Growing up undocumented

At rallies, on college campuses and during open mic nights, young people are driving the push for immigration reform

Pamela Dominguez and her mother Patricia Carrera at the March for Immigrant Dignity and Respect, held at Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn on Saturday.
Jesse Hardman

With New York City mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio waiting to speak and an audience of a few thousand in Brooklyn's Cadman plaza waving signs and flags, dancing, and chanting "Si se puede," 23-year-old Pakistani immigrant Hina Naveed, a student from Staten Island, didn't miss her moment. She captured the identity and energy of the crowd in one quick phrase: "Being undocumented sucks!"

The nationwide March for Immigrant Dignity and Respect was the latest mobilization for comprehensive immigration reform. After a summer when the Senate passed immigration legislation only to see it voted down by the House, the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working in the United States are again pressing the issue, calling for an end to aggressive deportation measures and reunification for families split by immigration legislation. The movement is led these days by youth who identify as Dreamers — a nod to the 2010 Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (Dream) Act, which would have granted amnesty to many kids who came to the U.S. before their 16th birthday. Today, immigration-reform advocates are holding another march on the National Mall in Washington.

Standing toward the back of the surging Saturday-afternoon crowd, 20-year-old college student Pamela Dominguez put her arm around her mother, Patricia Carrera. Dominguez was decked out in colorful cardboard butterfly wings, an image adopted by some Dreamers to signify the monarch butterfly, an insect that has migration ingrained in its DNA. Carrera waved a small American flag, because she has decided, despite fear over her undocumented status, to follow her daughter's lead and press for immigration amnesty.

Near the front of the throng, tall, dreadlocked African-Colombian Jairo Andres Lerma was hard to miss as he raced around taking photos in the press gallery. He is a college student and a budding comedian and has been living alone in New York since his mother returned to Colombia a few years ago.

Hanging above the event stage was an enormous photo of Mehdi Mahraoui, who arrived in New York from Morocco when he was 7. He has become an undocumented-movement youth leader while his parents have been struggling through deportation hearings. They have told their now 23-year-old son to prepare to take care of his two younger sisters.

For Mahraoui, Lerma and Dominguez, Saturday's march was simply an extension of what it means to be a college kid these days. Their friends were at the rally, members of the organizations they belong to were all there, and many even persuaded their parents to take the day off work to join.

Making the road

Carrera, 49, took her daughter to Elmhurst, Queens, from Mexico City 17 years ago when she was only 3 years old. Carrera supported the family as a housekeeper and didn’t bring up her daughter’s immigration status until Dominguez realized what it meant not to have a Social Security number. "We were at the kitchen table," she says, "and I told her I couldn't apply for college and I couldn’t apply for financial aid." Dominguez says her mother explained that the family was undocumented but that she wanted her daughter to know she should feel equal to everyone else.

But Dominguez found that as she explored her post-high-school options, it became clear her situation was not equal to those of her citizen peers. She could apply to college, but because she did not have a Social Security number, she wouldn't qualify for the federal loans that would help her pay for it. She also knew there was no way to pay for college herself. No Social Security number meant no access to formal work, and she was facing the prospect of cleaning houses like her mother and getting paid under the table.

About a year ago Dominguez found her way to the Queens office of Make the Road New York, a nonprofit that focuses on working-class and Latino families around the city. The organization offers classes specifically for undocumented kids like Dominguez to learn about the parameters of their status and what kinds of options are available to them.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Dominguez and about 25 other college-age Latinos, most of them undocumented, sit in on a weekly workshop. As a video plays, a facilitator writes key words on the dry-erase board. The list includes references to congressional bills, civil disobedience, monarch butterflies and even Lou Dobbs, the former CNN host who created a following around the issue of border control.

Since beginning to frequent Make the Road, Dominguez says she’s found her voice on an issue that used to keep her quiet. "I'm not just doing it for me. I'm doing it for my mom, for my family, for my brother, for everybody."

One reason undocumented youth like Dominguez are sounding a little bolder these days is the slight reprieve she and others got from the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals legislation. DACA provides immigrants who are under the age of 31 and were brought to the U.S. before their 16th birthday the right to legally work for two years. But it's not just about the right to work. Before DACA, many undocumented teens avoided things like riding in cars, crossing state boundaries and socializing in public for fear of any kind of police run-ins. Dominguez is now taking a few community college classes, and thanks to her deferred status, she's applying for some real jobs. She says DACA has made many Dreamers feel they can come out of the shadows and express their hopes, dreams and immigration status without fear of being deported.

Dreamers clubs

Daniel Stageman is the director of research operations at John Jay College, part of the City University of New York system. Almost half the students at his school were born outside the United States. Stageman says it’s not surprising that John Jay students — a group that includes Dreamers Mahraoui and Lerma — are the ones leading the charge for immigration reform. "This in a lot of ways is the issue of our time," he says. "To frame it as a youth movement is exactly right. When you look at one of the major divisions between the older generation in this country and the younger generation, demographic divisions are huge."

Stageman is currently serving as a faculty adviser to the recently formed Dreamers club at John Jay College. The first president of this student organization is Mahraoui, a senior who is studying public administration. Mahraoui says about 30 students attended the initial meeting in September. "It was a very emotional session," he says. "One by one, people started coming out and saying, 'I'm undocumented too.'"

Mehdi Mahraoui
Nabil Rahman

Mahraoui makes sure undocumented students who join know their legal rights. If they haven’t already, he encourages them to sign up for DACA.

His own immigration status came to light in high school when his rowing-team coach pushed him to apply for college, not knowing his situation. "I received my acceptance letter, so that was one of the happiest moments of my life," he says. "But it was also one of the saddest and most painful. I couldn’t afford to go."

Disqualified from applying for student loans and unauthorized to get a legal job, Mahraoui had resigned himself to the idea that he would have to work off the books like his parents. "You grew up feeling ashamed of your status. You felt afraid. You’re not comfortable talking about it," he says. "Always the potential of being deported, no financial assistance, scholarships — here's all these barriers in the back of my mind."

His coach held fundraisers to help cover his first semester's tuition. Meanwhile, Mahraoui did some soliciting too. "In my spare time, I would go on the subway and ask people for money, say whatever I could," he says, "ask people for a dollar, a quarter, anything they could spare."

Mahraoui’s situation has changed dramatically in the last three years. He married his high school sweetheart, which qualified him for a green card. Now he’s fighting for his middle sister, who has deferred status but not citizenship, and his parents, who are trying to afford a lawyer to help with their deportation hearings. With his own immigration status resolved, he has taken on trying to keep his family together.


Jairo Lerma at an "Undocumic" night last month in Harlem
Willis Arnold

In the dark, crowded basement of the tiny Casa Azul bookstore in Harlem, some 50 college and high school students are putting on a kind of talent show. Undocumic is an occasional series that has been going on since 2011. It's managed by the New York State Youth Leadership Council, an organization run entirely by undocumented immigrants. This is the last performance for 2013, and the organizers are trying to pack music, dance and poetry, all related in one way or another to being undocumented, into an hour. About halfway through, Lerma takes the makeshift stage to try out his fledgling comedy material. He gets a few laughs for a narrative about the adventures of trying to get a credit card without any formal documents. "So the lady, she looks at me, she looks at my ID and looks at me again, and she goes, 'You know you're not supposed to be here.'"

A few kids in the audience nod in agreement when he talks about the frustrations of being a college kid but not being able to let loose and party. "It's not the fear of getting arrested," Lerma says. "It's the fear of being deported.” He nervously jumps through a few jokes that need work. He’s still a little unsure of his comedic timing. But it's a supportive crowd, and he recovers his footing as he ends on an activist note. "My idea is we are a majority LAB — majority Latinos, Asians and blacks. We are the new majority," he says. "I used to be 17 and crying and I'm alone. I'm not alone. We are the new America."

Lerma has statistics on his side. According to the most recent Census estimates, within five years, traditional racial minorities will make up more than half of children under the age of 18. Because of immigration patterns and the aging baby-boom generation, the United States is well on its way to being a majority minority country.

Grace Meng, a researcher for U.S. programs at Human Rights Watch, says whether it is through marches, workshops or protests, the undocumented movement is simply trying to point out what’s already happened — that the vast majority of Dreamers and their parents are paying taxes, studying, working hard and being good neighbors. "There's really something so American about the movement," she says. "To me, it's almost that they’re proving their point of how American they are, that they feel confident about the fact that they do have rights."

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