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Claiming a Public Space -- Undocumented Youth Come Out of the Closet

New America Media, Commentary, Raj Jayadev Posted: Oct 31, 2007

Editors Note: Young undocumented immigrants have become the leaders of the recent immigrant rights revolution in the United States, recognizing that they have to be visible in order to make a change no matter what the risk. Raj Jayadev is the director of Silicon Valley De-bug, a collective of writers, artists, workers and organizers in San Jose, Calif.

SAN JOSE, Calif. Adrian Ramirez calls it coming out of the undocumented closet, referring to the moment that he and other young people in his position decide to go public about their lack of legal status in this country.

Ramirez, a 22-year-old community organizer from San Jose, Calif., came up with the description on the spot while giving a speech to more than 1,000 college students at a conference in Washington, D.C., called Campus Progress. Although his speech came right before an address by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, arguably the most important and well-positioned politician to speak on the immigration debate, it was Ramirezs personal story that visibly moved the crowd to understand the urgent need for immigration reform. But despite all of the accolades and attention, Ramirez would have traded seats with a faceless member of the crowd in a heartbeat just for the opportunity to be an average college student.

Last week, Congress vetoed the DREAM Act, a piece of legislation that would have entitled Ramirez and an estimated 500,000 other undocumented youth to receive financial aid for college and created a path to citizenship. While the vote took the breath out of thousands of undocumented students who had been watching on the sidelines of an electoral system that they by definition cannot participate in, many have decided to affect change in a more personal way by claiming a public space.

Frustrated with the legal limitations of their lives and the inability of the body politic to make any progress toward reform, undocumented young people are redefining the immigration debate by inserting themselves into it. Changing their role from subjects of the discussion to active participants who are speaking publicly about their right to be Americans, they are directly challenging anti-immigrant fervor, and emboldening others to do the same.

Growing up, I never told anyone about not having my papers, but one day, just when I finished high school, I just had to tell people, says Ramirez. Since that time, he has been writing and speaking at rallies, conferences and in classrooms about what it is like for undocumented youth to step into adulthood without the essentials a drivers license, a college education, and knowing that you are welcome in the only country you know.

Ramirez came to the United States 15 years ago, went to public schools, and has hit a common ceiling: He cannot afford to go to college because he cannot file for financial aid due to his immigration status. Id just had enough of watching the news go back and forth about immigrants, and just having to sit and listen, he says.

Although Ramirez has spoken in various prestigious and influential political forums, it was the time at a park in Campbell a small city outside of San Jose that he recalls as the most powerful moment when his once-hidden life was able to come to the forefront. The Minutemen had come to recruit volunteers in the mainly white, working class suburb. Ramirez and dozens of other undocumented youth went to protest the recruiting mission. Just being able to confront the people that dislike us, being right in their face felt empowering and rare, he says. Plus, them being able to see us that we dont fit into the stereotypes they imagined in their heads was important. We actually outnumbered them so much that they had to leave.

Ramirez was not alone that day with the Minutemen, and that is perhaps the key to why undocumented young people are willing to face scrutiny, loss of a job and deportation in order to speak out. Once, being undocumented was a solitary struggle to face alone, but it is now understood as a common situation that needs to be addressed collectively. There is security in the numbers: as some step forward, others feel strengthened to do so thus overcoming a generations culture of silence.

Cesar A., 21, is a junior at San Jose State University and the community liaison of Students Advocating for Higher Education (SAHE), a statewide campus-based association started by undocumented college students. The fact that this group exists reflects the comfort students now feel about publicly stating their status, and the fact that there is a community liaison reflects their ambitions to communicate their experiences to the larger public. SAHE is not a support group that meets secretly; it is a vocal, media-savvy organization that has staged mock graduations of undocumented students on the steps of San Jose City Hall, strategically met with politicians, and held a statewide hunger strike for the DREAM Act that received international media attention.

Like many undocumented youth, Cesar didnt even know that he did not have papers until late in his high school career when he was thinking about college. I was in AP classes, had a 3.4 GPA, but when I talked to my parents, they told me about the situation. He was ready to forget about further schooling until his father had a talk with him about his future. He told me that if I didnt want to just work hard labor like he did, coming home late with your back hurting, I had to get an education. Cesar went to community college, and found SAHE shortly after transferring to San Jose State.

After 14 years of being in the shadows, you reach a point where you say, I dont care, Im fighting for whats right, says Cesar, a hunger striker who says the decision was not hard to make. My picture and full name were in newspapers, I was on television, and yeah, I wondered if the eyes of la migra were watching, but I figured instead of waiting for others to do for me, I had to do for myself.

The irony that Cesar is using a very American do-it-yourself ethic to fight against an anti-immigrant backlash that does not consider him American is not lost on him. The difference with us versus our parents is that we grew up here. I have been hearing for 14 years that everybody in America has inalienable rights. It is that education that makes us fight.

Fellow SAHE member Francisco Alvarado, 25, now has his citizenship but took a route he wants other undocumented youth to avoid. When his temporary visa was expiring, Alvarado went into the military to qualify for permanent residency. He served three years in the army infantry division in Hawaii. Alvarado says his decision is a common one. We grow up thinking immigration status is taboo, he says. Most of my friends and I just had this mutual understanding.

Alvarado now gives presentations to undocumented high school students. After our workshops, we usually have a handful of students who come up to us, tell us they are undocumented, and want to share their story, but also want to get involved. He says students have started their own chapters across the state and the country.

When asked about the failure of the DREAM Act, Cesar, Alvarado and Ramirez say they expected as much. Theyve grown unconvinced that change can happen outside of their own actions, and have turned to their own community to lead the way. Just like his parents before him, Cesar says undocumented youth are working for the next generation. Our actions might not produce an immediate victory, he says, but down the line other undocumented youth will be able to look to us and say, I can do that too.

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