Coming out as undocumented

Immigrant-rights groups are celebrating March as national “Coming Out of the Shadows” month. So what does it mean to “come out” as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. in 2015?

AJ+ put that question to undocumented immigrants themselves.

A lot of people agreed that what used to be almost impossible to say out loud — “I’m undocumented” — has become easier in just the last few years. A big reason? President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, popularly known as DACA.

More than 700,000 undocumented immigrants have applied for the program since it launched in 2012, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. DACA offers a two- to three-year work permit, as well as relief from deportation, to immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and meet other criteria. Its effects have been huge.

“The conversation really has changed,” said Mariam Kelly, an immigration staff attorney at Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, California. “Before DACA I would ask young kids ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ and they didn’t have an answer for me. Some were really candid and said, ‘I’m not going to do anything, because I don’t have work authorization.’”

Now those same kids talk about being doctors or working in tech or pursuing other dreams, Kelly said. She added it’s because so many undocumented people came out of the shadows in the first place that enough pressure mounted for DACA to happen.

But for every person willing to come forward, many are not. That’s why the government and organizations like Pew Research Center can only estimate how many undocumented immigrants live in the United States: somewhere over 11 million people.

Obama’s recent effort to expand DACA — and to extend the same benefits to undocumented parents with kids who are citizens or permanent residents (a plan known as DAPA) — has been stalled in a Texas federal court since February. Twenty-six states sued the administration, saying Obama had overstepped his constitutional authority.

And many fear these temporary solutions could disappear with the next president anyway. DACA and DAPA don’t create a path to permanent legal status — only Congress can authorize that.

This changing legal landscape has underscored an existing generational divide among immigrants, between kids who grew up here and see coming out as the first step toward change, and their parents, who still live day-to-day in the shadows.

“My parents are definitely afraid of me just being out in the streets and saying, oh, ‘I’m undocumented and unafraid.’ They do think that it is possible for me to be deported,” said Itzel Calvo, a 24-year-old from California and a DACA recipient. “Parents, they don’t have any sort of security, any sort of safety net, and therefore they can actually lose their jobs if they bring this out, and so for them they risk more.”

At Community Legal Services in East Palo, which works with low-income communities on immigration and other issues, Kelly says she advises people who want to come forward to look closely at USCIS’ enforcement memos and to know their rights. “If you read through these and if you don’t believe you’re one of the priorities…then technically you’re not the kind of person that ICE has put as a priority,” she said. But to be safe, she recommends attending community-organization events, like the clinics at Community Legal Services.

For many young people, the benefits of coming out outweigh any risks. “It’s part of the healing process,” said Jonathan Perez, a Los Angeles member of the Immigrant Youth Coalition, a rights group. For a population who have had to live with a tremendous amount of fear and often shame, coming out can be liberating. “This is where you’re in control, and you’re doing it on your own terms.”