How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

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

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

A student activist's t-shirt, December 2010

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.


Andrew Ahn comes out to his immigrant parents - in a film

Dol Trailer from Andrew Ahn on Vimeo.

Coming out as gay or lesbian to one's family is a difficult step for most young people to take, but it can be especially so for the children of immigrants, whose cultural or religious beliefs may make them less tolerant. Andrew Ahn, a young Korean American filmmaker from Los Angeles, chose to come out to his parents not by having that difficult conversation, but by making a short film.

KPCC's Off-Ramp with John Rabe featured an interview this weekend with Ahn, whose film "Dol" makes its debut at Sundance this week. Dol is a traditional Korean ritual held for a baby's first birthday, with the baby set among various objects, such as a pencil or paintbrush. From Off-Ramp:

The first object the baby grabs symbolizes his or her future; if he or she picks the pencil, they'll be a scholar, pick a paintbrush? Become an artist. What does this have to do with coming out as a gay man?

"I don't know what item would represent being gay," Ahn joked. He did know he wanted to document a personal moment in the film.

"I saw footage from my own first birthday on an old beta tape," he recalled. "As a gay Korean man, this ritual just seemed really pertinent to where I am in my adulthood, thinking about family -- thinking about the future."

Ahn wanted to use the film to come out to his parents because he couldn't bring himself to broach the topic directly. He filmed his actual parents, aunts and uncles because he knew they'd want to watch.


Top five immigration stories of 2011, #5: 'Coming out' undocumented

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

A student activist's t-shirt, December 2010

This week, Multi-American is counting down its top five immigration stories of 2011. It's been a tough list to narrow down with so many major stories this year, ranging from the political battle over birthright citizenship early in the year to the ongoing record deportations to the growing number of state immigration laws, a story that's still developing as a case involving Arizona's precedent-setting SB 1070 heads to the U.S. Supreme Court.

We'll start out today with one story that didn't come out of government, though, but rather bubbled up slowly from college campuses and gained steam via social media: the trend of "coming out" as undocumented among young people, done as a political act.

What began a few years ago among a small number of undocumented student activists has developed into a movement its own right. By December of last year, growing numbers of young, undocumented college students and their supporters were publicly revealing their status as a previous version of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a bill that would grant conditional legal status to young people who arrived before age 16 if they went to college or joined the military, moved through the House and on to the Senate.