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ASU student researches DREAMers' network

ASU doctoral student Alissa Ruth helping DREAMers register people to vote
March 27, 2014

Those who know Alissa Ruth are not surprised by her choice of dissertation topic. The plight of DREAMers is a magnet for the woman who studied, then taught, in Mexico; married a Mexican immigrant; and holds a master’s degree in justice studies (strongly emphasizing social justice).

Ruth, who will graduate from Arizona State University in May with a doctorate in anthropology, has spent the last seven years studying undocumented youth and local DREAMers. Her most recent research focuses on their ability to create a strong, supportive network to advocate for themselves and others as they negotiate their unique political and social landscape.

DREAMers are defined as individuals who came to the U.S. as infants or children, without legal documentation, and have grown up here identifying with U.S. culture and studying in K-12 classrooms but without certain rights, such as access to citizenship.

Their “name” is derived from the acronym for the Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would grant conditional permanent residency and a pathway to citizenship. There are an estimated 40,000 in Arizona.

One of the major difficulties DREAMers face is what happens to them after they graduate from high school.

Without legal status, advancing to college seems improbable, if not impossible.

Seeing a problem

Before coming to ASU, Ruth worked in admissions at an institution of higher learning. Part of her job entailed visiting high schools for recruitment events and handing out admission paperwork to interested students. One day, a teen looked at one of the forms and asked, “What do I do if I don’t have a social security number?”

That made Ruth start thinking about undocumented youth who wanted to continue their education in college and had the potential to excel, yet weren’t able to get in. These students became the focus of Ruth’s master’s thesis.

At that time, Proposition 300 had just passed, denying in-state tuition and state-funded scholarships to undocumented students. As a result, Ruth was able to locate only seven students to interview. Most didn’t talk to friends about their situation and lived in the shadows, making connections difficult.

When Ruth began her doctoral studies at ASU a few years later, she noticed that, unlike the high school youth she had struggled to find, the university’s undocumented students were publicly assembling to create a force of DREAMers.

Ruth was intrigued and decided to make her dissertation about these tightly bonded students and their movement toward advocacy and activism.

As a white, mid-30s doctoral student, she wondered if she’d be trusted. Surprisingly, Ruth found the group very open. She was invited to events and granted access to their email archive, as well as copious interviews. Ruth even helped with various advocacy activities, such as canvassing a neighborhood to collect signatures for a recall campaign.

Researching a grass-roots movement

Many of these DREAMers met at an orientation for a privately funded scholarship they received after Prop. 300 was implemented. After that meeting, they started gathering socially and forged stronger ties during community service projects for their scholarship. As they shared time and ideas, they began to organize themselves via in-person meetings and eventually through social media.

Soon, things got even more interesting, with the possibility of the DREAM Act passing Congress in December 2010. The DREAMers went into action, rallying to have their voices and concerns heard, and creating opportunities to engage with policymakers.

Though the act did not pass, the DREAMers had galvanized and were committed to continuing their fight.

“It’s very impressive how highly educated and engaged they are, knowing intricate aspects of our laws and government, and training one another on their rights,” Ruth explains. “But I’m also really inspired by how dedicated and motivated they are about not stopping their advocacy at themselves. They are impelled to reach out and help other immigrants.”

The DREAMers movement garnered a great deal of press, and several of Ruth’s research participants were front and center. A few landed on the cover of TIME magazine or gave national news interviews.

Growing pains

As data collection neared an end, Ruth gave birth to her first child, which added a whole new dimension of challenge to her life. She faced the task of juggling family and academics with her full-time role as director of student and academic services in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Though she had to cut back on attending DREAMer events, she continued to monitor her interviewees’ personal and professional achievements through Facebook. She watched some graduate from college, go on to start their own business and families, and move into the workforce.

“I feel like I’ve had the chance to see them grow up on social media,” Ruth jokes.

Her interview group included those studying law, engineering, and speech and hearing sciences, as well as a photographer who owns his own business and an artist who uses her work to promote the DREAMer movement.

Ruth says she doesn’t know how typical her study group is as a whole. After all, these are high achievers, motivated people, many of whom graduated high school at the top of their class. Ruth wonders what happens to those who aren’t as scholastically or civically engaged, yet still have much to offer the world.

“Do they spend their lives in low-paying jobs living under the radar and below their potential because they are afraid and really have no alternative?” she asks.

Ruth sees some ground being gained. The passage of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) has helped by granting two years’ conditional residency for those who qualify, which means the possibility of finding legal work. But many hurdles still exist.

For instance, DACA recipients cannot receive driver’s licenses from the state of Arizona, and they still must pay out-of-state tuition at state universities.

However, Ruth believes that the discussion on immigration reform is not being allowed to fade thanks to people like the DREAMers.

“We see it time and time again in the civil rights arena: a group of people who don’t want a handout, just the opportunity to be treated fairly,” she says. “The DREAMers want to get educated, they want to join the military, they want access to health care and to work, but they also want to pay taxes and give back to the country they have been raised to call their own.”

The right place and time

Ruth notes that the research she conducted is a snapshot of a particular time and place. Because the political climate has changed since 2012, when she finished data collection, she has produced work that cannot be duplicated. She is grateful for that uniqueness.

Ruth also credits the university and its locale for providing the perfect field site for her brand of urban anthropology.

As she prepares to defend her dissertation, she is feeling both empowered and humbled – and very inspired by the people she has met along the way.

That includes not only the DREAMers she worked with, but also those she calls “amazing” mentors. Her committee chair, Takeyuki “Gaku” Tsuda, Amber Wutich and Alexandra Brewis Slade, all of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, and Doris Marie Provine of the School of Social Transformation have had an indelible effect on her life.

Ruth plans to continue her line of research and publish her findings. She is also determined to be there for the community that has allowed her an in-depth look into its ranks and helped her achieve her dream of a doctorate.

On the personal front, she’s looking forward to enjoying free time with her family and getting back to cooking.