The undocumented immigrant youth movement has gone through a powerful evolution since its genesis. In the beginning, the ever-present risk of deportation forced only the bravest of us to meet in secret as we sought to support each other in our pursuit of higher education. Others among us felt that the risk was too great to even whisper our immigration status outside of our homes.
Nearly 10 years later, we are no longer isolated or hiding. On the contrary, we now are highly visible. Dozens of undocumented youth have been featured on the cover of TIME magazine. Dulce Matuz of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition was named one of TIME's most influential people. Benita Veliz became the first undocumented person to address a national political convention. Today, the phrase “undocumented and unafraid” has become a rallying cry for many of us.
Together, we achieved the most significant change in immigration policy in over 20 years—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—winning reprieve from deportation for more than one million undocumented immigrant youth. Together, we are proving that—when affected individuals lead the way and proudly share our stories—we have the power to create positive change and make an impact on a national scale.
And we are not done. As our movement continues to blossom, we are also learning to give space to the diverse experiences within it. While many might attempt to depict our movement as uniform, in reality many of us who share the identity of “DREAMers” exist at the intersection of several movements. From LGBT youth, to women, to Asian Americans, we have resisted the status quo by highlighting our varied stories, weaving these different experiences into one colorful tapestry. Rather than overlooking the leadership of the historically underrepresented communities that exist within our movement, we have embraced them as a source of strength to empower our movement as a whole and advance our collective story.
Perhaps no one moment illustrates this approach better than the one that took place in Memphis, Tennessee, in the spring of 2011. We were gathered at the second United We Dream National Congress. At the time, we were still grappling with the pain and disillusionment of the failure of the federal DREAM Act. Although the momentum and power gained by immigrant youth could not, in the end, be broken by the failure of any legislation, the movement was shaken.
Then, a turning point occurred. Queer, undocumented immigrant youth, or UndocuQueers, stood in front of more than 200 immigrant youth—and “came out.” UndocuQueers undergo a double “coming out” experience, privately and publicly professing identities as queer and undocumented. Many could no longer bear the pain of negotiating, of having to take off their “queer” hat and putting on an “undocumented” one before walking into the immigrant youth movement. The stories of oppression, pain, and struggle of LGBTQ undocumented immigrant youth opened and ignited the hearts of everyone at the Congress, challenging the movement to expand its immigrant youth rights platform and reflect the identities and needs of UndocuQueers. We made a historic commitment to intentionally include and fight for the rights of the LGBTQ community within and outside the immigrant youth movement.
Now, the movement has embraced this “coming out” frame. Community and grassroots organizations such as California's Orange County Dream Team have been leading intersectional organizing work between the immigrant youth movement and the LGBTQ rights movement in California. UndocuQueers have gained national visibility and have begun to organize and mobilize through initiatives such as the Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project. Groups such as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and United We Dream have included LGBTQ family inclusion in their immigration platforms. Moving forward, our LGBTQ-immigrant intersectional voices, experiences, and organizing work will continue to dismantle the homophobia and racism within both mainstream movements.
Ensuring identity-based safe spaces is critical to addressing the nuances of the undocumented experience. Of the 11 million undocumented people living in the U.S., 1.2 million are from Asia. Culture adds significant challenges for undocumented Asian Americans. In Asian American communities, unlawful immigration status is widely stigmatized. Given this need to “save face” in the community and the added fear of deportation, parents place pressure on their children to keep their status a secret. Thus, many undocumented Asians are invisible, isolated, and often unable to access resources.
Undocumented Asian youth who are advocating for immigration reform need the space to connect with one another, and to challenge the cultural attitude that encourages shaming and silences those who deviate from expectations. One pan-Asian DREAM youth organization, Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education, headquartered in San Francisco, gives undocumented Asian youth the space to do just that. The power of our movement lies in our ability to break down silos and allow for intentional, collaborative, multiracial leadership development and organizing.
Similarly, our women members, who understand first hand the multiple layers that can constitute one identity, have led the immigrant youth movement on all levels, from ground-level organizing to national leadership. As organizers, many young undocumented immigrant women have experienced the subtle sexism in spaces of politics, business, and even activism. Consciously recognizing these realities and acknowledging the contributions of women, Asian Americans, and LGBT leaders within our growing movement has led to a cultivation of intersectional work and a commitment to transformative organizing. In turn, this has strengthened our base, grown our partnerships, and helped us expand our vision and understanding of true social justice.
Even more exciting is the fact that this sense of shared strength is preparing us for the next step in our fight. Empowerment is contagious, and our collective empowerment is also having an impact on our families. More and more, our families are stepping out of the shadows and “coming out” as undocumented. Just recently, in Arizona, DREAMer Erika Andiola's mother, Maria, was released from ICE detention after we mobilized to stop her deportation. Now, Maria appears in a video with Erika, asking other families to share their stories of separation.
This movement began because we used our stories to create safe spaces for ourselves. As we connected across state borders and our urgency for change grew, we learned how to use our voices and our bodies, through actions of nonviolent civil disobedience, to motivate this country to listen and to change. Along the journey, we also learned to find the power in our differences, and to create democratic and transformational models of leadership development and organizing. Moving forward as strategic storytellers and skilled organizers, we will use these lessons learned to highlight the larger narrative about immigration in the U.S. and fight the unjust policies tearing our families apart every day.
Sofia Campos is the board chair of the United We Dream Network. Catherine Eusebio is a social justice fellow at Asian American/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy. Jorge Gutierrez is a Queer Dream Summer coordinator, a co-founder of DeColores Queer Orange County, and project coordinator of the Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project.