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Jose Antonio Vargas (R) outside the U.S. Supreme Court during a rally on April 18, 2016.

Undocumented, Unafraid: Immigrants Find Power Revealing Themselves Online

 

 

Uriel Casas was 21 the first time he considered suicide.

It had been four years since he’d graduated from high school with hopes of attending a four-year college. But year after year, at school after school, his applications were rejected. Four years on, just as his high school friends were preparing to graduate from college, their whole lives seemingly ahead of them, Casas was languishing.

“They were like, ‘But you were such a good student in high school,’” Casas remembers his friends saying.

The truth was, Casas knew why he couldn’t get into school, but he also knew he couldn’t tell his friends. To tell anyone the truth—that he was an undocumented immigrant, a secret he kept for 13 long years—was to risk being taken away from his family, his friends, and the only home he’d known since his parents brought him to the United States from Mexico when he was 8.

“I got really sad and depressed,” he says. “You stop thinking of yourself as a human being, and you start thinking of yourself as a number.”

The second time Casas considered suicide was last February after a Texas court blocked President Obama’s expansion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Obama’s executive order would have allowed people like Casas who came to the US as children to get a work permit and exemption from deportation. Casas was now 35, and thanks to the kindness of one admissions officer, he had eventually received a bachelor’s degree and MBA from the University of Maryland. Still, without a work permit, the only job Casas could find, even with his degrees, was as a personal trainer. DACA, he believed, would be his ticket to the career he’d worked so long and hard for.

“Once DACA got shut down I was like, ‘I’m out of options. There’s nothing left,” Casas says. Then he realized there was one option: He could come out. He could tell his story.

It was risky, Casas knew, but it wasn’t unheard of. Starting in 2010, an intrepid group of young undocumented immigrants in Chicago launched the Coming Out of the Shadows campaign. They uploaded videos to YouTube, telling the world that they were undocumented. Since then, thousands more videos have landed on YouTube. Undocumented people have created page after page on Facebook. They’ve used the hashtag #UndocumentedandUnafraid to band together and share their stories on Twitter. And advocacy groups like Define American have sprouted up with the explicit purpose of getting undocumented people and their allies to reshape their own narrative using the tools of the Internet.

Casas decided it was time to join this movement. So he reached out to Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist and founder of Define American. Vargas came out as undocumented in the pages of The New York Times Magazine in 2011 and in the process became perhaps the most public face of the undocumented community.

Like Casas, Vargas knows all too well what it’s like to carry the weight of isolation for so long. He had never even met another undocumented person his age until he was 28.

“I found out I was undocumented in 1997, and it was like, you couldn’t Google it,” Vargas says. “There was no social networking to be done. So it just goes inside of you. You internalize it. It eats you up and grows into this kind of tumor in a way.”

It’s no wonder, then, that mounting research is finding that undocumented youths and the children of undocumented immigrants often suffer, like Casas, with anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

But the connective powers—and relative anonymity—of the Internet are starting to break down these walls of secrecy, finally enabling undocumented people to find each other and remind each other that they’re not as alone as they think they are. “I would argue this is the first civil rights movement that has grown up in social media,” says Vargas, who launched Define American’s Coming Out campaign last summer.

Telling the World

Just as important as telling these stories to one another is sharing these stories with the world, say members of the coming-out movement. That’s particularly true in an election cycle in which presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has tried to cast undocumented immigrants as a blight on the country. Trump has famously promised to deport the estimated 11.2 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the US, a threat one might expect would dissuade people like Casas from coming out. Instead, he says, it’s motivated him.

“I thought, what if I told the world: ‘Hey America, this is what an undocumented immigrant looks like, and by the way, we’re not rapists,’” Casas says. “I’m at a point in my life where it’s like, help me or deport me. Don’t leave me in limbo.”

Casas isn’t the only one who’s been compelled to speak out in the era of Trump. Thomas Kim, a law student at Arizona State University, also recently reached out to Define American to discuss how he could safely come out. “The conversation about immigration got more hostile and more harsh,” Kim says. “I wanted to break the stereotypes that undocumented students are lazy, and they don’t speak English.”

On a surface level, it seems, people like Casas, Vargas, and Kim are putting themselves at risk. And yet many have found that by speaking out, they become part of a network that can protect them in the long run. “It’s sort of like a safety network,” says Erika Andiola, an undocumented immigrant who came to the US from Mexico when she was 11. Andiola began working as an immigrant rights organizer in 2008, after Arizona passed a law that banned undocumented immigrants from receiving in-state tuition.

By 2013, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers raided her home in Arizona, taking her mother and brother with them, Andiola’s online network was already vast. “My first reaction was: ‘I’m going to put it on YouTube and let people know,’” Andiola remembers. “These types of things happen everyday. Raids. Deportations, but nobody talks about it.”

The Power of Sharing

The video, which features a sobbing Andiola moments after the raid, received 60,000 views within 12 hours. It included a phone number for ICE that people could call to demand Andiola’s family be returned to Arizona. And it worked.

The following day, her family members were released, and Andiola wrote the following message on Facebook: “My mom was on [her] way to Mexico. She said the driver turned around when she received a call. She was really confused, than they told her that the reason why she was returning was because her daughter was mobilizing the whole country to get her to come back. The reality is, you all made it happen!”

Now, as Bernie Sanders’ national press secretary for Latino outreach, Andiola regularly tells that story in front of crowds of thousands.

Of course, not everyone’s coming out story has a happy ending. Last November, in an essay published in The Huffington Post, Casas told the world he was undocumented. The next day, he wrote a lengthy Facebook post about it and later went on to upload a video of himself telling his story on YouTube. But while these messages make Casas appear defiant, he says, “my life has gotten so much harder.”

Over the last year, Casas, who is still a personal trainer, says exposing his legal status has cost him income, several clients, and a few friendships. There were the anonymous attacks, too. “No matter how prepared you are, when you read people calling you an invader, it hurts,” he says.

And yet, Casas says he doesn’t regret his decision to come out. “Sharing my story and hearing how people felt about me, I gained the most incredible gift I could imagine,” he says.

Recently, he’s begun volunteering with undocumented kids in his area, because he says, “I would have killed to know someone like me when I was 18.”

Still, he says there are plenty of days he considers getting in his car, driving to the border, and self-deporting. But there’s one thing that stops him, he says: “I know these kids are watching me.”

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