Documents, Identities and Institutions

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]

In the past year immigrant youth have radically changed the way we relate to our identities and society. We have gone from keeping our status to ourselves to asking for recognition as undocumented individuals, as members of society, in very public ways—ways that directly challenge the laws and institutions that are harming our communities. In the process, we have begun a dialogue with others in an attempt to solidify support not just as undocumented people, but as part of a shared community and world.


Growing up undocumented

Undocumented youth are, for the most part, like any other youth. Like our documented classmates, many of us have aspirations of going to college and studying abroad. We have dreams of helping our families. Many of us even think and dream in English. Yet at some point in our lives we come to realize that we are undocumented, and that we cannot escape this reality. Some realize when our parents tell us not to talk about our immigration status, because the authorities might take us away. Others realize in high school, when it’s time to get a driver’s license but we lack the necessary social security number. All too many realize it when our neighbors and our family members start to disappear because police or immigration apprehend them in their workplaces or stop them on the streets.


Reshaping our relationships to institutions

Once we realize we are undocumented, we are reminded every day by the media, law enforcement and other public institutions that we are not recognized as a part of this society; we are considered strangers and we do not have full rights. As undocumented people, we could choose to believe this. Or we can choose to take on the systems and institutions that deny the human rights of undocumented immigrants and that are hurting our society.

At a time when mainstream media, anti-immigrant groups, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) portray undocumented immigrants as criminals who are not part of our society, undocumented youth are using tactics that directly contradict these ideas and challenge the institutions that foster them. We are working to reshape the narrative by telling our own stories and in the process reshape the laws and institutions as well.

On March 10, 2010, 8 Chicago youth from the Immigrant Youth Justice League took an unprecedented step in the immigrant rights movement by declaring our names, our stories, and our lack of immigration status in Federal Plaza. [1] We formally invited President Obama, Senator Durbin, and Secretary of Homeland Security Napolitano to hear the declarations of undocumented people, whose voices have been left out of the larger immigration debate. As part of a national undocumented youth-led campaign we urged other undocumented youth to come out in private and in public in order to broaden the perceptions of who is an undocumented immigrant, to empower our communities to be unashamed, and to demand our rights as human beings and as part of society.

Following the March 10 action, we made phone calls to legislators, we organized to go to Washington, D.C. and we lobbied. But this was not enough—the May 1 deadline for immigration reform passed, the DREAM Act [2] was stalled in committee, ICE access programs were expanding and neither the President nor Congress were taking action.


In recent months undocumented youth have gone further by risking deportation in order to highlight the hypocrisy of a system that takes our money and our labor but does not recognize our humanity. On May 17, 2010, five immigrant youth, four of them undocumented, conducted a peaceful sit-in at Senator McCain’s Tucson office, urging him to co-sponsor the DREAM Act. Three of the youth are now in deportation proceedings.

On July 20, 2010, in Washington, D.C., 22 undocumented youth sat in at the offices of Democratic and Republican senators encouraging them to do more to pass DREAM. 21 of them were arrested and await trial in August.

We are willing to risk everything because every day could be the last one in this country for someone in our community. Every day ICE takes people from their workplaces, their homes, their schools and streets. ICE regularly seizes people who are in police custody before they are even proven guilty of any offense. We know the people being deported are not criminals. Studies confirm this fact. [3] The people being deported and called criminals are our parents, our neighbors, our local storeowners, and our classmates. We see them disappear every day. ICE does this in silence and we are challenging them to do it publicly. We will not hide any longer.


Creating alternatives

As we conduct our fight for recognition and inclusion in this society, we are also very aware of its shortcomings. The continued exclusion of undocumented people and other marginalized groups has shown us that the existing system leaves gaping holes between the needs of communities and the established programs and institutions.

Together with our allies, we are attempting to fill these gaps. We are working on a campaign, currently targeting 13 institutions in Illinois, to get universities to support the DREAM Act. We are helping to create scholarships and other resources for undocumented students. In another strategy, working outside mainstream institutions, undocumented youth have begun talking about creating a donation- and volunteer-based university for all youth to gain an education. Since our undocumented status creates a barrier to employment, we are working to create co-ops so we can hire ourselves. These are solutions and processes that require collaboration between undocumented communities and our allies. They are opportunities that stand to benefit not just undocumented people, but anyone who is having a hard time finding a job and going to school.

We are not only fighting for inclusion in this society. We are working to create a new society that we will help to shape from the beginning—a society that understands the importance of every person, documented or not.



1. To find an audio recording of the speeches go to “Undocumented & Unafraid: Chicago Coming Out Stories,” For more about the Immigrant Youth Justice League, go to


2. The DREAM Act is a bill that is currently in a committee in the Senate that would create a pathway to legalization for people under 35 who came to the country before the age of 15 and finish two years of college or the military amongst other requirements. Go to for more information and updates. For Chicago updates and actions, go to


3. Andrea Guttin’s “The Criminal Alien Program: Immigration Enforcement in Travis County, Texas” examines statistics on who is being targeted for removal proceedings in ICE Access Programs. More than half are people not convicted but accused of minor traffic violations, misdemeanors, and other non-dangerous crimes. See:


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