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In early 2010, as pro-immigrant groups grew increasingly frustrated with the Obama administration’s lack of progress on immigration reform, immigrant youth began to organize in earnest.
In February, youth from about 20 states—many of them undocumented—met in Minneapolis to strategize. Encouraged by activists from the Chicago Immigrant Youth Justice League, they planned a national coming out day in March.
“This idea of coming out has been something very powerful for the people we work with,” said Tania Unzueta, a graduate student in Chicago who is also undocumented. Unzueta and the IYJL had coalesced in 2009, fighting the deportation of Rigoberto Padilla an honors student at the University of Illinois-Chicago who was detained after a minor traffic stop. The support of activists and the public attention it brought to the case earned Padilla a one-year stay.
In the process of organizing around Padilla, the IYJL realized that many of the activists who had rallied were also undocumented and so the group offered them a space to tell their stories and to control their own destinies, Unzueta said.
“It always felt like citizens were making the decision about how much undocumented students can risk,” Unzueta said. “Every time the Dream Act becomes mainstream news, the people who tend to dominate the airwaves are still adults and politicians from the national organizations.”
But that changed this past summer as undocumented youth took center stage, successfully demanding that the Dream Act become the first priority for the immigrant rights movement.
My name is Aaron. I live on the outskirts of a small town in Idaho’s Magic Valley, though I lived in Jerome for most of my childhood. I think it was easier on me when I was younger. I didn’t know what being undocumented was, so I wasn’t worried about it. I had other worries then: second grade had to be one of the hardest years. But once I could speak the language, I had no trouble in the rest of elementary or middle school. By the time I entered high school, I was aware of my undocumented status. Nervous run-ins with traffic police, the news that I was not eligible for a driver’s license and the revelation that I would have to pay out-of-state tuition to go to college, if they even let me in, drove that message home. I faced the hardest phase of my life starting in ninth grade. The average teenager only worries about passing their classes and getting ready to graduate, but an undocumented teenager goes through much more.
For example, I wanted to get into some type of after-school club, and maybe a sport, like soccer or track, but because I lacked a license, and I often lacked a ride, I was unable to. In a way, my status even disrupts my ability to learn.
At the end of ninth grade, I found out I had to move to a new town about an hour away. Anyone who has moved before knows how it feels. You feel a lot of loss in your heart. I knew I would be able to see my friends once in a while, and we still stay connected online but it just isn’t the same. This school proved a lot more challenging for me. It’s farther from my house. If I were to walk to school, it would take four to five hours, so I ride the bus. But that means I’m not able to stay after and take advantage of extra help that some teachers offer after school.
Everything in this new hometown of mine is really far. By car, the nearest town takes almost 30 minutes to reach, and the place we do our shopping for food and clothes is about 40 minutes to an hour away. A cop on the road could mean a nightmare to me. They could decide any day to stop us and put us in the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And ICE could then decide whether I stay (unlikely) or get deported. They can also decide to put my parents in jail, but since I don’t drive, they can’t do that to me … unless they do it like Arizona, and put everyone in jail just for being here. Being undocumented is my biggest fear, yet I’m living it. It’s my personal nightmare.
In March, undocumented youth marched on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in Chicago and eight undocumented students told their stories to the crowd, including Unzueta.
The immigrant youth movement has borrowed inspiration from many earlier civil rights campaigns including the student arm of the civil rights movement, the farm worker rights movement, the gay rights movement of the ’80s and even the type of organizing typified by the 2008 Obama presidential campaign.
Unzueta, who identifies herself as queer and has studied the gay rights movement, said that coming out—whether in regards to sexuality or immigration status—is a powerful tool for organizing. By revealing their statuses to friends, colleagues, neighbors, politicians and even political opponents, undocumented youth give the public a face to identify with their cause. At the February meeting, there was some hesitation to going public as a tactic on the part of activists from border states, Unzueta said. Not everyone was ready to march up to the ICE building in a T-shirt printed with the word “undocumented” but the coming out actions could be done at various levels.
A University of Utah student who uses the name Ivette Martinez when speaking publicly, revealed her undocumented status in September at a small rally in Salt Lake City outside the federal building.
“I remember the night before I couldn’t sleep and I was really, really nervous,” Martinez said. Martinez is part of the Salt Lake Dream Team, which is made up of mostly undocumented students attending the University of Utah. She recalled that no one had volunteered to provide testimony at the rally, so she raised her hand. Martinez had watched YouTube videos of other students coming out and knew it would be liberating.
“Those were empowering for me because it helped me realize that I’m not alone and there’s other people fighting for me,” she said.
Like many of the Dreamers, Martinez has high hopes. She wants to go to law school and work as a guardian ad litem, advocating for foster kids. Right now she is paying out-of-state tuition in Utah, with some help from private scholarships and a job at a fast food restaurant. Martinez will graduate next year, and while she won’t benefit from the opportunity for in-state tuition, she would be immediately eligible for a provisional visa under the Dream Act, allowing her to legally work and eventually find a path to citizenship.
Aaron would also qualify for a provisional visa and be considered an Idaho resident for purposes of matriculation.
My name is Aaron and I am an American teenager, but don’t have the papers to prove it. I’ve recently started to watch the news more often and research both sides of the immigration debate. After all, the new laws that states are passing might affect me.
One of the major laws that got my attention was SB1070, in Arizona, which basically scares people and allows cops to stop and ask you for ID just because you “look” undocumented. Or in other words, if your skin is brown and you look like you came from another country. Some politicians in my state are planning on introducing a law similar to this. Sometimes it feels as if no matter how good you are, and no matter how hard you try, you’re still a loser to the country’s elected representatives. I was glad when most of the provisions of SB1070 were blocked in court, and I’m glad the federal government and immigrant rights groups were out there ready to oppose it.
There’s always going to be two sides to every story, and in the immigration story, this is also true. There are people out there trying to help undocumented youth, farm workers and other law-abiding immigrants get their papers. These people realize that we want to be able to study here, serve our country and live our lives. There are others who are trying to keep us illegal. This includes the people behind laws like Arizona’s racial profiling bill and also the horrible employers who depend on undocumented workers, who continue to work for less than a documented worker. If suddenly their undocumented workers got papers, they would have to pay them higher wages because no longer will these employers be able to terrorize them with deportation.
As I get closer to graduation, I am starting to think what college I would like to attend. As I do more research and gather information, it feels as if I have reached a dead-end in my future. Since I’m undocumented, the college or university of my choice might not accept me, and if they do, I don’t have the resources to pay out-of-state tuition. I can’t get student loans, and I am not eligible for most financial aid or scholarships. Still, as of today, I’m unsure what I will do in the future.
My dream is to study computers and Internet technology. Since my first computer, I fell in love with technology and have learned a lot about networks. I learned how to build a computer, I learned about operating systems and how they work, I learned about software, I learned how to make websites in html and css, and all of this really drives my interest in higher education. Unfortunately I’m unsure if I will ever be able to achieve this dream.