Out of the Shadows and Into the Light

The immigrant youth movement is standing up and speaking out

by Stephen Pavey

"Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore." – Cesar Chavez


Photo by Peter Holderness (PeterHolderness.com)

What do the teachings of Jesus have to say "to those who stand with their backs against the wall?" asked Howard Thurman when addressing the African American experience of racism and violence of the 1940s. His answer and challenge, in his Jesus and the Disinherited, shaped the civil rights movement. The good news revealed in the teachings and life of Jesus is, wrote Thurman, "that fear, deception, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them." Jesus reveals the power of love, for self and others, that enables us to overcome relations of inequality that are perpetuated by fear, deception, and hate.

Fast forward 60 years to today's growing nativism, xenophobia, and violence surrounding the presence of immigrants in the United States, and Thurman's analysis of the lives of the disinherited is equally compelling here and now to those who have their backs against the wall. The experience of inequality and violence among immigrants is exacerbated for the 11.8 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Nearly 20 years ago anthropologist Leo Chavez described the "shadowed lives" of undocumented immigrants. With the growing public antipathy and the media construction of the "Latino threat," living in the shadows remains an apt description and continues to be marked by the same fears and survival techniques of deception described by Thurman.

A segment of this vulnerable undocumented population has been called the "1.5 generation" because they immigrated to the US as children, usually brought by their parents. An estimated 2.1 million  undocumented students are enrolled in the nation's public school system, and over 65,000 graduate from American high schools each year. Although guaranteed free public primary and secondary education by the Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe in 1982, these students today face the contradiction of limited opportunities for tertiary education and social mobility in a country that for all intents and purposes is the only home they know.

As Alexis, an undocumented student who came to the US at the age of 9, told me, "My whole personality, my whole self has grown up here. I've become what I am here. I cannot deny that part of my life and after high school just erase that."

We are only just beginning to understand the stress and fears within this vulnerable community of undocumented youth. At a recent vigil in Chicago, dreamers, as they are often called, publicly shared about the mental health issues and suicide that have taken the lives and dreams of friends. Reyna shared that after graduating in 2009 she attempted suicide because she was tired of the anxiety and saw no options for her future. Those few who do decide to go on to college face many obstacles. Nearly two-thirds of undocumented high school graduates come from families who live below the poverty line. Lacking those nine essential digits, they are excluded from in-state tuition (except in 10 states), federal loans, a driver's license, and legal work to pay for school. It is not surprising, then, that most feel what Paulo Freire described as "hope pulverized in the immobility of the crushing present, some sort of final stop beyond which nothing is possible."

In the face of uncertain futures, of dreams deferred, and of the shame carried by living in the shadows, undocumented youth are coming out of the shadows and publicly announcing, "My name is _____, and I'm undocumented, and I'm unafraid." An estimated 20,000 undocumented youth now active in both local and national grassroots organizations worked hard to pass the DREAM Act, but failed to see their labors come to fruition.

Photo by Stephen Pavey

Photo by Stephen Pavey

First introduced in 2001, the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act is a bipartisan legislation that would provide a conditional path to citizenship for thousands of students who were brought to the United States as children. Under this legislation, undocumented immigrants under the age of 30 who were brought to the country before the age of 16 and have been living in the US continuously for five years would be eligible for conditional non-immigrant status. DREAM Act applicants would need to have graduated from high school, obtained a GED, or enrolled in an institution of higher learning. During the six years after receiving conditional permanent residency status, they would have to attend college or join the US military for a minimum of two years. At the end of the six-year conditional period, if they have met all requirements, they would be granted permanent residency, which would eventually allow them to become US citizens. This is not an amnesty bill.

The undocumented immigrant youth-led movement is gaining momentum through the use of personal stories, along with grassroots organizing and activism such as  sit-ins, vigils, hunger strikes, marches, rallies, and acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.

The movement includes leaders like 25-year-old Gaby Pacheco. She excelled in school and sports, became a ranked officer in the Navy ROTC, and earned three degrees, including a bachelor's degree in special education. Her dream of becoming a teacher of autistic children is on hold because she is not a citizen. Pacheco was just 7 years old when her family immigrated to the US in 1993 from Ecuador. In 2010 she and three other undocumented students completed a 1,500-mile walk from Miami to Washington, DC, to share their stories and urge lawmakers to pass the DREAM Act.

In an interview, Pacheco shared, "I truly believe that people don't hate us. They've been misled by the media, sometimes even their own families, to believe that we're bad and that we're here to get the welfare. Every day on the walk, we talked to people who saw we are just human beings, and we were able to regain some of that humanity we'd been searching for."

At a December vigil in DC, the night before the house would vote on the DREAM Act, Pacheco articulated the hope within this movement that Thurman once addressed—"…of coming into the light, and not being afraid." Pacheco continued, "Now that we are in this light, nothing, nothing, is going to be able to turn it off, because the shadows are gone…the darkness is gone, and we're going to move forward, because that light is our light. And no senator, no legislator, no president, no human being is going to be able to take that light away from us."

I sat in a Senate gallery full of dreamers and allies when the DREAM Act failed to pass by only five votes. There was a deep sadness and many tears, but there was also the overwhelming presence of hope, love, and light that come with the recognition of our shared human dignity.

Many dreamers have told me of the liberation they feel when they tell their story to a friend or to a pubic audience. They say they feel released from the shame of a status. They speak about the power of finding a community, of knowing they are not alone. The power of the national organizations (see list at bottom of this page) is that they provide a safe place to tell one's story. This is empowering. As one dreamer shared, "What is important is that we have created a space where we can feel safe and supported and just unashamed."

In 2011 the annual National Coming Out of the Shadows Week welcomed more undocumented youth from across the United States, who came out as "undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic." Hope is alive, but the numbers reveal that many more undocumented students are still hiding in the shadows. These numbers are growing every year.

In his State of the Union address in January 2011, President Obama said, "Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet they live every day with the threat of deportation. Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense… I know that debate will be difficult. I know it will take time. But tonight, let's agree to make that effort. And let's stop expelling talented, responsible young people who could be staffing our research labs or starting a new business, who could be further enriching this nation."

The truth is that, although the DREAM ACT is an essential part of the solution, even if it passed, it remains a limited solution to a larger broken immigration system. What can be done? We must insist that the federal government get to work on humane comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path toward citizenship for these dreamers. In response to the federal government's inability to work on immigration reform, states have been introducing a record number of largely punitive and anti-immigrant bills, including 1070 copycats, student bans, and challenges to the 14th Amendment's birthright citizenship. In the meantime, the growing harsh anti-immigrant culture and the lack of any sensible immigration policy continue to divide our communities and tear apart families.

At a gathering in Washington, DC, of faith leaders in support of the DREAM Act, Pastor Troy Jackson from Cincinnati shared that "as evangelicals, we believe conversion is possible." I cannot help but think his personal conversion moment came with his own community's recent attempt to save Bernard Pastor, a high school senior who came to the US at the age of 3, from deportation. "Our nation," he continued, "needs a conversion moment, and our senators, and congresspeople, and politicians need a conversion moment." I would add that we as American citizens also need a conversion moment.

Pastor Jackson reminds us of Saul in Acts 9, who was brought to his knees by a great light on the road to Damascus. Out of the light he heard a voice saying, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" "Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked. "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." Saul's radical conversion saw him transformed from the persecutor to the persecuted, from siding with the powerful to walking with the oppressed.

For us, the privileged and powerful, a radical conversion will mean discerning Jesus in the disinherited undocumented immigrants in our midst. We must repent of our anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy, seek a conversion of the broken immigration system that persecutes the immigrant community (in whom Jesus himself dwells), and begin to walk with our marginalized brothers and sisters, joining them in the light—even as they experience a conversion from fear to freedom.

Stephen Pavey is an applied anthropologist, artist, and activist working at One Horizon in Lexington, Ky.


Learn  more from these national organizations:

United We Dream is a national organization working to achieve equal access to higher education for all people, regardless of immigration status. They aim to address the inequities and obstacles faced by immigrant youth and to develop a sustainable movement led by immigrant youth, both documented and undocumented, and children of immigrants. They use leadership development, organizing, policy advocacy, alliance building, training, and capacity building to pursue their mission at the local, state, and national levels.

The National Immigrant Youth Alliance is an undocumented youth-led network of grassroots organizations, campus-based
student groups and individuals committed to achieving equality for all immigrant youth, regardless of their legal status.

The Campaign to Reform Immigration for America is a united national effort that brings together individuals and grassroots organizations with the mission to build support for workable comprehensive immigration reform.

The Immigrant Youth Justice League is a Chicago-based organization led by undocumented youth, working for immigrant rights through education, resource-gathering, and youth mobilization.

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