Democracy in Danger

Saving the rule of the people — one episode at a time.

Bittersweet Dreams

Democracy in Danger / Season 2 Episode 13

In 2017, then-President Donald Trump announced his decision to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which granted provisional legal status to many undocumented young people who were brought to the United States as children. Trump’s effort ultimately failed on a technicality in the Supreme Court last year, and President Biden has reinstated DACA. Pictured here, young people protest in downtown Portland, Ore., on Sept. 5, 2017, against the Trump policy.

Photograph by Diego G. Diaz via

Citizenship determines who is in and who is out, who has a voice in a democracy and who doesn’t. But for the one million young people who have grown up in the United States undocumented, feeling like they really belong here remains a dream deferred. This time, we hear from two of them living in limbo. Plus, legal scholar Amanda Frost unearths the unsettling stories of Americans who have had their citizenship taken away — because of their politics, their race, even because of whom they choose to marry.

As Frost’s research shows, the United States has struggled to define citizenship ever since its founding. In the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857, which upheld and expanded slavery, the U.S. Supreme Court found that no African American could ever be a citizen, setting the stage for a bloody war of secession. Until the mid-20th century, Chinese immigrants — and even their children born in this country — were denied basic constitutional protections. And today, as we hear in the stories of two undocumented students interviewed for this week’s show, hundreds of thousands of undocumented young people face demoralizing roadblocks on their pathway to full belonging in the nation they call home.

About our guest

Amanda Frost is the Ann Loeb Bronfman Distinguished Professor of Law and Government at American University. She teaches courses on constitutional law, immigration and judicial ethics. Her work has been cited in federal and state court cases across the United States, and she has published popular pieces in the mainstream press, including the Washington Post. Frost is the author of the “Academic Round-up” column for SCOTUSblog and of the new book, You Are Not American: Citizenship Stripping from Dred Scott to the Dreamers. Follow her on Twitter @amanda_frost1.

Special thanks also to Sayra, a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia, and Alejandro, who is wrapping up a master’s degree in social and personality psychology in the Washington area and moving on to a Ph.D. program in the fall. Speaking so openly about their different journeys to America and their upbringing over the years is itself a risk for them, and their future as DACA recipients remains uncertain.

The interviews on this episode were recorded in April; the show was released on May 11, 2021.

What we’re reading

By our guest

Americans whose families do not fit a conventional immigration story have long had their citizenship status unjustly scrutinized — former President Barack Obama and now Vice President Kamala Harris among them. In You Are Not American, Frost explores the history of U.S. citizens who have had their legal status questioned and even stripped because of their race or ethnicity, their choices in marriage or their political activism.

Frost’s pieces for SCOTUSblog cover, among other things, the addition of a question on citizenship status to the U.S. Census, the fate of legal protections for women’s reproductive health, partisanship on the high court and recent debates about court packing.

Some commentators have said that undocumented immigrants from Central America and Mexico should receive citizenship because of their “contributions” and how long they have lived here. But Frost argues that the United States owes many foreigners citizenship as a form of reparations for past injuries.

Republicans leaders are generally hostile to the idea of offering undocumented people a pathway to permanent residency. Frost predicts this position will backfire on the GOP — when many immigrants eventually are naturalized — and go on “to vote against the political party that made life unpleasant for them.”

Learn more about Wong Kim Ark, born to Chinese parents on Sacramento Street in San Francisco in 1870. He took the fight for recognition of his U.S. citizenship, guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment, to the Supreme Court — and won.

Even in the 21st century, that constitutional guarantee has come under threat, as Frost wrote in a 2019 essay in The Atlantic.

From around the web

Historian Erika Lee, an earlier guest on the show, has written about the long history of xenophobia in the United States — and how immigrants have defended their humanity in the face of hatred.

In his book The Sovereign Citizen: Denaturalization and the Origins of the American Republic, French Historian Patrick Weil uncovers how “a citizen is defined, in part, by the parameters that could be used to revoke that same citizenship.”

Martha S. Jones’s award-winning book Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, looks at how Black activists struggled to change the meaning of citizenship even before the Civil War.

On the campaign trail and from the Oval Office, Trump not only questioned the citizenship of prominent Americans of color such as Barack Obama and Kamala Harris; his administration also took steps to revoke the citizenship of millions of Americans born in the United States.

Last year the Supreme Court upheld the DACA program over Trump’s objections. Now the Biden administration is pushing immigration-reform legislation that would include a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients along with many more of America’s 11 million undocumented residents.


A transcript of this episode is available here.


Submitted by Margaret Glass (not verified) on

Hello! I very much enjoyed this episode, I thought the storyline was good and that it was very easy to hear everyone speaking. This story especially resonates deeply with me because of my extensive history working with undocumented youth from my local community back home in Richmond, Va. My only constructive feedback is for maybe it to have some more background music or something besides just voice-overs. This way, it's easier for listeners to sort of know what emotion they are supposed to be feeling more easily if that makes sense. Overall though, love the topic so much, and great interviews.

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