How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Coming out undocumented: A growing movement, but still contentious (Audio)

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

A student activist's t-shirt at a "coming out" event in Orange County, Calif., March 2011

The act of "coming out" as undocumented to make a political statement has gained traction in recent years among young immigrant activists, many of them college students or graduates who were brought to the United States illegally as children and have never been able to adjust their immigration status.

For those involved in a growing movement that has become a rite of passage for many, there is the perception of strength in numbers. But does this make going public with one's immigration status a wise thing to do? Has it become any safer? And for those who aren't familiar with the movement, what reactions does it elicit?

Today, at the tail end of what's become known "National Coming Out of the Shadows Week," KPCC's Patt Morrisson Show addressed these and other questions in a segment; I joined Patt as a guest, along with immigration attorney and political science professor Louis A. Gordon and two young people who have both "come out," Nancy Meza and John Perez.

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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.

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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.

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Readers respond: Has 'coming out' undocumented become less risky?

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A student's bold statement, December 8, 2010

A post yesterday on the trend among young, undocumented student activists and their supporters of revealing their immigration status, done as a political act, has drawn some interesting comments.

They were posted in response to a question: Has revealing immigration status truly become less risky for those who do it?

Recent statements from federal immigration officials have indicated that there's less of a priority being placed on deporting people who would have been eligible for the Dream Act, proposed legislation that failed in the Senate late last year, and which would have granted conditional legal status to young people brought here as minors who went to college or joined the military. Some youths in high-profile cases have had their deportation suspended. Is the risk of deportation for these young people who "come out" no longer so great?

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Is 'coming out' undocumented becoming less risky?

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC


A couple of posts last month addressed a strategy that a growing number of undocumented youths have embraced as they campaign for legalization, revealing their immigration status as a political act.

It took off last year as undocumented college students campaigned for the Dream Act, proposed legislation that would have granted conditional legal status to young people brought here illegally as minors if they attended college or joined the military. The bill died in the Senate last December, but students and their supporters have not given up their campaign.

Some perceive "coming out" as equal parts catharsis and political strategy, and see the trend continuing. Here's how Jorge Gutierrez, a young man I spoke with last month, put it when I asked him if he saw revealing immigration status as becoming a cultural norm among his peers:

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