Multi-American

How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Coming out undocumented: How much of a political effect has the movement had?

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

It's been two years since a group of young people in Chicago made official a movement that had been slowly growing among undocumented students, holding a "coming out" day at a local park to go public with their undocumented status as a political act.

In that time - mostly during the last year - the larger movement they launched has taken off exponentially. It received perhaps its biggest boost last June, when former Washington Post reporter and Pulitzer winner Jose Antonio Vargas confessed to his undocumented status in a New York Times essay and launched an advocacy project, drawing worldwide attention.

Much else has happened in the last year: Last summer, the Obama administration released guidelines urging immigration officials to use prosecutorial discretion when pursuing deportation cases. This involved giving special consideration to certain immigrants, including people who had been here since they were children, a demographic that makes up the bulk of the young activists involved in the coming-out movement. In August, the guidelines became the backbone of an Obama administration plan to review some 300,000 deportation cases to screen out these "low priority" immigrants, a process that began late last year.

This week, more young people are going public with their status around the country as part of what's by now become an annual ritual, National Coming out the Shadows Week. As they do, it's worth taking a look at how much influence, if any, a movement that seeks to attach faces to those who would benefit from legal status has had on the policy changes seen this year.

Last April in a post, before the Obama administration's new guidelines were issued, I asked several young people who had come out with their status - and readers in general - whether they thought it had become safer to reveal publicly that one is in the U.S. illegally. "Yes, it's true!" responded a reader named Rigo. "I haven't felt this safe in a while."

In another post the same month, undocumented UCLA graduate and activist Nancy Meza described the role of being "out" in the peer support networks that have come to the aid of many a young person facing deportation, launching petitions and helping several win reprieves long before the federal guidelines crystallized who stood a better chance of staying.

“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,” said Meza, 24. “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.”

This is true, said Louis DiSipio, an immigration expert and political science professor at UC Irvine. There is a safety-in-numbers aspect to coming out for undocumented students and graduates involved in the movement, and to date, most of those involved have been supported and protected by their peers if they face deportation.

"By coming out, they are asserting their right to protest, but it also makes it harder for the Obama administration or local authorities acting under the Department of Homeland Security to arrest those students," DiSipio said by in a phone interview.

As to the coming-out movement's political effect at the national level, that's up for debate. Frank Sharry, director the Washington, D.C. immigrant advocacy organization America's Voice, believes the movement "has made a huge difference."

"It has transformed what had been an immigrant advocacy effort into an immigrant-led social movement," Sharry wrote in an email.

"The moral power of the undocumented coming out, telling their stories and demanding to be recognized for the full Americans they feel they already are moved the Congress to action in taking up the Dream Act in 2010, moved the White House to adopt new policies in 2011, and eventually will result in undocumented immigrants overcoming the 'criminal other' tag assigned by anti-immigrant forces and being formally recognized as the aspiring citizens that they are," Sharry wrote.

DiSipio sees the movement's national political effect as more limited. While it may have had a small effect on the Obama administration's deportation policies, he said, the prosecutorial discretion guidelines and other recent changes are more a product of political compromise.

"I think the Obama administration from the beginning, as soon as it realized it wasn't going to get the Dream Act through the Senate, realized it needed a way of demonstrating it was concerned about the unauthorized," he said. "It looked at what administrative discretion it had."

But putting a face on who stands to benefit from immigrant-friendly reforms like the proposed federal Dream Act, which would grant conditional legal status to those who arrived before age 16 if they go to college or join the military, has affected national and state immigration politics in other ways, he said. The savvy student-led movement has also effectively gotten the ear of legislators in an area where immigration restriction advocates once held the biggest megaphone. This has led to smaller victories for undocumented students, like California's state-level tuition reforms.

"What these students are trying to do is they are reminding their supporters...that they also need to take a stand," DiSipio said. "While it is not going to have an immediate political effect at the national level, you are seeing more at the state level to provide what benefits they can for the unauthorized. The California Dream Act is an example of that."

As for the Obama administration, it's generally stayed away from young people who come out - to a point. Uriel Alberto, a young North Carolina man who came out publicly before the state legislature last month, had a minor offense record that included a speeding conviction. He has been held for deportation by authorities, while two others arrested with him weren't.

But true to the coming-out movement, supporters rallied behind him, with a social media campaign and online petitions circulated to spare him from deportation; he's now set to be released on bond.

Coming-out events are taking place around the country this week, including one in Los Angeles' Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights tomorrow.

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