Living in the Shadows

"Silence means that I do not exist. I walked for four years in and out of classrooms; I do not exist."
By Elizabeth C. Pezza

"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.

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 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?”


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, 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.

According to Juan, the open advocacy is a powerful tool clarifying misconceptions about the undocumented student experience. He recalled a recent rally in South Carolina where undocumented students were confronted by an angry crowd member, yelling at them for being illegal and telling them to return to their countries. He reported that by the end of the rally this audience member was hugging the students after having heard their personal stories.

Relative to more comprehensive immigration reform, the DREAM Act already has a broad support base because it targets a specific population and requires that beneficiaries contribute to society, either through military service or higher education. Many scholars also agree on the economic importance of the bill.

A 1982 Supreme Court decision requires that students have access to a primary and secondary education regardless of their immigration status, but there are no similar measures regarding higher education. Edward Schumacher-Matos, who directs the Harvard Inter-Faculty Initiative on Immigration and Integration Policy and Studies, believes the primary reason to pass the DREAM Act is that it is in the country’s best interest.

“We have invested so much in training and educating this group of young people,” he says. “If they’re good enough and have responded enough to be able to get to go to college, then we as a country need these people and should want these people.”

While many undocumented students may have day-to-day experiences similar to those of their documented peers, the fundamentally restricted structure of their opportunities becomes clear when it comes to certain milestones: 16th birthdays do not mean driver’s licenses, and high school graduations do not open the doors to college or a job.

“Every year, there are more and more students who are kind of filtered into this pathless existence,” says Melissa Tran ’10, current president of Harvard College Act On A Dream, in reference to the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate high school each year.

Because they are guaranteed a K-12 education, the first major limitation that most undocumented students face comes when they look ahead to college. Although there is no federal law barring universities and colleges from accepting undocumented applicants, these students are ineligible for federal financial aid, and most private aid and scholarships are restricted to legal residents.

Eleven states currently offer in-state tuition for undocumented students, who often still struggle to pay these lower rates. Many students work on the side to put themselves through community college, often only able to take a few credits at time.

A select few are able to defer the limitations of an undocumented future when they are accepted at schools like Harvard. In its efforts to recruit the best students from the nation and the world, Harvard is one of very few universities with the financial resources to offer merit-based, need-blind admissions standards for all students, including those ineligible for federal financial aid.

Michael realized a school like Harvard was his only chance.  Though his parents were excited about his acceptance into some prestigious public universities, Michael could not bring himself to share their joy.  “I think they were seeing [my acceptance] as a milestone, and I saw it as a missed opportunity,”  he says.  He had seen the struggles of older undocumented youth as they took time off from school to work to pay for college or went into deep debt, and knew he did not want to follow this path.

Michael continued to wait to hear from the private schools who would be able to offer him financial aid—his list included Columbia, Swarthmore, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton—knowing that admission was unlikely, even for those without legal issues.

“When I was accepted [to Harvard] it was all that much more rewarding,” he recalls. “And all that much more enraging, because there are so few people who make it.”


Schumacher-Matos was himself an undocumented immigrant at one point, but he never faced the roadblocks that characterize the experience of today’s undocumented youth.

He came to the United States from Colombia with his mother, who became naturalized after marrying an American citizen. Legally, Schumacher-Matos was required to also declare himself when he was 14, but did not know at the time.

It was only at the age of 21, when he tried to join the military during the Vietnam War, that officials informed him of his illegal status for the past seven years.

Up until that point, Schumacher-Matos had not faced any problems—he attended college at Vanderbilt and even had a U.S. passport. “These things weren’t major issues back then, and nobody paid so much attention, so I just slipped through the system,” he says.

Schumacher-Matos quickly pled his case in front of a judge and was sworn in as a U.S. citizen within a week. “It was so obvious,”  Schumacher-Matos says. “Here’s a case where the judge saw that the country had put a tremendous investment in me all my life and that I was by all intents and purposes an American kid, and all I needed was this stupid piece of paper, and he gave it to me.”

Much of the current intensity over unauthorized immigration goes back to the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which made it illegal for employers to hire or recruit undocumented immigrants, while also granting amnesty to immigrants who had come to the U.S. before 1982 and resided here continuously since that point. The law was largely ineffective at decreasing unauthorized immigration, the undocumented population continued to rise, and the resulting widespread backlash against immigration persists to this day.

The DREAM Act has become tangled in this politicized debate, despite a solid base of bipartisan support. “The real political issue is that both sides are using the DREAM Act to hold the other side hostage,” Schumacher-Matos says. Proponents of more progressive immigration policies want to leverage the bill’s bipartisan support to pull through comprehensive reform, while their opponents will support the DREAM Act only in exchange for stricter enforcement. There are also those who reject amnesty in any form.

Due to the tensions surrounding immigration policy, students advocating for the DREAM Act have found themselves performing a balancing act.

In March of 2008, Scott M. Elfenbein ’11 led a group of students to found Harvard College Act on a Dream, which strives to raise awareness and push immigration reform forward. But since then, the club has had to reassess and redirect its initiatives multiple times.

Tran recalls that one of the club’s first initiatives was to prompt Harvard to advertise itself as a “sanctuary university”, modeled after sanctuary cities. There are more than 30 of these cities around the country, which openly publicize practices that refrain from inquiring about immigration status. Act On A Dream reached out to Harvard University Police Department and the admissions office, but faced some resistance. They backed off amidst worries that pushing too hard on HUPD would draw negative attention to undocumented students.

“We wanted the undocumented students to still feel safe, so in creating this safe space we didn’t want to unintentionally make them feel unsafe,” Tran says.

The group faced a similar situation last spring, when it began lobbying for President Drew G. Faust to show her support for the DREAM Act. “People got a little scared that we were pushing her too hard and undocumented youth started pushing back against us,” says de Beausset. “They didn’t want to push her so hard that Harvard would stop accepting undocumented students, so we kind of stopped agitating.”

But Faust ended up publicly endorsing the DREAM Act in a letter to federal lawmakers last spring, a step that was in line with support from the Association of American Universities and The College Board, and has since been replicated with support from presidents at other schools, including the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford.

“What influenced my decision was a meeting I had with students whose lives were so deeply affected by their inability to be full citizens and participants in American society,” Faust says. “It seemed like such a terrible betrayal of human potential and such an unfair burden for these young people to carry for no fault of their own, and so I felt very moved by that experience.”


Higher education at places like Harvard offers a temporary respite from the undocumented life in the outside world. “This was in so many ways the closest I’ve ever been to freedom, to be at Harvard,” says Mariana, an undocumented student who graduated last year and asked that her real name not be disclosed. Mariana came here when she was eight years old from Mexico; her mother was sick, and they could not find the care she needed in their home country.

But even though Mariana says she cannot imagine Harvard having done any more for her, it could not provide a shield from all the difficulties of life as an undocumented student. Mariana knew that she would never be able to study abroad or get a term-time job, and while her peers were stressed about finding summer internships, most of them were not even options for her. “I was so bummed out to be here,” recalls Mariana of her first semester. “You can see what’s possible, but you know that you’ll never be able to do it. It takes a lot of effort to get rid of that idea and try to work for something.”

Eventually, Mariana convinced herself that she could only take advantage of the opportunities she had now, even if the future remained uncertain.

“I think that most [undocumented] students are fine throughout their undergraduate years. It’s fairly easy to do as much as you can and you have learned to be satisfied with the things you can do,” Mariana says, reflecting on her time with organizations including Women in Business and The Crimson. “When you’re about to graduate, that’s when the anxiety comes back.”

For Laura Jaramillo ’10-’11, this anxiety came sooner. Jaramillo’s family left Colombia when she was 12 years old. As an employee of a national telephone company, her father worked to cut off the communications of imprisoned officers of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. He began receiving phone threats from the rebel group. They heard of people they knew getting kidnapped. The family fled to the U.S. to apply for political asylum, a process that was drawn out over eight years.

During this time, Jaramillo had gone to high school, applied to college, and spent two years at Harvard.  Finally, during her sophomore spring, Jaramillo’s family had their final court hearing. Their case was denied.

The judge recognized the difficult situation her family was in, but explained that the qualifications for asylum were strict and he did not see their particular situation as a perfect fit. The family was issued an order of withdrawal and given 60 days to leave the country. “It felt like my life was crumbling around me,” Jaramillo says.

But she knew that staying at Harvard as an undocumented student was something she simply could not do, both on principle and because of the dangers and limitations that accompany an undocumented life. “Even though I would be fine as far as Harvard, I would have no way of becoming legal later,” she says. “I would graduate and I would have this pretty, shiny Harvard degree and no way to get a job, so it was kind of pointless.”

Jaramillo’s only legal option to complete her Harvard education was to go back to Colombia and apply for a student visa. Even though Jaramillo was uncertain about her chances of obtaining such a visa—it would be difficult to prove the required intent to return to her home country after having done most of her growing up in the U.S.—it was worth the risk.

“Being undocumented is a life of constant fear,” she says. “It’s a life of uncertainty all the time, and it’s a life of no future.”

Jaramillo took a leave of absence, returned to Colombia, and secured her return as an international student. Because of this experience, Jaramillo sypathizes with those students who unlike her did not have a choice in their immigration status. “You can’t punish children for the sins of their fathers,” she says. “In any other circumstance that would seem so absurd, to make someone pay with their entire life.”


For those students who know that a Harvard degree will not allow them the same opportunities as their peers, other sources of motivation are necessary.

“There’s something empowering about working hard for the sake of working,” Michael says. “You’re contributing to the cause by not giving in to the idea that because you are victim of circumstance you have to remain that way.”

Nonetheless, Michael is frustrated that his hard work is not recognized. “I’ve dedicated a lot to this country by wanting to stay here, being upheld as a product of the education system, as an ideal image of what America can do for someone,” he says, knowing he will not ultimately receive the full benefits America can provide. “I’m starting to feel forced to speak up in whatever way I can.”

But for now, he does not speak up; he has his family to protect, and he does not want to jeopardize his Harvard education. He is stuck in limbo. “It’s hard to think of any other group that can’t advocate for itself,” he says. “You don’t really have the option, and if you do, you put yourself in danger.”

To many, this inherent danger makes speaking out look like a simple bad decision.

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” says Schumacher-Matos. “Once upon a time I would have, but not in the current political climate.”

But Isabel, an undocumented Boston-area student who asked that her last name not be disclosed, spoke at multiple events hosted by Act On A Dream last month. She has found speaking out to be an empowering form of advocacy.

“If I get deported today, I’m fine with it. You know why? Because I fought for it,” she announced at an event last Friday. “If any of you guys are going through this, don’t be scared. I’m undocumented. I’ll say it 20,000 times if I have to. Don’t be in the shadows because that’s the worst thing you can do.”

For many Harvard students, once graduation looms, their concerns about speaking out also begin to give way. “The students who are more willing to be vocal are the ones that have graduated and are really experiencing what it means to be undocumented in the real world, not Harvard’s safe place,” Mariana says.

Mariana had never told any of her friends at Harvard about her situation until she was a senior. Since then, she has told 10 or 20 friends, and she has begun reaching out to as many undocumented students on campus as she can.

In looking toward the future, there are only two real pieces of advice that people can give Mariana: get married or move back to Mexico. “I don’t know the place at all,” she says. Mariana also cannot leave her family behind, knowing that her mother is still sick. And as far as marriage: “I’ve been proposed to more times than I care to get married,” she says, remembering the offers of friends she has told about her situation.

Mariana says she would rather be a sacrificial lamb than take the easy way out through a marriage of convenience. “I wouldn’t feel right about fixing something that’s wrong by doing something that’s wrong,” she says.

Beyond that, Mariana has been inspired by the undocumented students she has met at Harvard, and she feels compelled to pave the way for students like them, no matter the risks. “I can handle prison just fine. I can find a way to be okay. Whatever comes, that’s fine, I’ll figure it out,” she says.

Mariana has spent the past ten months since graduation preparing to apply for medical school. “It may not be the smartest thing, but I can’t just sit here and do nothing,” she says.

And she is confident about her potential as a legal resident. “Once I get those nine digits, I will be unstoppable,” she says. “I will shake things up.”

But right now, it’s a waiting game. And if nothing changes, she will at least be satisfied knowing she has done something meaningful. Ultimately, that may mean becoming more vocal than she has been.

“There comes a point,” she says, “when you have nothing to lose and a life to gain.”

—Elias J. Groll contributed to the reporting of this story.