August 12, 2016
A Local DREAMer: My Immigration Status Isn’t Something I Should Hide
Among the politicized conversations on immigration filling the airwaves this election cycle are the stories of undocumented immigrants that have been able to reach a wider audience than ever before.
Most recently, undocumented speakers were featured at the Democratic National Convention, including “DREAMer” Astrid Silva and Karla Ortiz, an 11-year old daughter of undocumented immigrants. But there’s something I’ve been mulling over: How are the stories of undocumented immigrants changing in response to this dynamic election cycle? What would this mean for the next political fight over immigration?
Our region is home to a number of immigrant rights activists who for years have used their stories to push for social and political change.
One of them is Hareth Andrade-Ayala, a 23-year-old DREAMer and long-time activist for equal access to higher education in Virginia, and for deportation relief for families. Her role as an advocate began when she opened up about her undocumented status as a high school student and used her story to explore the impact that the word “illegal” had in her community in Arlington:
Storytelling has played a big role in the grassroots efforts to bring the issue of immigration to the forefront. And the way stories have been shaped within the changing rhetoric and political context in the past decade can best be seen in the development of the DREAMer movement. Stories of youth “coming out” to reveal their immigration status have served as key advocacy tools to garner support. And while it’s been years since the DREAM Act was last in Congress, the instances of immigrant students coming out have not faded.
Such was the case of two high school valedictorians in Texas who sparked discussions on social media about education accessibility for DREAMers after declaring their undocumented status in June. This is also seen in online campaigns that encourage people to share their stories, such as Define American’s “Coming Out” campaign, led by journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who in 2011 revealed his undocumented status in an article published in The New York Times Magazine.
Advocacy campaigns like Define American, reference the importance of sharing stories as a way to “transcend politics and humanize this complex issue.” This is what played out at the DNC two weeks ago, when attendees cheered and cried after listening to young Karla Ortiz’s story and her mother’s remarks in Spanish. Reactions to stories have much to say about where the country currently stands on this issue and the stories themselves give people a window through which they can look at immigration in a different way. But the stories that make it to the news and impact the national dialogue on immigration are generally those that manage to gain enough traction and fit into the political context.
In a hyper-political election cycle, where do undocumented stories that don’t quite fit with the general narrative fall?
How well are the stories that are used for political storytelling defining what a fraction of people in this country—just below 11 million people—have to experience every day?
I shared these thoughts and questions with Hareth a few weeks ago. We sat down at a small café in Arlington called Cafe Sazón—known to many as the place where Latino advocates gather to talk about social justice issues facing the community while gorging on Bolivian food.
Having been an outspoken DREAMer from a young age, Hareth’s story has been heard at rallies and community gatherings, but it has also been able to reach a national audience. In June 2015, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, told her story on the Senate floor in recognition of the third anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. In 2013 she shared her story through an online petition she started with a national undocumented youth-led organization called United We Dream to stop her dad’s deportation, which she spoke about at the 2013 AFL-CIO Convention:
She spoke about the type of coverage immigrant stories were receiving in 2013 when her dad was facing deportation and how she felt stories like her family’s were being drowned by those of other immigrant youth:
This led us to talk about the limited space that there is for diverse immigrant stories in the media, and how her relation to journalists—and the type of stories she would share with them—changed over time as the immigrant rights movement progressed:
Aside from her experiences in using her story to push for immigration reform, we talked a little bit more about the use of the word “illegal,” and the impact it has left on the undocumented community:
We also spoke of the use of the word “illegal” in communities beyond Arlington and how it has created a different narrative for immigrants—like those living in Ohio, where she traveled to for a protest alongside United We Dream:
In view of the recent Supreme Court 4-4 tie that blocked the Obama administration’s plan to allow the undocumented parents of citizens or permanent residents and other immigrant youth to apply for deportation deferrals and work permits, I asked her what she saw in the community after this decision and how immigrant advocates and families have bounced back after legislative failures in the past:
We ended our conversation thinking about what the stories we’ll hear in the coming months might sound like, and whether the ones that make it to national TV can fully capture the sentiments of the diverse immigrant community with sincerity, instead of being solely abstractions that highlight the policy divide between presidential candidates. Our meeting was only four days before the DNC was set to start, and Hareth was headed over there to take part in the credentials committee. So I asked her what she hoped to hear from the DREAMer who took the stage on its opening night: