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

Top five immigration stories of 2011, #5: 'Coming out' undocumented

A student activist's t-shirt, December 2010
A student activist's t-shirt, December 2010
Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

This week, Multi-American is counting down its top five immigration stories of 2011. It's been a tough list to narrow down with so many major stories this year, ranging from the political battle over birthright citizenship early in the year to the ongoing record deportations to the growing number of state immigration laws, a story that's still developing as a case involving Arizona's precedent-setting SB 1070 heads to the U.S. Supreme Court.

We'll start out today with one story that didn't come out of government, though, but rather bubbled up slowly from college campuses and gained steam via social media: the trend of "coming out" as undocumented among young people, done as a political act.

What began a few years ago among a small number of undocumented student activists has developed into a movement its own right. By December of last year, growing numbers of young, undocumented college students and their supporters were publicly revealing their status as a previous version of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a bill that would grant conditional legal status to young people who arrived before age 16 if they went to college or joined the military, moved through the House and on to the Senate.

The bill failed to clear a Senate vote, but the trend continued. In California, some of these young people threw their efforts behind two state bills called the California Dream Act (both eventually signed into law this year) which would make it easier for undocumented students to pay tuition.

Last March, a national campaign mounted by student immigrant advocacy groups urged more students to reveal their status, with groups around the country holding coming-out events.

During one coming-out event in Orange County last spring, some of those taking part talked about the trend becoming, for many, a cathartic rite of passage for many young people who were brought to the U.S. by their parents at an early age, growing up culturally American while keeping their legal status a secret from their peers.

“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, but had been unable to adjust his status. “It has become a cultural phenomenon.”

The movement hit a milestone last June, when ex-Washington Post reporter and Pulitzer winner Jose Antonio Vargas revealed that he'd kept his status a secret for years, sharing it only with a close network of confidantes while navigating college and career. Vargas, who was born in the Philippines, wrote in the New York Times:

Over the past 14 years, I’ve graduated from high school and college and built a career as a journalist, interviewing some of the most famous people in the country. On the surface, I’ve created a good life. I’ve lived the American dream.

But I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living a different kind of reality. It means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am.

The term "coming out," if course, is borrowed. 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 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.

Young people who have come out as undocumented say they are aware of the risks; they also say that the more of them choose to come out, there more safety they believe there is in numbers. Student activist networks have come to the aid of those who land in deportation proceedings, launching petition drives and social media campaigns.

Nancy Meza, a recent UCLA graduate and member of a group called Dream Team Los Angeles, said that one of the side benefits to young people “coming out” as undocumented is participation in what has become a broad support network of peers.

“What we’ve seen is that the more public you are, the more out there you are, the more public support you have, especially in deportation cases,” Meza said. “People have seen you be involved with the community, your activism, and they are more willing to help. I think that going public is one of the ways that a person could have a better opportunity of getting deferred action.”

But coming out with one's immigration status isn't for everyone. Last spring, on the website of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, a network of student and other groups that has promoted going public, someone with the handle 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.

The prospect of legal status for these young people is still a long way off; a new version of the federal Dream Act hasn't moved forward since it was reintroduced last May. However, the Obama administration announced in August that it would review some 300,000 deportation cases to weed out those deemed a "low priority" for removal, including people who have been in the U.S. since they were children, college students and members of the military. Pilot programs in two cities are testing the review process; if expanded, many of those filling the low-priority criteria could be spared deportation.

Come back tomorrow for M-A's top story #4.