Photo: AP Photo
Recently I interviewed six illegal immigrants who have “come out” about their status.Before we published the feature, my editor questioned their openness: “Aren’t they all going to get deported?”
Quite the opposite. The outspoken undocumented youth believe that by speaking out they will turn the tide; that by personalizing their cases they will stall deportation and finally they will gain needed emotional relief.
Putting a face to the issue.
“I think that’s one of the most powerful tools that we as undocumented immigrants have—putting the face to the issues and the numbers,” Daniela Alulema told me when we spoke.
“After I came out as undocumented and unafraid, and started organising, I realised that when we are open and public about our status, we are safe. When we have a community to support us, then we are also safe. So, I do feel safe. It is the reason why I organise,” said Dulce Guerrero. “Sometimes I am afraid for my parents. I am afraid that they will be stopped. But for me, coming out as undocumented and unafraid, made me feel safer than before.”
Iliana Perez agreed, “I grew up with that notion, that I couldn’t say who I was, that I could get deported if I said I was undocumented. That’s just emotionally draining to have to hide, to be afraid of getting stopped by the police.”
“Growing up we are taught—this idea is drilled into us—that we should keep quiet, that we shouldn’t share with anyone who we are and about our status in order to stay safe, because you never know who you are going to come in contact with. That led me to feel shame and embarrassment,” said Jesus A. Barrios. “I thought well, I don’t have to share this with anyone. Something will change and I will be OK.”
His views have since changed and he believes that being open about his status makes him better equipped to deal with being detained. “For me being out and being public is the way of keeping safe, because I know if I was ever to be in that situation I would know who to contact, who to reach out to, to make sure I am not deported,” he explained.
Guerrero has previously participated in demonstrations publicly declaring her status and has even been arrested. She has also participated in phone banks after other activists have been arrested.
Photo: Image Courtesy of Jesus Barrios
Experts disagree.At a recent panel on “Risks for Mixed-Status Immigrant Families,” a New York teacher asked immigration experts whether she should advise her students against coming out. Having just received news that one of her students was arrested at an immigration rally, she admitted that she struggles personally with this issue especially when it comes to her students who are at “dead ends of their educational trajectory” and waiting is no longer an option for them.
“Helplessness and hopelessness is about the worst thing you can do to a person,” said Carola Suarez-Orozco, professor of Applied Psychology at the New York University. She said that being undocumented often leads to depression and even suicidal thoughts. “Activism is the opposite of learned helplessness. It’s very healthy psychologically. I like to encourage people to get as involved as possible. But exposing themselves? I actively discourage my students from exposing themselves” because of the chance of an arrest, she continued. Instead of taking this “very dangerous path,” she said they should try to advise their friends and sibling who are legal citizens to campaign and protest on their behalf.
Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration coalition, was not that direct in her answer. “The answer comes from the young people themselves,” she said. In her opinion, their role is to support the process of activism “as much as possible” and not discourage or encourage it. “Your activism is feeding into a profound sense of who you are and to the extent is aligned with your profound sense of where this nation has to be,” she said. “I find that to be the most empowering alignment of the personal, political, and the emotional.”
Undocumented. Unafraid. Unapologetic.
Guerrero said that coming out as an undocumented immigrant is “a very personal decision that everyone has to make themselves.” She recommends that undocumented youth who feel hopeless and helpless like Joaquin Luna Jr. did before committing his suicide last year, should seek support groups and share their feelings “in a space where they don’t feel targeted and judged by anyone.”
The few immigrants whom I have spoken to said that coming out was a huge emotional relief for them and it enabled them to succeed and gain help in their struggles. “By saying, ‘I am undocumented and unafraid,’ it just liberated me so much and I do recommend it to undocumented youth. If you live in fear, in the shadows, you are not going to be able to really show your full potential,” said Anayely Gomez.
Ingrid agreed, “I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t have the support of my teachers and the mentors that I have had in high school and in college. The only reason I was able to get that support is because they knew what situation I was in and they were always realistic about what my opportunities would be and that they would be limited, at the same time they were encouraging and they were helpful in trying to help me look for scholarships. Having the support helps you deal. I can’t imagine being in a place where I would have to hide that all the time.”
However, for some there is a bigger purpose to coming out. Barrios says that he comes out to give voice to those who remain in the shadows. “You hear the rhetoric about ‘you are here illegally, get in line’—they blame us for the country’s problems. It’s important for people to understand why people come here. They should ask us why we left our language, our food, home, culture to come to the place that we have no idea about and why we are taking that risk,” he said.
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