executive order to stop deportations:
He is after all the ‘Deporter in Chief’ [. . .] But things don’t have to stall. By leading the immigration
reform debate through actions [an executive order] and not just words, the President can break the
impasse and focus Congress’ attention on getting something done this year. (Pablo Alvarado as cited
in Matthews 2013)
The Not One More campaign had a steering group with representatives from various organiza-
tions and a paid NDLON organizer as the director but its strategy was explicitly decentralized.
No formal affiliation was required to become a member of the network, and organizations and
activists connected through Twitter and Facebook. Instead of directing their distant allies, cam-
paign leaders worked with one another on different kinds of actions (press conferences, hunger
strikes, civil disobediences, etc.), developed very loose messaging frames, and diffused informa-
tion about actions to members across the country. Because of the decentralized nature of the
campaign, NDLON’s lead organizers called it an “open source” campaign (Franco et al. 2015).
Dreamers initially played a pivotal role in the Not One More campaign. Early on, their promi-
nence allowed them to garner attention for the campaign online. On Twitter, they were clearly
recognizable as Dreamers, self-identifying as such in bios. They provided critical mass and social
media savviness to generate early momentum. Not only did they account for a large proportion
of activity, their claims resonated and were often amplified by others (Figure 1).
After April 2014, however, their prominence begins to wane (Figure 2). At first, this was not
the result of decreasing activity among Dreamers but of new groups plugging into a campaign in
which the Dreamers had performed central roles. Their claims now became less prominent and
were retweeted less often. An important reason is that their online self-representations as
Dreamers shifted. Over the course of 2013, many began to remove Dream-references from their
Twitter usernames and bios. While remaining active, many no longer explicitly sought to profit
from a distinction as “Dreamer.” Moreover, instead of strictly Dream-related topics, other claims
began to become more salient. Dreamers themselves contributed to this topical shift (Figures 3
and 4).
At the start of the campaign, Dreamers and others had been well-aligned, often sharing
claims and hashtags. Messages were strikingly similar in tone and content: despite being orga-
nized as an “open source” campaign, a variety of groups plugged in and stayed on message.
After August 2013, Dreamers began posting Dream topics less intensively, but surprisingly,
non-Dreamers continued adoption of Dream-claims. In our interpretation, other activists contin-
ued to seek profit from Dreamers’ symbolic capital even as the salience of self-identified
Dreamers diminished.
This realignment and diminishing salience of Dreamers on social media suggest that they
actively sought to reaffirm solidarity with the broader immigrant rights movement. However,
this does not mean that the Dreamers lost their broader status and legitimacy. Our data indicate
that their legitimacy with the mainstream media has grown over the past four years. They have
12 Sociological Perspectives 00(0)
become a principal voice of undocumented immigrants, with a high level of mobilization
capacity and commitment to high-risk campaigns. The Dreamers remain a group of activists
with exceptional resources that they now mobilize in campaigns organized with less privileged
subgroups.
NDLON and the Dreamers thus spearheaded the Not One More campaign, steering the gen-
eral immigrant rights movement toward more radical demands. In early 2014, the major national
immigrant rights organizations (National Council of La Raza, Center for Community Change,
and American’s Voice) all shifted their position, came out in support of executive action
Figure 1. Distinction of Dreamers in the Not One More campaign, by type of activity.
Relative prominence of DREAM users, tweets, retweets, and relations over time for 2013–2014 (top left) and for
2015–2016 (top right).
Figure 2. Distinction of Dreamers in the Not One More campaign, by type of user.
Average number of tweets per user type for 2013–2014 (bottom left) and for 2015–2016 (bottom right).
Nicholls et al. 13
to provide relief for millions of undocumented immigrants, and employed the anti-deportation
slogan to frame President Obama: “Deporter in Chief.” While these “late adopters” were impor-
tant in turning the tide, the high level of activity by NDLON and the Dreamers in the earlier
stages helped push along a campaign that most initially had believed to be too aggressive, unrea-
sonable, and unlikely to succeed. The momentum created by the Not One More campaign ulti-
mately pressured the Obama administration to pass an executive order on November 17, 2014.
The executive order would have extended relief to an estimated four to five million undocu-
mented immigrants and repealed the administration’s vaunted Secure Communities program.
However, the lower courts struck down the executive order and the Supreme Court deadlocked
in its ruling, leaving the lower courts’ ruling in place.
Thus, the Not One More campaign marks a pivot in Dreamer activism. The early strategy of
identifying with the dominant population and asserting distinction from other immigrants exac-
erbated internal divides, precipitated recriminations by advocacy organizations, triggered feel-
ings of guilt, and introduced concerns about losing the support of important allied organizations.
By supporting the Not One More campaign, Dreamers contributed their status and energy to the
campaign, helping to build momentum in campaign’s early stages. The greater their involve-
ment, the more they dropped the Dreamer as an identifier. While distinction continued to play an
Figure 3. Salience of DREAM issues in the Not One More campaign.
DREAM hashtags in use by DREAM users vs all other users in 2013–2014 (left) and for 2015–2016 (right).
Figure 4. Salience of other issues in the Not One More campaign among DREAMers.
Proportions of other hashtags in use by DREAM users vs all other users in 2013–2014 (left) and for 2015–2016
(right).
14 Sociological Perspectives 00(0)
important role in sustaining the legitimacy and status of Dreamers among larger foundations, the
media, and prominent political allies, solidarity started to win out over distinction among youth
activists. Solidarity and distinction would therefore continue to play an important role in shaping
the relational dynamics of this social movement.
Conclusion: The Dilemmas of Distinction
What explains for the push (distinction) and pull (solidarity) relations that characterize social
movements of stigmatized people? This paper presents a two-pronged theory. First, stigma-
tized groups must overcome important barriers to be considered a legitimate political subject
(Alexander 2006). One common strategy consists of highlighting attributes that conform to
dominant norms and stressing distinction from the broader stigmatized population. Such a
strategy elevates the status and legitimacy of the privileged subgroup and presents opportuni-
ties to convert the acquired status into other forms of capital (profits of distinction). The
downside of this strategy is that it exacerbates cleavages between more and less privileged
subgroups of a movement. Second, as cleavages grow within a social movement, relatively
privileged subgroups often have difficulty fully distancing themselves from other, less privi-
leged groups. Solidarity stems from continued embeddedness with the general stigmatized
population, recriminations from allies, and dependency on these allies for ongoing campaigns.
Thus, social movements of stigmatized people often generate relational dynamics of distinc-
tion and solidarity.
The early efforts to demonstrate Dreamers’ distinction produced high levels of status and
legitimacy. This allowed the Dreamers to capitalize on these gains to enhance their access to
media, money, and political power. By late 2014, Dreamers had assumed a dominant role in
media debates concerning immigration, captured important levels of foundation support, and
enjoyed good connections to the country’s most elite political figures. The pre-DACA strat-
egy of creating a distinctive Dreamer voice therefore produced enormous profits, making
Dreamers into the dominant faction of underprivileged undocumented immigrants. The post-
DACA period marks a major strategic move in Dreamer campaigns. It marks an effort to re-
authenticate Dreamers by contributing to campaigns that benefit all immigrants and moving
away from frames and symbolic markers that mark their distinction as an exceptional group.
We believe that our case study of the positioning of the Dreamers within the immigrant rights
movement exemplifies general patterns that can also be observed in other social movements of
stigmatized people (Gamson 1995; Mische 2015; Stewart et al. 2017). All such movements are,
to an extent, diverse in terms of composition and claims, with some activists and demands stand-
ing a much higher chance of achieving resonance than others. All such movements, and specifi-
cally their more privileged participants, face a dilemma (cf. Zamorano et al. 2010). On the one
hand, they can strategically exploit their valued attributes and symbolic capital. This can result in
significant gains, but the tradeoff is that it increases inequalities within the movement between
those who are seen as well as heard and those who are ignored and underprivileged. Alternatively,
privileged participants can decide to downplay their own privilege. This can prevent fissures
within the movement by creating a united front, but the tradeoff is that symbolic capital remains
underused. Activists will rarely face a binary choice between one or the other option. Instead,
social movement participants have to perennially negotiate to find a balance between the pushes
of distinction and the pulls of solidarity.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or
publication of this article.
Nicholls et al. 15
Funding
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Notes
1. These included the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, National Day Laborer
Organizing Network, Mexican American Legal and Educational Defense Fund, Central American
Resource Center, the UCLA Labor Center, National Immigration Law Center, among others.
2. Including Center for Community Change, National Immigration Forum, National Council of La Raza,
Reform Immigration for America, and the Alliance for Citizenship.
3. Obama Administration, White House Visitor Webpage: https://open.whitehouse.gov/dataset/White
-House-Visitor-Records-Requests/p86s-ychb#column-menu2016
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Author Biographies
Walter Nicholls is an associate professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy at the University of
California, Irvine. His primary research interests are urban policy and planning, social movements, and
immigration. He has published in Antipode, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research,
Planning Theory, Social Problems, Theory and Society, Urban Studies, Journal of Ethnic and Migration
Studies, Urban Geography, among others. He is the author of The Immigrant Rights Movement (2019),
Cities and Social Movements (with Justus Uitermark) (2017), and The DREAMers (2013).
Justus Uitermark is a sociologist and geographer who studies how different kinds of – online and
urban – environments shape cultural conflict and power relations. He works as a professor of urban
geography at the University of Amsterdam and is affiliated with the UvA’s Center for Urban Studies as
well as the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research.
Sander van Haperen is lecturer at the University of Amsterdam. He studies digital technology, social
movements, and governance. In addition to his dissertation, titled Digitally Networked Grassroots: Social
Media and the Development of the Movement for Black Lives and Immigrant Rights Movement in the United
States, his work was published in journals such as Mobilization and Social Movement Studies. His research
advances computational methods, drawing on social media data and network analysis in combination with
qualitative inquiry.
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In the spring of 2006, millions of Latinos across the country participated in the largest civil rights demonstrations in American history. In this timely and highly anticipated book, Chris Zepeda-Millán analyzes the background, course, and impacts of this unprecedented wave of protests, highlighting their unique local, national, and demographic dynamics. He finds that because of the particular ways the issue of immigrant illegality was racialized, federally proposed anti-immigrant legislation (H.R. 4437) helped transform Latinos' sense of latent group membership into the racial group consciousness that incited their engagement in large-scale collective action. Zepeda-Millán shows how nativist policy threats against disenfranchised undocumented immigrants can provoke a political backlash - on the streets and at the ballot box - from not only 'people without papers', but also naturalized and US-born citizens. Latino Mass Mobilization is an important intervention into contemporary debates regarding immigration policy, social movements, and racial politics in the United States. The first full-length study of the largest mass protest marches in US history. Examines Latino political activism around immigration and electoral politics. Brings a new understanding to immigrant activism across the US and its role in recent American political history.
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