Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Is revealing immigration status the new 'coming out?'

A student's shirt at a coming-out event in Orange County, March 10, 2011
A student's shirt at a coming-out event in Orange County, March 10, 2011
Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

What began as a small number of undocumented college students going public with their immigration status in recent years, done as a political act, has developed into a growing movement that embraces a term once synonymous with the gay rights movement: coming out.

During the past week, a national campaign mounted by student immigrant advocacy groups has urged students and other young people to reveal their status. Advocacy sites have solicited coming-out stories via social media and posted them. Student groups around the country have held coming-out events, including one last week in Orange County.

The movement began as a strategy to attach names and faces to the young people affected by the Dream Act, proposed federal legislation that would have granted conditional legal status to undocumented youths brought to this country before age 16 if they went to college, or if they joined the military.

The bill failed in the Senate last December. The students and graduates who supported it cling to the hope that it will be reintroduced, and many have thrown themselves into pushing for state bills proposing in-state tuition and college financial aid that's now not available to them. In the meantime, the practice of coming out as undocumented has taken on a life of its own as part political strategy, part group catharsis.

"People have reached this point," said Jorge Gutierrez, a 26-year-old activist and graduate of Cal State Fullerton who was brought here by his family from Mexico at age 10, and who has not been able to adjust his status. "It has become a cultural phenomenon."

It's too soon to know if it's a cultural phenomenon that will endure. While promoting last year's “National Coming Out of the Shadows” week, the advocacy site posted a quote from gay rights hero Harvey Milk, the slain San Francisco city supervisor who in a 1978 speech urged his peers, "you must come out."

Milk was calling for a political act during an era when coming out the closet was not a cultural expectation or norm, but rather a dangerous thing to do, as it still is in many places.

But the danger didn't involve deportation, as it does for people who aren't in the country legally. For young people who were raised here, this could mean being sent to a country they have little or no recollection of.

Those who choose to come out as undocumented say they are aware of the risks. At a coming-out event held by student activists last week in the city of Orange, Calif., some of those who lined up to announce their status in front of an audience of family, friends, professors and media said that coming out had made them feel a sense of relief, a weight off their shoulders.

“At first, I was really hesitant to come out,” said Jamie Kim, 19, a Fullerton College student who arrived here when she was nine from South Korea with her family. She first revealed publicly that she was undocumented during a campus rally last fall.

“It’s risky, you do risk deportation." she said. "But I’d been hiding this part of me for a long time. It was the most rewarding moment of my life.”

Others choose to be more cautious, being selective as to who they reveal their secret to. Adrian, a 24-year-old Cal State Northridge student and activist, said he has chosen to step back somewhat after he and his family were featured in a recent television documentary, wishing to go back to using only his first name. His parents, who raised him in the United States, were deported three years ago. He remains undocumented and subject to deportation himself.

"Being undocumented, with the fear of deportation and of going somewhere you don't know, it's hard for an individual to come out," he said.

Adrian, who was at the Orange event, said that for all those who came out and announced themselves, there were other young people there who kept quiet. Some have come out only to their peers at organizing meetings.

"We are creating safe spaces for students to be able to come out," he said. "If you are not ready right now, you still have this fear. But within our own meetings, it is okay to talk about it. We're in the same situation. We understand, we don't judge. We let them know they can get involved without giving up their status."

Adrian said pressure to come out hasn't been an issue within his own student group, a coalition known as the Orange County Dream Team. But others have expressed discomfort with the coming-out movement.

On the website of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, a network of campus-based student and other groups that promoted the national coming-out-of-the-shadows week, LocoFeminist posted in the comments section:

I’m undocumented and feel like you all are policing what it means to be active in the struggle for equal rights. Which is to say that it us discrediting my power and self determination simply because I chose to not speak about my status. That is dangerous rhetoric that not only crosses into what one is fighting against but one that is actively alienating allies.

Whether coming out involves a public announcement at a rally or a quiet admission to a group of student peers, it's a good feeling to let the secret out, said Gutierrez. He has come out twice: In his early 20s, he told his peers he was undocumented. At 15, he told his mother he was gay.

"For me, that was a lot easier than coming out as an undocumented student," Gutierrez said. "My mother was really supportive. Coming out as an undocumented student, that was really painful for me."

It happened when a friend took him to a student meeting toward the end of college. Surrounded by young people who shared his secret, "I was blown away," Gutierrez recalls. "I started opening up and sharing my story."

Organizing, he said, "becomes secondary to letting out all that pain we have been carrying around for so long."

Gutierrez believes the coming-out movement will continue, becoming more of a cultural norm not among first-generation immigrants, but among 1.5-generation undocumented youths raised in the U.S., especially if efforts to legalize them continue to fail.

"I think that definitely, if we find ourselves not getting the Dream Act to come through Congress, I think it has the potential to reach that cultural norm," he said. "Even though we didn't pass the Dream Act last year, what the movement was really successful in was getting students to come out all over the nation. It is building critical mass. For lack of a better word, it's getting in the face of ICE agents and saying 'arrest me.'"

For now, the activism - and the coming out - is aimed at pushing for legislation that's in the works. Students, some out and some not, joined a caravan to Sacramento earlier this week for a hearing on what's been dubbed the "California Dream Act," two bills that would expand state financial aid to undocumented college students. The bill was approved by a state assembly committee Tuesday.