How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

'Coming out' undocumented: A Dream Act strategy becomes a rite of passage

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC


Last week in Orange County, a line of about two dozen young people snaked around the side of a meeting hall. Mostly college students, they awaited their turn at the podium in the front of the room. Some looked confident, others a little shaky. A girl with long brown hair stepped up to the microphone. "Hello, my name is Estefania," she began, "and I'm undocumented and unafraid."

What started as a small number of students going public with their immigration status grew into a movement in its own right last year, when passage of the federal Dream Act seemed like a possibility. It was a political strategy, the idea behind it to put a face to those whose lives would be affected by the legislation, which would have granted conditional legal status to qualifying young people brought to this country before age 16 if they went to college or joined the military.

The bill failed in the Senate last December. But as students cling to the hope that the measure will be reintroduced, or that state bills will work out in their favor, the practice of "coming out" as undocumented has not only endured, but has become a rite of passage of sorts.

Several Dream Act advocacy groups and websites have been promoting this week as “National Coming Out of the Shadows” week. Advocacy sites like DreamActivist.org have been seeking coming-out stories via Twitter and posting them.

Students were urged to begin going public last Thursday, when a student activist group called the Orange County Dream Team held its coming-out event in the city of Orange. Those who lined up in front of parents, professors, friends and media had been here since childhood or their early teens. They were now pushing for state legislation dubbed the "California Dream Act," two bills being heard today in Sacramento that would allow them access to in-state tuition and financial aid currently not available to undocumented immigrants.

There was a big element of youthful idealism, and perhaps a little naiveté, though they all knew they were taking a risk by going public. Most described a sense of catharsis.

“It’s a sigh of relief, a weight off my shoulders,” said Anayansy Terrones, 21, a Cal State Dominguez Hills junior. “It’s very motivating to know that I am not alone.”

Some of the students had gone public to varying degrees before. Others had only spoken about it with friends, maybe teachers. Terrones, who arrived in the United States with her family when she was a year old, had been featured anonymously in a documentary about illegal immigration when she was in her teens.

But "this was the first time I announced it,” she said. “First name, last name, face.”

She and others said they were aware of the risk of deportation. There have been some students in high-profile deportation cases that have been granted a reprieve, like San Francisco college student Steve Li last year, who had a private bill introduced on his behalf by Sen. Dianne Feinstein. But many young people raised here who have landed in deportation proceedings haven't been so lucky.

Some Dream Act supporters who went public last year, hoping the bill would pass, have since questioned their decision and worry about their future. There's a good chance that even if there eventually is legislation that allows some undocumented youths to legalize, many of those going forward now may not be able to adjust their status. In its last version, the federal Dream Act cut off applicants at age 29.

“It’s scary to put yourself out there, that if someone doesn’t like you they can call ICE,” said Estefania Cruz, 21, a student at Fullerton College. “It wasn’t something I immediately wanted to share. But we’re all pretty much on the same boat.”

That boat grew bigger last year, when high-profile students like Pedro Ramirez, the student body president at CSU Fresno, revealed that he was undocumented, brought here by his parents at age three, after he was questioned by the student paper. Others who went public included Miami student leader José Salcedo and UCLA Bruin Marching Band drum major David Cho.

Beyond the catharsis factor, the students who are coming out still hope that their stories will spur legislative action in their favor. Some of the Orange County students were planning to join a caravan that left last night for Sacramento, where students hoped to attend the first hearing on the California bills.

Among them was Jamie Kim, a 19-year-old Fullerton College student who arrived from South Korea with her parents and sister when she was nine. It wasn’t the first time Kim had gone public – she’d announced that she was undocumented before a crowd at a campus rally last fall, when she was hoping the Dream Act would pass. But Kim, who has ambitions of joining the U.S. Air Force and a career in international relations, said she has no regrets.

“At first, I was really hesitant to come out,” Kim said. “It’s risky, you do risk deportation. But I’d been hiding this part of me for a long time. It was the most rewarding moment of my life."

She admitted that her parents, while they know about her activism, have been less than enthusiastic about her revealing her status. But she feels a sense of duty to point out that while they maybe smaller in number than her Latino counterparts, there are also children of Asian immigrants who keep the secret that she kept until recently.

"I was making people aware that there are Asians affected by this," Kim said. "This is not just a Latino issue.”

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