Monday marked the start of a national “Coming Out of the Shadows” week for a persecuted and largely invisible minority of some two million young people. The name draws a rhetorical parallel to the queer movements of the past few decades, showing that discrimination today takes forms more quiet and insidious than those we are trained to see. Just as early gay activists risked physical violence and ostracization with each “coming out,” these students face imprisonment and deportation. Information, not skin color, marks them.
This is the new generation of undocumented youth, the product of a bankrupt immigration system that offers cheap labor while fueling the formation of a permanent second class. Most of these young people were brought into this country by their parents and have lived most of their lives as Americans. Because they lack citizenship, they cannot work legally, get driver’s licenses, or apply for federal financial aid. Each year another 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school. The luckiest of these students continue on to higher education, a state of limbo where they gain professional skills they may never be able to use. Bills being pushed in some states would bar them from even this.
The college experience is predicated on the idea of equality—previous privilege and disadvantage are meant to stop at the iron gates; we walk across the green as colleagues. But undocumented students shoulder the outsized weight of their status. The small realities of everyday life remind them of the fragility of their residence; the rest of us, as card-carrying citizens of this country, take for granted our access to everything from banks to bars.
One piece of legislation could change this situation. The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM) Act would provide a path to American citizenship for undocumented youth (under 35) who came to the US before the age of sixteen and have stayed at least five years, graduate from high school, and work towards a college degree (or serve in the military, a concession to conservatives).
Events like Coming Out week rest on the power of students’ stories to move legislation forward. The students are in a paradoxical position: they cannot vote, cannot be in this country legally, yet need to pass this bill. But their case is irrefutable, and they are pressing legislators through media appearances, college networks, press conferences, and government lobbying.
The Dream Activist website that advertises Coming Out week also reminds undocumented students, when speaking in public, not to use last names or to provide any details about their homes. The movement is handicapped by the constant fear of persecution. It grows one person at a time, often through word-of-mouth to trusted friends; nonetheless, organizations at campuses like UCLA have memberships in the hundreds. It is hard to remember a student coalition with as much determination within the last fifty years, or one that risked so much.
Last month, a national leader of student movements was detained on his way to a conference by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and imprisoned for several hours. He was released amid a massive outcry by political and community leaders, but he faces a deportation hearing soon. The incessant harassment of Civil Rights leaders by the FBI and police in the 1960s comes to mind.
On what grounds do people oppose the DREAM Act? These students did not choose to move to this country as small children; they are by all reasonable measure innocent of breaking the law to come here.
Other charges against them are as weak and tired as those that always float around in immigration debates: that these students ‘steal’ jobs, sap government resources. These attacks ignore how societally beneficial these students are, working towards university degrees and paying taxes.
The shallowness of these arguments hides an underlying worldview, a refusal to face the real significance of immigration documents. What are they, after all, but slips of paper or a few bytes in a government database, tying people to one nation or another; privileging some at birth, condemning others? Those who stand against these students no doubt cherish the privilege of American citizenship. In their minds, the great lottery of birth is not to be tampered with, lest someone gain access to unordained privilege.
In this view, it doesn’t matter whether these immigrants’ ‘home’ countries persecute based on ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation, or whether they’ve been wracked for years by civil war or even US militarism. To concede this would be to concede unfairness, an unfairness condoned—if not perpetrated—by the United States.
A true understanding of modern immigration demands no less than an expansion of our consciousness. We must acknowledge the violence not only of war but also those of poverty and persecution, violences that drive people to break the law, to enter our country. The DREAM Act asks, more modestly, that we see children as innocent in this strife.
A climate of high unemployment and a faltering economy is dangerous for most but toxic for the financially and legally vulnerable. Existence as an undocumented student is a precarious one. Now is not the time to scapegoat or to seek easy but meaningless blame. It is more than ever a time for temperance and self-education, a time to understand the biases of our institutions and eliminate them through socially just and reasonable policy.
Ryan Wong B’10 is a member of the Brown Immigrant Rights Coalition.