Despite the promise of new federal protections, many undocumented immigrants are afraid to disclose their status to anyone. With the looming possibility of a Trump presidency, things are becoming even worse.
Photo by John Moore via Getty
When I came out as being undocumented, I felt closure and a sense of pride. Unsurprisingly, undocumented people don't usually share their status because, frankly, it's dangerous. There's always a fear of being "outed" by friends or families and being deported. As an undocumented immigrant, you don't have the sense that the country in which you're residing wants to protect you, as you're forced to struggle with an almost impossible naturalization process and stricter immigration policies.
But after acquiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an executive action implemented by President Obama in order to grant protection against deportation and work authorization for undocumented people who meet certain criteria, it seemed safe for me to declare my status. DACA allowed me to work and pretty much do regular things, besides being able to travel. Slowly, I began telling more of my friends.
For many undocumented people, the decision to come forward is a difficult one. Erik Vargas, a student from Texas, says he came out as undocumented after receiving a full ride to the University of Pennsylvania. Vargas describes sharing his status for the first time as an electrifying experience. "I felt like facing up to anything that day, so I faced up to my prime apprehension over my high school career: being undocumented," he says.
For much of high school, Vargas was told to stay away from police and to keep his status to himself at all costs. However, receiving the scholarship gave him hope that his story could inspire other undocumented students who graduate high school with no feasible path in sight. Vargas says it took a lot to come out as undocumented, especially in light of the looming potential of a Trump presidency. But he believes he made the right choice.
"Should I revert back to my 'no le hables a la policia [don't speak to police],' or should I relentlessly keep my voice raised, regardless of whether I get deported or not?" he says. "Now that I'm out, it seems that going big is the right thing."
Like Erik, Leidy Martinez has kept her undocumented status to herself. "I've always been hesitant to reveal my status to friends or colleagues because it's very obvious that most people tend to be very judgmental about the topic," she says. "Besides seeing the prejudice towards undocumented immigrants on television and social media, I was also seeing it and hearing it everywhere around me. I don't like to talk about it, and sometimes I find myself even lying about it."
Leidy, a Dominican American woman, is expecting her first baby and is anxious about being able to provide for her child with the salary she currently makes. "I'm getting paid $7 an hour now, but it's off the books so I can't complain much. It's the best I can get right now," she says. She was paid as low as $3 an hour at her old job. Like other undocumented immigrants without work authorization, Leidy says she's afraid to speak up about her wages, since revealing her status to employers makes her vulnerable. The fact that she has a baby on the way makes Leidy extra cautious when revealing her status to others. She feels even more hesitant now as Trump supporters "show so much hate towards people like me over literally a piece of paper," she says, referring to a permanent residence card.
I'm scared of what would happen to me. I'm not sure what I would do if I stayed here.
With today's policies, if an undocumented immigrant is deported, she must wait several years before she is allowed to enter the United States again. And, unless immigrants come to America with a viable way to attain permanent status through a relative who will petition for them or someone who will marry them, there is no clear path to citizenship. The federal DREAM Act was the only quasi-naturalizing legislation which provided students with a path towards citizenship, and even that did not pass in Congress. Instead, some states have created their own DREAM Act legislation, which provides in-state financial aid packages, among other things for undocumented college students.
Some policies—like the DACA program, which was installed by Obama in 2012—have helped mitigate the situation for undocumented immigrants. However, as an executive action, DACA holds very little weight in the country. If he became president, Trump could remove the program, which could hurt the roughly 665,000 immigrants who depend on DACA to survive in the United States. Without DACA, many undocumented immigrants have very little means to make a living wage.
"Being undocumented is inextricably tied to being poor. You arrive poor, and then there is not much shot for social mobility," says Vargas.
Trump's aggressive comments about undocumented people have created a daunting situation for those eager to stop living in the shadows. Britany, an undocumented immigrant from Missouri who asked to identified only by her first name, says that she has never felt comfortable sharing her status with anyone in her conservative hometown. If Trump became president, she says, she would not feel as safe working in the country.
"I'm scared of what would happen to me. I'm not sure what I would do if I stayed here," she says. Because both of her parents are undocumented with no foreseeable path to citizenship, Britany hopes for the expansion of the DACA program proposed by Obama.
My legal status is not meant to define me as a person.
Proposed by Obama in November of 2014, the expanded DACA program would broaden the requirements as to allow more undocumented immigrants to acquire DACA. Obama also proposed a new program called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA). DAPA, which is basically DACA but for parents, would grant work authorization as well as protection from deportation to parents of lawful residents and American citizens.
Unfortunately, this executive action received pushback from several states and on February 16, 2015, a federal Texas judge blocked the two programs. After the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans reaffirmed the decision, the Obama administration asked the Supreme Court to take the case. In January of 2016, the Supreme Court agreed to take the case and will make a decision in June of this year.
Britany, whose house was once targeted during a drive-by shooting, says her only hope for remaining in the country during a Trump presidency would be to apply for a U visa. The U visa is specifically for people who have suffered physically or mentally from criminal activity and who would be willing to help law enforcement with the investigation of these crimes. Even then, her family's chances are uncertain, and she says that her parents might try to file for a permit to stay in the US in defense of her little brother's health (he has two prenatal diseases).
Many undocumented immigrants feel that, for the most part, the government acts as if they don't know what to do with all of us. To us, the looming threat of a Trump presidency means having someone in office who absolutely does not care what happens to us and who won't try to improve our situation through policies like DACA or the DREAM Act. Time and time again, Trump has made it clear he is not sympathetic towards undocumented immigrants, whom he has called rapists and criminals.
Like me, immigration activist Moises Rodriguez was able to acquire DACA, which has allowed him to become more vocal about his situation and the status of undocumented people in the country today. "There [previously hadn't] been this huge moment of me coming out. It's mostly been me saying, 'We need reform for undocumented people,' and people thinking it's because I'm Latino," he says.
Rodriguez has had to come out to teachers and counselors in the past in order to get through the college process, but most recently, he came out to a room full of strangers as part of a panel for Latinos in higher education. "I just said it out loud to a bunch of strangers, and it was a relief to be able to tell people who I didn't know. I embraced it completely. This is my legal status, and it's what I have to work with," he says.
He believes that, in college, he will be able to come out to more people. "I think in college it's something that's going to happen. It's going to be a lot easier because I'm going to be surrounded by a more accepting community, as opposed to my upbringing in a more racist part of the country. My legal status is not meant to define me as a person," he says.
Still, he never shares his parents' status because they do not have the protection that DACA grants. "I never share my parents' name. I never tell people openly. Whenever I talk about it, it's just me because I can't be touched [with DACA]," he says. And even still, Rodriguez is still cautious about who he shares his status with.
Rodriguez believes in this way of educating people and fighting for change in the coming years. "Any real change we want to see in everything—whether it be criminal justice reform or LGBT rights or immigration reform—is up to us to be responsible for having conversations with those who don't want to hear us out and spread authentic information about who we are as human beings," he says. "We have to force the United States to take off the very out-of-fashion racist glasses they have on."
Editor's note: In light of security fears under the Trump administration, we've removed the author's name to protect her identity.