Undocumented and unafraid

Pub date November 12, 2013


Business as usual means buses depart from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in downtown San Francisco every weekday, ferrying deportees from throughout the region to federal detention centers or the airport. Even in San Francisco, a Sanctuary City where local law enforcement agencies have limited cooperation with ICE authorities, life can be filled with uncertainty for those who lack legal citizenship status.

In recent years, many immigrant activists have taken the step of publicly revealing themselves to be “undocumented,” to sound a call for immigration reform and to push back against the fearful existence that the looming threat of deportation can create.

But the young people who are profiled here have taken things a step further, going so far as to risk arrest by protesting deportations and pushing for immigration reform, all while identifying themselves loud and clear as undocumented.

In the same vein as protesters who marched for civil rights, gay rights, free speech, or in anti-war movements before them, the undocumented youth are putting themselves on the line. Their mantra, chanted at top volume, is “undocumented and unafraid,” highlighting the ever-present possibility that they could face stiff penalties for their actions.

Nationwide, an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants remain in limbo as a push for federal immigration reform, which would create a pathway to citizenship for people in the country illegally, remains stalled in Congress. While community-led campaigns have yielded legislation that creates safeguards against deportation for young people who arrived with their parents as children, bureaucratic nightmares and forced deportations continue unabated.

Nearly everyone we interviewed for this article mentioned their grandparents while sharing their personal stories with the Guardian. While the politics and policy surrounding immigration reform are tremendously complex, the impact the current system has on people’s lives often boils down to problems like not being able to take a flight to visit an ailing grandparent because it would be impossible to return.

“It’s intense,” says Nicole Salgado, an American citizen who lives with her foreign-born husband in Mexico. “Because you know, it’s essentially an issue of trespassing, and so it seems to me like it’s a really harsh penalty for a civil infraction. No harm was done to a person, and that’s the case for the vast majority of people who are in this situation.”


Alex Aldana is nervous.

He’s stopped making eye contact, which is strange, because Aldana doesn’t normally break eye contact, and isn’t the nervous type. Since 2012, he’s been arrested seven times.

All seven arrests stemmed from acts of civil disobedience, each carried out to protest the same issue: immigration laws that he views as unjust, because they lead to forced deportation.

Aldana, 26, is an undocumented immigrant. He entered the US legally from Guadalajara, Mexico, in February 2003 on a work visa, but when the time on his visa ran out, he was left undocumented. It coincided with the departure of his father, a man Aldanda says deceived his family.

Like many other undocumented immigrants, he has been trying to give a largely misunderstood population a face. Unlike many others, he’s doing so in a way that carries a great deal of risk.

He’s part of the growing contingent of undocumented immigrants who are, as they say, “undocumented and unafraid.” And when they say it, they shout it.

Aldana participated in a sit-in inside Gov. Jerry Brown’s office. He’s faced the Ku Klux Klan at pro-immigration reform rallies in San Bernardino. He’s been a key link in a human roadblock created to halt a deportation bus in San Francisco. He’s been detained by ICE and local police departments. He normally comes across as fearless, but not on this day.

“This is probably the last crazy thing I’ll do,” Aldana says. “I have thought about it, I have planned it.”

Sometime in late November, he and an intrepid band of humanitarian crusaders plan on taking their fight to the southern US border for the first action of its kind.

The details — which they’re keeping intentionally vague — involve a group of activists crossing the San Diego-Tijuana border legally (many are still Mexican citizens, after all), before ferrying previously deported people back over the border into the United States.

Their hope is to create a spectacle to raise awareness, and even mentioning the planned action makes Aldana squirm a bit. He’s hesitant to disclose specific information; the wrong statement could end his journey before it begins, he explains.

And the timing isn’t perfect for community support, he adds. The last act of civil disobedience he engaged in — a human blockade that halted an ICE bus (see “On the line,” Oct. 23) — didn’t garner universal backing within the immigrant activist community.

“[Some] people are really backlashing the immigrant youth movement right now,” says Aldana. “They consider us harmful.”

But on the flip side, Aldana considers that community’s apathy toward deportation harmful. He doesn’t think that any approved immigration reform should even include deportation as an option.

“In the immigrant community, if you mention ‘immigration reform’ — not ‘conscious,’ not ‘comprehensive,’ just ‘immigration reform’ — then you hear, ‘Yeah, I support it,'” he says. “But what kind of immigration reform are we supporting? Are we supporting militarization? Are we supporting massive deportation? Because word by word, that’s what it says right now.”

The immigration reform package now being pushed by President Obama includes beefed up border security, a crackdown on the hiring of undocumented immigrants, and streamlined deportation procedures, along with a path to citizenship.

Aldana’s confidence in his activism belies a background drenched in fear.

“I never learned how to drive because of that fear [of being deported]. I never traveled because of that fear,” he says. “One of the reasons I never went to college was because ICE was in every bus stop, at least where I come from. When you lose fear, you do incredible things. I’ve been to like 30 states now.”

He started on the activism trail when he was still in high school in Coachella, advocating for women’s rights after watching his mother suffer through domestic abuse, but he didn’t start advocating for immigration reform until years later.

“I was very open about my sexuality and my gender identity very early on,” says Aldana, who identifies as queer. Yet he felt more self-conscious about sharing his immigration status. “Ten years after that, even when I was working for a nonprofit [in Southern California], I was really afraid saying I was undocumented, because my family depended on that job.”

More recently, Aldana has struck a balance between activism and bread winning, a lifestyle that will be put to the test in the coming month. He says he isn’t planning on coming back to the US for a little while after the protest at the border, but not for legal reasons. He just wants to have peace of mind for a moment, to be treated like any other American.

“My grandmother is dying, and I’m not gonna wait for any policy to deny what I couldn’t do with my mom’s mom,” says Aldana. “I think that when what makes us human is that vulnerability, that we really need to have those rights.”

He adds, “I really dislike when people say, ‘I’m gonna visit so-and-so because they’re really sick and they’re on the other side of the world.’ To me it’s like, why can’t I do that?” (Reed Nelson)



May Liang, a 23-year-old campaign organizer who accompanied her parents to the United States from China as a child, remembers the moment she realized there were other undocumented Asian families in her midst.

She was at a conference on issues surrounding the Asian Pacific Islander community at the University of California Berkeley campus, where she was a student. “Outside of each workshop, there’s this poster. This one said ‘undocumented Asian students.'” It struck a chord as she realized she wasn’t the only one.

It was one of the first meetings of ASPIRE (Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education), a small but growing organization where Liang is now the first paid staff member. Her first undertaking was to plan out last month’s ICE bus blockade.

Now, she’s in the middle of preparing for a Thanksgiving Day vigil to be staged with others outside the West County Detention Center in Richmond, where undocumented immigrants are held in federal custody. Many in her community won’t get the chance to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with loved ones, she says, “because their families have been ripped apart by deportation.”

Liang wasn’t always an activist. She didn’t become aware of the barriers her immigration status presented until she became a teenager and started pursuing part-time jobs and a driver’s license, only to discover she lacked a Social Security number.

Not having an ID posed problems, but she’s quick to note that she had it easier than some of her fellow activists. “I walk around, and nobody suspects me because I’m Asian. In the media we see a lot of Latino people,” she explains. Nevertheless, “It was just like hiding a secret. I was trying to pass as something I knew that I wasn’t.”

One day, just as she was gearing up to go to college, her father called a family meeting. Their immigration status had been “pending” ever since they’d arrived on tourist visas and applied for green cards. But he’d just been notified that their applications had been denied.

“As soon as you get denied, you can’t be here,” Liang notes. “And so we were also ordered deported.”

They decided to fight it out in court, and the case dragged on until after she’d entered college.

“My family’s first court date was on the same day as a midterm,” she recalls. “It was really early in the morning, at the immigration court on Montgomery. I was in the waiting room, reading and studying. And then right afterward, I got on the BART and took my anatomy midterm. It felt really surreal.”

In the end, they were able to avert deportation, yet remained undocumented. As a full-time activist, Liang is thinking big. “For me, it’s like we need to change the system of immigration. One of the most important things we need is sort of a cultural shift as to how we treat people.”

Her first priority is to call for an end to deportations as long as federal immigration reform remains pending in Congress.

Liang is big on being inclusive. Laws such as the California DREAM Act, which aids undocumented students, and the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals can help youth like herself. Yet she doesn’t understand that piecemeal approach.

“Why is there a distinction being made, just because we’re younger?” she says. “These narratives were given to us. We did not create them. And it becomes divisive, because it really puts our parents under the bus.”

She’s also critical of the notion that immigration laws should treat people differently based on their nations of origin. “We like to say immigration is a Latino issue,” she says. “But it is also an Asian issue. It’s an American issue, because we are immigrants of America.”

Along those lines, Liang regards the work that she and other undocumented youth are engaged in as being a kind of patriotism, for a country that hasn’t yet accepted them as citizens.

“We actually love this country,” she says, “because it does have this sort of mentality of fighting for your rights, social justice, freedom of speech, and that stuff. In all that has happened in the history of this country, there are so many examples of things having been changed because of the people.” (Rebecca Bowe)



On July 21, 2008, David Lemus arrived in the United States at the age of 16.

He’d spent the previous two days marooned in the pick-your-poison expanse of desert spanning the southern border of the US.

All told, his El Salvador-to-California journey lasted a month, and he did the final two-day leg of the passage solo, carrying nothing more than a water bottle, tortillas, and beans.

He had no identification, he said, and no other personal items; nothing that could tie him to an existence he was supposed to be leaving behind. The goal was to be invisible, both to Border Patrol and any computers storing records.

He made the trip with his father and two younger brothers, but he’d last seen them in Mexico; the coyote guiding them across the border had informed Lemus and his family that they stood a better chance of making it if they split up. Lemus got in one car, next to a Honduran teenager who was roughly the same age, and his father and brothers got into another one.

He didn’t see his father and brothers again until October 2008. They were detained at the US-Mexico border and were deported back to El Salvador; their second trip took over four months, but they finally made it.

Lemus, his father, and his brothers were trying to reunite with his mother and sister, who had successfully completed the journey earlier that year. But as things went, Lemus was ferried across the border, let out in the desert, and traveled across a desert known for its potentially fatal landscape, all without his family.

It was a remarkable journey — hot, rugged, impossibly arid — made even more remarkable by the fact that Lemus, along with the rest of his family, is among the millions to complete it. Yes, millions.

But now, as a UC Berkeley student and member of the East Bay Immigrant Youth Coalition, Lemus is a key player in the “undocumented and unafraid” wave of activism that is under way in California, and he’s a long way from donning the invisible mask he felt he had to wear while crossing the desert.

“Undocumented and unafraid is probably the only thing owned by the undocumented community, where we can say, ‘This is our thing,'” Lemus said.

Lemus and his peers have been making waves in California since 2011, when an anti-ICE action in San Bernardino made national headlines. He was arrested alongside six other students in the demonstration, which he refers to as “coming out of the shadows.”

It was his first action of civil disobedience, and the rush of activism overwhelmed him. The second time he was arrested for civil disobedience was this past summer, while protesting President Obama and the slow pace of immigration reform.

“The first time was scary, because we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Lemus said. “But I also feel that that is the moment when you really wake up, because you see it for the first time.”

Lemus is a born agitator, someone who can’t sit idly by while an injustice is being committed. His face, almost eternally placid, contorts when he mentions things like the public perception of undocumented immigrants.

“People say that we are not only the shit stirrers, but that we created the shit,” said Lemus. “And that’s not fair. The way I see it is that most immigrants are here because of a lot of actions the US has taken in Latin America; military interventions in Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Columbia, Venezuela. You know we don’t even have a currency in El Salvador anymore? We have dollars.”

Lemus doesn’t consider himself a DREAMer, a word used to describe students brought here as children who would receive protection from deportation under the federal DREAM Act, were it signed into law. He was born in El Salvador and remembers it well, in stark contrast to the DREAMers — and doesn’t know if he would even want to become a US citizen should the opportunity present itself, since he says he’s witnessed too much injustice at the institutional level.

What he won’t stop fighting for is what he calls, “not civil rights, but human rights. It would be unfair for us to want civil rights right now, because we need to get human rights first.”

For Lemus, that distinction is about valuing our basic humanity more than our citizenship.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize the amount of risk it takes to come here,” he said. “We leave everything behind in the process, and a lot of times we don’t get it back. We just want a better life.” (RN)




Siti Rahmaputri, who goes by Putri, was 19 when she risked arrest by joining a handful of classmates in disrupting a meeting of the University of California Board of Regents.

A petite, soft-spoken UC Berkeley student, she hardly comes across as an agitator. Yet she joined the July protest to voice anger about the selection of Janet Napolitano, former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, as head of the UC system. For undocumented students like Rahmaputri, Napolitano is synonymous with deportations due to her former post as head of the agency that oversees ICE.

When they got word of Napolitano’s appointment, Rahmaputri and fellow activist Ju Hong joined with some students from UC Irvine and UC San Diego to call attention to the secretary’s role in deportations.

“We started chanting, ‘undocumented unafraid,’ ‘education not deportation,’ ‘no to Napolitano.’ Unfortunately, two of my friends got hurt — they were tackled down by the UC police. And at the end, the four of us stood there and really linked arms. We were screaming and screaming,” she recalls. In a matter of minutes, “everyone left except for us, the media, and the UC police. The UC Regents were just outside the door.”

She was charged with two misdemeanors, placed in handcuffs for several hours, and then released. But the whole time, Rahmaputri said she felt encouraged by supporters from ASPIRE and others.

“I heard people chanting from the outside: Let them go. Let them go. I didn’t want to seem scared, I wanted to seem confident, like here I am, getting arrested, so what?” she says. “I’m just standing for the things that I feel is right.”

Originally from Indonesia, Rahmaputri attended middle school and high school in San Francisco after coming to the United States with her parents at age 11. Not long ago, she and her parents narrowly averted deportation.

“They never really told me exactly that I was undocumented, but they gave me hints,” she says of her upbringing.

A couple years ago, not long after she’d enrolled in Diablo Valley College, her parents were notified — six months late, due to an incorrect address — that their green card applications had been denied.

“I lost a lot of hope. I didn’t really know what to do,” she remembers. “I talked to my counselor and asked, ‘should I keep going in school or should I start working instead to save money to go back to Indonesia?'”

In the end, they were able to defer deportation through letters of support and legal assistance from the Asian Law Caucus, but their immigration status continues to hang in the balance, and the possibility of eventual deportation still looms.

In early October, Napolitano agreed to sit down with Rahmaputri and nine other UC students to discuss policies affecting undocumented university students. The activists urged her to shore up sanctuary protections, by providing campus resources and incorporating better sensitivity training for UC police.

But it was a little awkward, Rahmaputri thought, because Napolitano’s office had made it a lunch meeting.

“She was just there eating her lunch, listening to our stories and our struggles and why we think she should not be here. And here she is, enjoying her meal. It was a weird conversation. She said okay, ‘I will look at it thoroughly. Give me time to look at it.’ So, she’s basically not giving us any answers.”

She and others plan to keep the pressure on by staging rallies whenever Napolitano makes public appearances, and they were planning an action for the Nov. 8 inauguration of the new Berkeley chancellor, Nicholas Dirks.

When her family was fighting deportation, Rahmaputri caught a glimpse of detainees in the ICE facility in downtown San Francisco when she was there to be fingerprinted. She was impacted by the sight of them being led around in shackles.

“It was time for me to reflect, that I have this privilege to be free, to be out here where I can speak my mind, and I am able to go to school and get educated,” she says of that experience. “At the same time, I want to represent others who cannot.” (RB)


Agitating in exile

An American citizen who was born and raised in the United States, Nicole Salgado holds a master’s degree, is a published author, and previously held jobs in the Bay Area as a high school science teacher and urban gardener. While she might seem like an unlikely person to be directly impacted by immigration laws, she’s essentially been living in exile in Queretaro, Mexico, for the past seven years.

She’s there because Margo, Salgado’s husband and the father of their daughter, is prevented from returning to the US from Mexico due to immigration laws.

“It really boils down to some pretty strict technicalities,” Salgado explained in a Skype interview. “There’s really not any way around it. My husband has a permanent bar that lasts 10 years, and we’re in year seven of that. And if there was no reform in the next three years, we would not be able to apply — just apply — for his return until 2016.”

They met in 2001, when she was 23.

“I worked for the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners. I was working on a project down the peninsula, in La Honda, and I met Margo through friends. We got really close really fast, and got engaged within a few months,” she said.

Salgado knew he was undocumented, “but I didn’t know what it entailed.” Simply getting married, it turned out, wasn’t going to put them in the clear.

As long as they remained in the US, Margo’s status was a source of anxiety. He didn’t have a driver’s license, but nevertheless had to drive in order to work.

“I was always really petrified when he would be working more than half an hour away from the house,” Salgado said. “Because I always knew that if there was just one little bit of racial profiling, or something wrong with the taillight or something, then he could get pulled over.”

They closely monitored the progress of proposed laws that could offer protection for undocumented immigrants, and went to immigration rallies. But in the end, they opted for joining his family in Mexico, because they did not want to live in fear.

Salgado co-authored a book with Nathaniel Hoffman, Amor and Exile: True Stories of Love Across America’s Borders, which explores the role that American citizens who are married to undocumented immigrants might play in the larger immigration reform efforts in Congress.

She’s also been organizing online. “We got together and we formed a sort of loosely organized forum of women, like myself who were in exile, or were separated from their spouses in the US,” she said. “We called ourselves Action for Family Unity.”

She acknowledges that adults who knowingly crossed the border illegally might have a harder time winning over the public at large than youth who were brought to the US as children. Yet she still believes the laws that have placed her in this situation are in need of reform.

“My basic premise is, you know, the US is a nation of immigrants, and we depend on immigrants every year as part of our economy and part of our society,” Salgado says. “And as an American citizen, I believe that it’s my right to be able to determine where I want to live, regardless of who my choice of spouse is.” (RB)