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Coming out: Undocumented students chase American DREAM

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Luz Bravo, 19 year old undocumented immigrant student.

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Local activists launched 1Michigan, bringing attention to the challenges of immigrant youth and advocating for the passage of the federal DREAM act. Amy Kuras reports.  
Here’s a familiar story: A smart, energetic teen who has boundless potential is hiding a big secret; something about herself she doesn't feel she can share with even her closest friends. Every day, she contends with the shame, secrecy and fear of being found out.

It's not her sexual orientation she's hiding. Instead, this teen is an undocumented immigrant, someone who came here with her parents as a child, without the proper papers. She didn't make the decision to come here, but as she begins her adult life she faces the consequences of that choice every day. She can't get a driver’s license, can't work "on the books" anywhere, and isn’t eligible for much financial aid or scholarship money as she prepares for college – and financing it is that much more difficult because at many state institutions she must pay out of state tuition even if she's never left Michigan.

And what’s even more frightening is that if she is vocal about her status, she draws the attention of authorities and she and her family could be deported back where they came from, to a place that hasn’t been home for as long as she can remember.

That's the reality for thousands of young people across Michigan. And many of them are coming together and "coming out" as undocumented, in an effort to bring attention to their plight and change their futures and that of other kids like them. Locally, the effort is called 1Michigan and was launched by Jose Franco and some other friends in 2010.

Franco, now 24, came here from Mexico with his family when he was two years old, and settled in Southwest Detroit. As his 2006 graduation from Western High School drew near, the reality of being undocumented -- and how deeply that limited his opportunities – smacked him in the face.

"I had this idea that if I am undocumented, I couldn't succeed, and what was the point of trying?" he said. "I really got into a depression over it."

He began searching online to find any information that might help him, and located an online forum for undocumented teens. Through that interaction, an activist was born.

They've been very active in advocating for passage of the DREAM Act, which would grant conditional permanent residency to young people who came here as children and give them the chance to apply for citizenship once they have completed two years of military service or two years of college. 

Congress has so far not passed the DREAM Act. However, in June the Obama administration issued an executive order allowing deferred action for people who came here before the age of 15 and who are 30 or under. Under the order, young people granted deferred action are safe from deportation proceedings for two years, and can apply for a work permit, which then allows them to apply for a Social Security number. In many states that will allow access to a driver's license and in-state tuition, among other benefits. 

1Michigan held a workshop for teens affected by the executive order, staffed by lawyers from the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, among others. Attorney Carolyn Krieger, who coordinated the lawyer volunteers, says she wishes the order went further to protect the 50 or so teens and twenty-somethings there to fill out their applications. "There are so many unknowns, it scares me," she says. "I would love to see a more permanent fix for them."

The hope among those affected is that people granted deferred action will be able to renew it every two years, but that is unclear, especially with an election looming. And by affirming their undocumented status, young people could be putting themselves at higher risk for being deported once the two years are up.

If that happens, these young activists are ready to fight. Dayanna Rebolledo is also active in 1Michigan. She "came out" as undocumented in front of 10,000 people at a march in Ann Arbor in 2010 timed to coincide with President Obama’s commencement address at the University of Michigan. She'd never, until that day, told anyone about coming here at age 9 with her parents and sisters and how fear and shame over her status impacted her life. "I had never been public about my status, even with my best friends," she says. "I realized I was so tired of trying to pretend I’m someone I am not, and it was time for me to do it."

She’s studying political science at Marygrove College in Detroit, and it’s clear she's found true purpose through attempting to make a better path for herself and others like her. She and Franco were both part of a group that staged a sit-in at President Obama’s local office, along with several others across the country. The day after the sit-in ended, his administration announced the deferred action executive order.

She also does training for young activists around the country, including leading workshops that help young people tell their stories of being undocumented. At one, she met a 15-year-old boy who’d never told anyone about his status. He told Rebolledo he wanted to be a doctor, but his teacher told him that as an immigrant, he didn't have a future. "I do this so kids like him don’t have to feel that way," she says.

For many of these young people, what motivates them is not so much securing their own futures, but preventing other young people from contending with the fear that's stalked them their entire lives. "Once you get through the door of success, you hold it open for others," says Xochitl Cossylon, a University of Detroit Mercy student majoring in education. "It's more comfortable for me to help another person, knowing there's another Xochitl out there and I'm making her life less stressful than mine."

Amy Kuras is a Detroit-based freelance writer. 

Photos by Marvin Shaouni

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