On a lovely spring day, Nicholas Gonzalez gathered on the University of California (Berkeley) plaza with four other activists before embarking on their 3,000-mile, eight-month walk across the country to increase awareness about comprehensive immigration reform that includes the Dream Act. His goal: Talk openly to everyone he meets about his status as a young undocumented immigrant raised in this country since he was 5 — a strategy his group ascribes from the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights.
The group’s journey continues this week, heading east out of Kansas City, Mo.
(Related Gallery: Activists Gather Before the Walk Across America)
In recent years, a growing number of these young activists, many of whom are also part of the LGBT community, have blended the “coming out” philosophy into the immigration-reform movement and are talking openly about their status as undocumented immigrants to humanize the issue.
Gonzalez is among this new wave of activists inspired by the late Harvey Milk, one of the nation’s first openly gay elected officials. Milk famously called on the gay community to come out of the closet and live their lives openly.
“We decided to stand up for ourselves and speak for ourselves,” said Gonzalez, 25, of Chicago.
Social-justice strategists have borrowed successful approaches from one another for decades, adapting them to fit specific needs of their movement, says Mary Bernstein, a University of Connecticut sociology professor.
“They get a sense of what works and what doesn’t work,” said Bernstein, who specializes on identity, sexuality, gender, and social movements. “Borrowing (strategies) can be very effective.”
The New Generation
Like leaders from movements before them, immigration reformists often are fueled by their own struggles and incited by challenges faced by others, Bernstein said.
Many have rallied behind the Dream Act, legislation that would give undocumented young people — particularly those who were brought to the U.S. as children by their parents — a path to citizenship if they meet certain requirements.
While President Obama announced in June that his administration would no longer deport young undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children if they follow certain steps, activists say the Dream Act remains necessary since the new policy is not permanent, does not provide a path to citizenship, and leaves many living in fear and perpetual uncertainty.
Two years ago, an encounter in Alabama put Gonzalez on a course of activism and the transcontinental walk that began in March in San Francisco and is to end in November in Washington before the election.
At an immigration rally, Gonzalez asked a young boy what he wanted to do with his future. The boy’s reply? Not to wake up in a deportation cell and be sent back to a country he no longer remembers.
“These kids really have it hard,” Gonzalez said. “Some of them would say, ‘My best friend never came back to school.’ When someone says that and they’re 11 years old, there’s something definitely wrong.”
A Son’s Promise
After Gonzalez’s parents brought him to this country from Mexico, they settled in Chicago, where his mother spent more than a decade as a factory worker making hardware for cabinets and his father was a restaurant cook.
He has little memory of life outside the U.S., and dreams of being able to attend college — a goal he pursues despite the high tuition costs he’ll shoulder from being ineligible for lower in-state college rates and student loans.
“Do you think I do not want to go college?” Gonzalez said. “Right now, it’s harder because I don’t have the assistance. I’ve been living to survive, to put a plate of food on the table for myself.”
When he was a teenager, he promised his mother that he would work hard to do something positive — a commitment that became even more important after she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He remembers walking with her to the hospital for chemotherapy treatment immediately after graduating middle school, and the nurses were among the first to congratulate him on his achievement.
“I saw the struggle of being undocumented and living with cancer, and the treatment that’s different,” said Gonzalez, who hopes to eventually find a job helping immigrant youth through art therapy. “Seeing my mom fight to stay alive for all those years really has put me in this position where I am now.”
His involvement with the Dream Act began about two years ago, and he soon found himself becoming increasingly vocal at rallies. Prior to a protest in San Bernardino, Calif., he and other speakers got together to plan their message, and thought of Milk’s famous words: “Brothers and sisters, you must come out. Come out to your parents. Come out to your friends, if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors. Come out to your fellow workers. Once and for all, let’s break down the myths and destroy the lies of distortion.”
“And that’s where it was born,” said Gonzalez, who came out about his immigration status at that rally, thanked by other young people admiring his courage to speak openly.
He and other young LGBT undocumented immigrants have since formed national campaigns, such as Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project and UndocuQueer to educate immigrant-rights activists on their unique experiences. They have also worked to encourage immigrant reform and to urge LGBT leaders to unite.
Jesus Barrios, 22, a senior at California State University (San Bernardino), got involved with immigration reform two years ago. He was moved by the story of two young men arrested on a Southern California college campus after they couldn’t provide school police with identification, prompting police to check their immigration status and pass them to immigration officials.
Barrios, who is gay, soon began speaking openly about his own immigration status, participating in rallies and civil-disobedience demonstrations to call attention to the need for immigration reform.
“We just thought that story was out of this world,” said Barrios, who was brought to this country from Mexico as a child and is undocumented. “These kids who are in a college campus are being questioned by campus police, something that should not be happening.”
Ari Gutierrez, cofounder of the Latino Equality Alliance, says she’s not surprised that young immigrants are coming out publicly about their immigration status. They have learned from the LGBT community that coming out can help build bridges.
“We have learned that in the coming out process, people are happier,” she said. “Even if you lose friends and family, being true to yourself is the healthiest thing to do.”
Recently personifying this strategy is Filipino native Jose Antonio Vargas, a former Washington Post journalist who came out as an undocumented immigrant in 2010 and whose story has since been featured by the New York Times and Time magazine. Vargas was on hand at Berkeley Sproul Plaza to encourage the walking activists to speak to as many people – from all socioeconomics and political affiliations – as possible.
(Related Story from The Atlantic Wire: What’s Happened to Jose Antonio Vargas Since His Admission)
“You are saying that we are here,” he said. “And our existence doesn’t threaten yours. Anybody who’s educated benefits everybody.”
As for Barrios and Gonzalez, they see few options other than being open about their immigration status, just like they were open with their families about their sexual orientation.
Barrios recalled being 19 years old and scared to tell his mom he was gay.
“Mom, I have to tell you something,” he recalls telling as they drove home from his swimming lessons. “Soy gay.” I am gay.
His mother was supportive, as she has been about his decision to come out publicly about his immigration status.
His mother understands that when Barrios finishes his bachelor’s degree in public health, he may face obstacles finding employment due to his immigration status.
“She always has the mother instinct to make sure we’re OK,” Barrios said. “But she also lets us do what we want to do, knowing that it’s for our future.”