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Queer and Undocumented: A Powerful Force in the Dreamer Movement

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'At the end of the day, both coming out as queer and coming out as undocumented, it’s about living life on your own terms,' Yahaira Carrillo says. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

At her kitchen table in Oakland, Yahaira Carrillo leafs through an old photo album with faded pictures of a little curly-haired girl. The album is precious to her: She saw her baby pictures for the first time only a few years ago, when her aunt brought the album from Mexico. That's because when Carrillo crossed the border as a 7-year-old with her mom, they left almost everything behind.

Growing up undocumented, first in California, then in Missouri, Carrillo, now 32, was taught to always be on her best behavior.

"Any sort of wrong moves could result in my parents getting deported or my getting deported, or ending up in foster care," Carrillo said. "[My mom] was like, 'Always be good. We have to be model citizens, model behavior. We have to be as normal, as American, as possible, instead of raising any red flags.'"

It can be a big risk for undocumented immigrants to admit they don’t have papers, especially now, when President Trump is targeting immigrants and vowing to deport them in record numbers. And yet, in the past decade, more and more young people who were brought to the U.S. as children have been doing just that -- especially those who are LGBTQ.

Queer and Undocumented: A Powerful Force in the Dreamer Movement

Queer and Undocumented: A Powerful Force in the Dreamer Movement

As Carrillo grew up, she ran into obstacles because of her immigration status. When she went to college, she didn’t qualify for financial aid, so she had to work full time to pay tuition, and it took her nine years to graduate. The DREAM Act (an acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) would have given undocumented young people like her a path to a green card. But years after it was first introduced in 2001, the bill still hadn’t passed. So Carrillo decided to start lobbying.


"We had reached a point where we had to tell our own stories, we had to speak for ourselves," Carrillo said, "because it was suffocating, you know, living in this place of fear."

Suffocating — like when you're gay and in the closet. Carrillo also knew what that felt like. She came out as bisexual when she was 23.

"At the end of the day, both coming out as queer and coming out as undocumented, it’s about living life on your own terms," Carrillo said. "[It's about] you calling the shots about how you move about the world, and facing society head on, in your full truth, in both of those areas. And there's power in that."

Many of the most outspoken, undocumented young activists who organized across the country for the DREAM Act are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. After the bill failed in Congress in 2007,  they began taking a page from the in-your-face civil disobedience of AIDS and gay rights groups like Act Up! and adopting the practice — advocated by Harvey Milk and other LGBTQ activists — of “coming out” publicly.

"People need to know that queer people exist, and people need to know that undocumented people exist, and that we live next door, and that we brush our teeth, and that we floss, or don’t floss, just like everybody else," Carrillo said.

In 2010, as four "Dreamers" (young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. without papers as children) walked from Florida to Washington, D.C., to push for the DREAM Act, a group of undocumented youth in Chicago declared "National Coming Out of the Shadows" month.

In May 2010, Carrillo and four other young people decided to put their bodies on the line, in the place they felt was most dangerous for undocumented immigrants: Arizona. Just weeks before, the state had passed SB 1070, which made it a crime to be undocumented in the state and required police to check the immigration status of anyone arrested or detained, if police suspected they did not have government permission to be here.

Four undocumented youth, Tania Unzueta, Lizbeth Mateo, Yahaira Carrillo, and Mohammad Abdollahi, accompanied by Raúl Alcaraz, held a sit-in in John McCain’s office in Arizona in 2010.
Four undocumented youth, Tania Unzueta, Lizbeth Mateo, Yahaira Carrillo and Mohammad Abdollahi, accompanied by Raúl Alcaraz, held a sit-in in John McCain’s office in Arizona in 2010. (Courtesy of Yahaira Carrillo)

Carrillo and the others walked into Sen. John McCain’s office, wearing blue graduation caps and gowns. They sat on the floor, and said they would not leave until the senator agreed to co-sponsor the DREAM Act. Carrillo remembers a police officer tried to talk them out of it. He said he had a son, too, and asked them to think of their future: How would they get a job if they were arrested?

"And I remember one of us saying, 'But you don’t understand. That’s the problem: that we can’t. We can't get a job,' " Carrillo recalled.

They were risking everything. Four of the young people were arrested that day. Carrillo and two others were turned over to immigration authorities. They were later released but faced possible deportation.

At the same time, more protests were happening around the country. A queer immigrant organizer named Prerna Lal, one of the founders of a group called DreamActivist, helped shut down Wilshire Boulevard outside Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office in Los Angeles.

"I did what I did because I didn’t feel like there was an alternative for me, or for my friends," said Lal, 32. "For far too long, we had been cast aside, marginalized. Our stories were not seen as important, our lives not important. And I was tired of living that way and I couldn’t live that way. I felt like coming out and organizing was better. If it meant being deported, so be it."

Lal and her parents came from Fiji and overstayed their visas. By the time her parents got green cards, she was over 21 and couldn't legalize her status with them. Friends suggested she could get  a green card another way.

"I was told many times, 'Get married! Just find a boy!' And I was like, 'Well that’s not me, that’s not who I am," Lal said.

Same-sex marriage wasn't legal at the time, but Lal says many mainstream immigrant rights organizations didn't want to address that obstacle as part of the fight for immigration reform.

"We felt like we were being told, 'While your immigrant stories are great, we don’t want to hear about your sexual orientation, that’s something you do in private,' " said Lal. "It's kind of funny talking about that now because we have come so far."

The DREAM Act didn't pass, but the Dreamers started something. After the arrest in McCain's office, more and more people began declaring themselves "Undocumented, unafraid and unapologetic!" a refrain that has echoes of the chant "We're here, we're queer, get used to it!" of radical gay rights organizations. That summer, 21 young undocumented people were arrested while holding sit-ins on Capitol Hill. Almost half of them also identified as queer.

Lal says the Dreamers risking arrest and deportation caught the attention of the country … and the president. In 2012, President Barack Obama issued temporary protection from deportation for undocumented youth, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known by its initials as DACA.

"DACA’s only in place because people fought for it to be in place," Lal said. "Obama didn’t wake up one day and just decide to do it on his own."

In fact, in the months before Obama's announcement, undocumented youth held sit-ins in his campaign offices, calling for an executive order to stop deportations.

Felicia Escobar worked in the White House as special assistant to President Obama on immigration policy, and she helped craft DACA. She says the administration had been working on the directive for months before its announcement, and was not directly affected by the sit-ins that summer. She acknowledges, however, that the president and others in his administration had been meeting with undocumented youth from the beginning of his first term in office.

"The fact that Dreamers have been, you know, unafraid to come out and share their story has had a tremendous impact on the entire immigrant rights movement," said Escobar. "They’re able to humanize the issue, they’re articulate, you see them, you hear them. They  moved the ball forward in a really impactful way."

More than 750,000 DACA applications have been approved since the policy began in 2012. During his campaign, Donald Trump vowed to end DACA. But as president, he has backed off somewhat, saying he would deal with people who have DACA with "great heart," and leave it in place, at least for now. At the same time, he's promised to increase deportations.

"As of now it seems like DACA youth are safe," said Escobar, "but they don’t live in a vacuum. They’re worried about their parents. They're worried about their siblings, who may not have qualified for DACA."

Lal and Carrillo now see that fear and uncertainty every day at  the East Bay Community Law Center where they both work. Lal is an attorney serving undocumented students at UC Berkeley. After Trump's inauguration, Lal says the number of students seeking legal help went up by 50 percent. She says she has even had clients who have refused needed medical care because they are worried that if their family members come to see them in the hospital, they could be deported.

"One of my greatest fears when Trump was elected was not that he would take DACA away, but that he would keep it and use it as a bargaining chip. And that's precisely what I see is happening," said Lal. "A bargaining chip, saying, 'We'll deport everyone else, except for these young, amazing, quote-unquote children.' "

Lal fought her own deportation all the way to the Supreme Court and lost, but that same court ended up granting her a path to permanent residency when it ruled that same-sex marriage is legal. That allowed her to obtain a green card through her marriage to her U.S. citizen wife. Carrillo has a visa to live and work here now, too. Both of them say they know some people wonder if, under Trump, “coming out” as undocumented is too great a risk.

"And that’s real," said Carrillo. "But at the end of the day we don’t want to go back to the same place we were before. Because that’s basically the same thing we were told in 2010: 'We do this for your safety. We speak for you so you can be safe.' I have no desire to go back to that. I also have no desire to tell people they’re going to be safe. If you are not undocumented, it’s not your place to tell people. It’s just like coming out as queer. You choose when you come out."

Blanca Vazquez invites undocumented immigrants to "come out of the shadows" at a rally in Oakland in April 2017.
Blanca Vazquez, of the East Bay Immigrant Youth Coalition, invites undocumented immigrants to 'come out of the shadows' at a rally in Oakland in April 2017. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

Some undocumented youth and adults are still choosing to come out, and they're still using the chant "Undocumented! Unafraid!" at rallies and protests. Sometimes they end by shouting "Queer, Trans, and Unashamed!" At a recent rally outside the Alameda County Sheriff's Office in Oakland, people lined up for a turn at a microphone to "come out of the shadows."

Blanca Vazquez, 28, helped organize the event. She said she arrived in the U.S. when she was 6 months old and applied for DACA last year, but she's still waiting for approval. Even with all the uncertainty under the Trump administration, she says she'll keep speaking out about her status. She still remembers the first time she saw someone share publicly that they were undocumented. After being told her entire life not to share her immigration status, she was shocked and remembers thinking, "Does he know what he’s about to do? You just don’t do that. You don’t talk about this kind of thing with strangers!"

Then, she burst into tears. In that moment, Vazquez says she also learned something: "That my silence isolated me, and isolated everyone who was undocumented, and our isolation was not protecting us."

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