Coming out of the shadows: undocumented youth, art and activism in the USA

By Ala Sirriyeh

‘I don’t know if you saw that original movie, X Men, in the early 2000s? There is a scene where the character Rogue makes out with her boyfriend then, all of a sudden, her boyfriend passes out because she realises when she touches people they literally all die and that’s her mutant power. And Rogue felt so alone when she had this feature about her. She didn’t know there were other mutants until she met this other person who ran away, named Logan. Then Logan and her end up being at Professor X’s University for the Gifted or something like that. They realise there are all these other freaks, mutants, me. I feel like that was my journey and being part of the immigrant rights, or like human rights, organising in Los Angeles.’ (Set, April 2017)

Set is one of approximately 2.2 million undocumented children and young people who arrived in the US as minors. Since the 1982 Plyer vs. Doe Supreme Court ruling barring their exclusion from public schools, they have had the right to attend school alongside their US citizen peers. However, when they graduated high school, they found themselves ‘awakening to a nightmare’ because as undocumented immigrants they did not have a social security number which meant that they could not work legally or access most student loan options. In 2001, immigrant rights organisations began campaigning for the federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act to provide a pathway to citizenship for many undocumented young people. This campaign continued throughout the 2000s, becoming more youth-led and autonomous and providing an important source of support and community for young people like Set. Despite repeated attempts during the 2000s, the act did not pass into legislation. However, in 2012 President Obama signed an administrative order called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) which gave eligible undocumented young people a two-year renewable stay of deportation and a social security number. Since the 2000s, the undocumented youth movement has continued to grow with some changes to their campaign priorities and messaging. The movement has been in the media spotlights once again following the targeting of the undocumented population by the Trump administration and their attempts to end DACA.

At the Sociological Review’s Undisciplining conference in June 2018, I screened four short films by three undocumented young organisers and filmmakers (Ju Hong, Set Hernandez Rongkilyo; Claudia Luz Suarez) who I had met in California during my research there in 2017. This was alongside an exhibition of artwork by Bo Thai, an undocumented young organizer and artist (also from California) who joined us for a conversation via Skype at the end of the film screening. Each of the contributions explored what it is like to live life in the US as a young undocumented person. While the dominant image of these young people has been that of the undocumented college bound ‘all American’ ‘Dreamer’, the films and artwork in this panel highlighted the heterogeneity of the undocumented population.

From the outset, storytelling has played a pivotal role in the movement’s campaign strategy because of its power in engaging people’s emotions. In 2010, the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL), an autonomous, youth-led immigrant rights group in Chicago held the first ‘Coming Out of the Shadows’ event. Drawing inspiration from the LGBTQ practice of ‘coming out’, they publicly declared themselves to be undocumented and told their stories in public. This practice spread across the movement.

Bo Thai exhibited four pieces of art at Undisciplining. These are from his ‘(B) C(o)nscious – an immigrant journey’ exhibition which is a visual story of an undocumented Thai immigrant living in the U.S. through the 2016 election. Bo has lived in California since he migrated from Thailand at the age of 13 in 2009. In addition to advocating for immigrant rights, Bo writes poetry and creates art work through the power of the pen. In his early years of involvement in the immigrant rights movement, Bo became used to telling his story at campaign events and in the media. However, in the last couple of years he has decided to focus on storytelling through art. Bo uses his art as a healing process by expressing his emotions, ideology, identity, and stories. He is inspired by surrealism, graffiti, Thai art, and cultural folk art.

In her film, Metamorphosis, Claudia Luz Suarez powerfully describes what it is like to grow up as an undocumented child in the US. Through home videos and poetry Metamorphosis tells the story of Claudia’s transformation into an ‘alien’. Claudia is a Salvadoran filmmaker and organizer from East Oakland. She is one of the co-founders of East Oakland Dreamers. Through her films she tells stories about her beloved neighbourhood of East Oakland and the lives and struggles of its inhabitants. Through her work as organizer and filmmaker she has challenged the exclusionary ‘Dreamer’ narrative that has further marginalized much of the undocumented community who are not young and/or college bound. The second of her films screened at Undisciplining is titled ‘Where is my education?’ This film tells the story of students at a predominantly Black and Latino Oakland high school who discover that their school is unaccredited, thus jeopardizing their opportunities to apply to college. The students and parents launch a campaign to get the school accredited.

In recent years, undocumented young activists have sought to address critiques of the narrow focus of their early campaigns on the ‘deserving’ college-bound ‘Dreamer’. Set Hernandez Rongkilyo’s film ‘The story of self’ draws on Set’s family photographs and, like Metamorphosis, reminds us that while the plight of undocumented youth has often been in the spotlight, their fate and wellbeing is intimately bound with that of their parents and wider family. Set is a filmmaker and organizer who was born in the Philippines. Their work has been televised and featured in film festivals across the U.S. Set continues to work at the intersection of filmmaking and social justice organizing by uplifting the narratives of immigrants and communities of color through the stories they tell.

The final film in the collection is Halmoni, directed by Anna Oh and starring Ju Hong. Ju was born in South Korea and emigrated with his mother and older sister in 2001 to seek a better life in the US. When he couldn’t locate his social security number for his college applications, he found out that he was undocumented and living without legal status. He has been active in the undocumented youth movement for several years. In 2013, he interrupted President Obama to urge for a halt to deportations of millions of undocumented immigrant families. One of the major successes of the undocumented youth movement was the signing of the DACA administrative order in 2012. Having attained DACA status, Ju was permitted to travel briefly to South Korea to visit his grandmother who had raised him as a child. Halmoni (grandmother) tells the story of Ju’s visit and is available to watch here:

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HALMONI (Short Documentary) from Anna Oh on Vimeo.

Ala Sirriyeh is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Liverpool. Her research centres on migration, young people and activism. Her recent Leverhulme Research Fellowship explored young activists’ pathways through activism in the undocumented youth movement in the US and how this shaped, and was shaped by, their understandings and experiences of citizenship.

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