Living in the Shadows

Their hopes of immigration reform repeatedly unfulfilled, undocumented students endure an effectively unforeseeable future.

GARY L. NORRIS and Maria Y. Xia

"Silence means that I do not exist. I walked for four years in and out of classrooms; I do not exist. I finished my expository writing papers; I do not exist. I received my Harvard diploma this past June; I do not exist.”

Michael, an undocumented Harvard freshman who asked that his real name not be disclosed because of his unauthorized immigration status, stood among the crowd, listening to those words. About 30 people had gathered around the John Harvard statue on a cold March afternoon to listen to these narratives—read aloud by Harvard students, written by their unnamed, undocumented peers—as part of a National Coming Out Day for undocumented youth. Michael’s story was not there.

He is one of over three million undocumented youth in the U.S. under the age of 24, many of whom were brought here by their families as children. The event’s sponsors, Harvard College Act On A Dream and the Massachusetts Student Immigrant Movement, are part of a broader movement for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act—better known as The DREAM Act—which promises a conditional path to legal residence for undocumented high school graduates who serve at least two years in the military or complete two years of higher education.

“I have spent the last 15 years of my life in prison, and I am only 23 years old,” another narrative read. “In the last 15 years of my life, I have forgotten what freedom means.”

One by one, the narratives spoke of frustration, accomplishment, hope, and disillusionment. It all resonated with Michael, but he could not contribute.

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Kyle A. de Beausset ’08-’11, a member of Act On A Dream and a Crimson editorial writer, gave the next speaker a special introduction. “I gave him every opportunity to back out of this,” he said, as an undocumented Harvard student stepped up to the statue to tell his own story.

As the student recounted his efforts to contribute to American society—“I pledged the Pledge of Allegiance, I did it all”—Michael could also relate, but he still did not speak up. And when seven other students in the crowd raised their hands as fellow undocumented students, Michael did not raise his.

Michael’s family came to the U.S. just before he started middle school. “When my parents told me, I had no conceptualization of what it entailed because I was so young,” recalls Michael. “As a kid you look for somebody to be responsible for you. But if you’re here as an undocumented student...in a way, you’re left as an orphan because your parents can’t protect you. For me, this was the most painful part; it’s really heartbreaking.”

But Michael says he never felt the desire to share his situation with his peers. In fact, he has not told a single student on campus since coming to Harvard.

“By telling anyone, it separates you,” he says. “You end up having a double life, but it’s hard not to. You want to live as normally as possible.”

“But then,” he adds, “to what extent is trying to be normal an illusion?”

DREAMING BIG

Around the country, student advocacy for immigration reform has recently adopted this practice of “coming out,” of putting a face on the cause. In Chicago, eight undocumented students spoke at a rally that drew a crowd of 1,000 people on the same day as Harvard’s event, and cities from Los Angeles to Orlando followed with rallies of their own. In Florida, four undocumented and formerly undocumented students began a 1,500-mile walk on New Year’s Day. They planned to go from Miami to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness about the DREAM Act and their situation. Their “Trail of Dreams” campaign has attracted supporters as well as opponents, including an encounter with the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia.

Of course, most undocumented students keep their status quiet for fear of deportation or the stigma attached to being illegal. But as the wait for immigration reform continues and the obstacles to a normal life become more apparent, more are pushing their fears aside and speaking out.

Juan, an undocumented college student who asked that his last name not be disclosed, is the director of communications for dreamactivist.org, a group that connects reform advocates around the country. Although Juan recognizes that speaking out is a risky decision that may not be right for everyone, he also believes that undocumented students need to take their futures into their own hands.

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