‘Coming Out of the Shadows’ Can Make Undocumented Immigrants Feel Safer

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Analysis Human Rights

‘Coming Out of the Shadows’ Can Make Undocumented Immigrants Feel Safer

Tina Vasquez

The month-long Coming Out of the Shadows effort in March seeks to make the presence of undocumented people felt wherever they live.

Like many asylum seekers who find themselves with no protections from exploitation, detainment, or deportation, Rebeca Alfaro, a 28-year-old mother of two young girls, felt instinctively she couldn’t discuss her undocumented status with anyone when she arrived in the United States. It was unsafe, she thought, and would likely put her in danger of being picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“When I first got here, I was very frightened and I didn’t want to tell anyone about [my citizenship status],” Alfaro said. “I was frightened for myself, but I knew I had to earn a living to take care of my children who were still living in El Salvador. Now that my children are here, I’m frightened for them. I have decided to speak out because I want to find a solution that allows us to stay here together.”

Rather than silencing her, being “out” about her undocumented status has emboldened her to speak up and connect with other undocumented people where she lives in Boston.

Many migrants currently in the United States believe it’s best to keep their status as undocumented hidden—and for good reason. Fears around detainment and deportation are not unfounded: Every day there are stories about ICE showing up without warrants at immigrants’ homes, while they are on their way to school, or in their place of worship. But being “out” about your undocumented status and connecting with a larger community of undocumented people can actually make you feel safer, said Yessica Gonzalez, an organizer with the Immigrant Youth Coalition (IYC), an organization run by immigrant youth that fights for the rights of undocumented immigrants.

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“I think it’s also really instrumental to ‘come out of the shadows’ because for a really long time, there was a lot of people speaking on behalf of undocumented people. It’s really important to say, ‘Hey, I’m undocumented and I have my own agency to speak up,'” Gonzalez told Rewire.

Gonzalez’s organization is one of the many groups behind March’s Coming Out of the Shadows (COOTS) effort, which is designed to encourage undocumented immigrants who, like Alfaro, were afraid to make their status known. As IYC’s site says, it’s an effort to make the presence of undocumented people felt wherever they live.

Alfaro’s reasons for leaving El Salvador are the same as those of the many women and children fleeing what’s referred to as the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—a region experiencing extreme poverty and dramatic increases in gang-related violence.

El Salvador recently saw a 70 percent spike in violent deaths, and matters weren’t any better before Alfaro fled in 2009. It was actually the murder of her husband and her mother that led her to make the difficult decision to leave her daughters behind in order to build a life in the United States and send for them when she’d found some stability.

“There is generalized violence and gang violence everywhere in El Salvador, but my husband knew these [gangs] were bad people. He spoke out against them because he knew they were killing people in the neighborhood and he wanted to speak out because he wanted the killings to end,” Alfaro said. “He was targeted [by gangs] because he spoke up against them. The reason why I became targeted is because I spoke out against those who killed my husband and had them put in jail.”

Alfaro had heard all of the horror stories about what happens to women as they make the journey to the United States from Northern Triangle countries. After interviewing directors of migrant shelters, Fusion reported that 80 percent of Central American girls and women crossing Mexico en route to the United States are raped along the way. Women like Alfaro anticipate rape, so they seek out contraceptives before making the journey.

“I knew what was facing me. I heard many stories. I heard stories about women being raped, stories about if you fell asleep [other migrants] would rape you, stories about women who became pregnant as a result of rape,” she told Rewire.

Alfaro was able to obtain a birth control injection before leaving, something she later learned was a very common practice.

“In clinics, they’re helping women get birth control and everybody knows that’s what they’re doing. You go and you say, ‘I’m going to be traveling,’ and they give you the injection,” Alfaro said. There have been reports of women getting Depo-Provera shots before migrating: A 2013 study from the Organization of American States reported that among migrants, Depo-Provera “is known as the ‘anti-Mexico’ shot.”

It is details such as these that Alfaro would have never dreamed of sharing seven years ago, but when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began prioritizing Central American asylum seekers for deportation in a series of ongoing raids criticized by advocates as unconstitutional, Alfaro feared that her daughters would be deported back to El Salvador where they faced probable death.

Alfaro now sees herself as an unlikely activist, publicly petitioning President Obama to provide temporary protected status (TPS) to those fleeing violence in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. According to U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS), DHS “may designate a foreign country for TPS due to conditions in the country that temporarily prevent the country’s nationals from returning safely” and “USCIS may grant TPS to eligible nationals of certain countries (or parts of countries) who are already in the United States.”

“I didn’t think about U.S. immigration policies [before coming]; I was only thinking about how I was going to save my life getting out of El Salvador,” Alfaro told Rewire.

The mother of two is now a member of Centro Presente, which Alfaro described as an immigrant rights organization created by migrants for migrants. Being open about her status, sharing the details of her story, and connecting to an undocumented organization has made Alfaro feel the safest she’s ever felt in the United States, despite still having no institutional protections. While she continues to fear being separated from her daughters, Alfaro told Rewire that she feels safer because of the support of Centro Presente and the other undocumented people with whom she has connected.

Organizer Tania Unzueta co-created COOTS in 2010. Initially a day-long event in Chicago, COOTS expanded into a month-long, nationwide campaign with “coming out” events in cities all over the country.

Jonathan Perez, also an organizer with IYC, asserted that coming out does make you safer.

“The fear is understandable because there are consequences, but it can be powerful,” he said. “Whether you say it or not, if you are undocumented, you’re going to get treated like an undocumented person anyway. ICE can come for you or your family whenever they want, but we can’t live in constant fear of those things. If you’re undocumented and you don’t tell anyone and something happens to you, you don’t have a support network. If you’re undocumented and you’ve come out and connected to a support network, there are people who can mobilize around you if something happens.”

Despite the obvious benefits of having a support system in place that could help halt your deportation by bringing attention to your case or creating a petition on your behalf, for example, Perez takes issue with the framing of COOTS as merely a matter of stopping deportations. For him, it’s about more than that.

“It’s just liberating to not have to hide this big part of yourself—and it extends beyond being undocumented. I think a lot of people have all of these other identities, that are parallel to the closet. I always knew I was undocumented and coming out of the shadows really took the edge off coming out publicly as queer. It felt similar and really it’s about not being ashamed of your identities,” he told Rewire.

Gonzalez also spoke about the mental health component associated with coming out.

“When you’re in the shadows and you’re afraid, it’s paralyzing. It stops you from doing many things, even from seeking support,” Gonzalez said. “There is an impact on your mental health. There are very specific things we [undocumented people] go through, like family separation, fear of law enforcement, societal pressures to be model minority, et cetera. Coming out doesn’t fix all of that, but it takes away some of the secrecy and fear around those things.”

The support COOTS participants have received has been surprising, even to those undocumented folks receiving the support. From full ride scholarships for college to job offers, Perez said that there can be consequences of unexpected kindness and encouragement to coming out.

“One of the biggest benefits is that people are willing to help by providing jobs,” Perez said. “Even in the nonprofit world, if we didn’t come out of the shadows, we would never be able to find steady employment. If we didn’t apply for these jobs and push for organizations to hire qualified undocumented people who have something to contribute, we would be in a very different place.”

For those afraid or unwilling to come out, there is no judgment, Perez said, only support. The organizer told Rewire that many become involved in COOTS events because they never imagined that they could wear an “undocumented and unafraid” t-shirt publicly, while others “have spent years nonchalantly saying ‘I ain’t got papers’ and are just grateful to finally have a community to connect with.”

“Being loud isn’t for everyone,” Perez said. “In their own ways, our parents come out every day based on what kind of jobs they have to work. If they’re day laborers, standing on the corner waiting for work, that’s coming out of the shadows. These kind of campaigns just get more attention, and Coming Out of the Shadows month really just draws on a long-standing tradition in many of our cultures, which is sharing stories. At the end of the day we do this because it’s fun and can be a powerful experience for a lot of people.”