In late October, a group of activists took to the road in a couple of mobile photobooth trucks. Their mission was to create a portrait of America in all its diverse beauty. Most of the subjects have been so-called Dreamers, or the children of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States when they were young. Others were people who simply want Congress to create a clear pathway to citizenship for the hundreds of thousands of people who consider this country their home.
Many of the Inside Out/Dreamers project’s completed installations have ended up pasted on various walls in each of the cities organizers visited. It’s just a coincidence that the primary canvas for a public art campaign dealing with immigration reform also happens to play the starring role in the president’s plans to deal with illegal immigration. (Earlier this month the federal government began testing prototypes for the wall to be erected along the southern border of the United States.)
“We met countless Dreamers with incredible stories that reaffirm their right to call America home."
But the irony isn’t lost on the people behind the pop-up photo exhibit, which ends its tour in Washington, D.C., this week. “That is exactly the metaphor,” Paolo Ramos, one of the organizers, told VICE Impact. “You can build a wall—we’re building a wall of portraits and stories and faces that are more powerful than any wall President Trump wants to build.”
The Inside Out Project was first started in 2011 by French artist JR, the same guy responsible for the looming mural of a child peeking over the barrier wall along the US-Mexico border. But a couple of months ago, the Inside Out Project and the Emerson Collective, a social justice organization, partnered to mobilize support for the DREAM Act after the Trump administration rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. If Congress doesn’t act soon, nearly 700,000 undocumented immigrants will lose their ability to go to work and school, and possibly be forced to move back to countries they left long ago.
The intention of the Inside Out/Dreamers project, Ramos explained, was “to put a face to the debate.” As of December 16, the trucks had traveled a combined 9,878 miles across the country, and organizers have taken nearly 7,000 larger than life portraits of Dreamers and their supporters.
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“Throughout this project,” Ramos said, “we met countless Dreamers with incredible stories that reaffirm their right to call America home. From Ivan in California who co-founded Undocumedia to use social media as a weapon to mobilize national support for Dreamers to Jazmin in Nashville who spends her days in the classroom teaching her students—we’ve encountered hundreds of Dreamers across the nation that are in the midst of giving back to their communities, building on their careers and breaking down barriers for their parents.”
Every single city they’ve brought the pop-up art exhibit to—from Champaign, Illinois, and Costa Mesa, California, to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.—was strategically chosen in an effort to target specific members of Congress. Immigration reform activists want to see lawmakers pass the DREAM Act before they go on recess at the end of the week.
“From our point of view,” longtime immigration advocate Frank Sharry told the Huffington Post, “it’s the 22nd or bust.”
“You may be someone with papers, but you see your picture next to a Dreamer’s picture and that in itself, that portrait and collage of photos, sends a strong message [that] we are all part of this city.”
If passed, the DREAM Act would give qualified applicants—that is, people who came into the US before they were 18 years old, have been in the country for more than four years and can pass a background check—the opportunity to eventually become a naturalized US citizen. More importantly, advocates want a “clean” DREAM Act, which would not include any additional measures, such as funding for a border wall, that might hurt immigrant communities.
Ramos said the Inside Out/Dreamers project has been able to get its message across because of the way it uses art as a tool of activism.
“There have been hundreds and hundreds of cases where people have come in just to get their pictures taken, but then they leave the site with a completely different idea of why they were there in the first place. [They realize] ‘Oh wow there’s actually like thousands of Dreamers in my neighborhood,’” Ramos said. “So I think it transforms the political narrative into real human conversation. Art has a way of inspiring people and bringing people together that might not be there in the first place.”
“There’s also something very powerful about seeing your picture,” she continued. “You may be someone with papers, but you see your picture next to a Dreamer’s picture and that in itself, that portrait and collage of photos, sends a strong message [that] we are all part of this city.”
The Inside Out/Dreamers project’s final stop will be in Washington, DC, at the United Methodist Building on December 19 and 20. You can also express your support for the DREAM Act by calling your local lawmakers or raising awareness on Twitter by using the #DreamActNow hashtag.