At Home at Last: Undocumented and Unafraid

From the July-August 2012 PNL #816

Aly Wane

Ever since I “came out” to Syracuse, my home community, as an undocumented person, I have experienced a paradox. On the one hand, I am aware that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) or Border Patrol can pick me up at any time, throw me into a detention center and deport me from the country I have called home for so many years. On the other hand, I feel freer and more inwardly calm than I have in years. The unnecessary charade is over: the community knows who I am. I have stated unequivocally that I belong on this spot of our beautiful planet. When I walk around Syracuse, I can finally say the words: “I am home.”  It’s been a long journey.

Undocumented and unafraid at the “Coming Out of the Shadows” news conference on June 25. Photo: Andy MagerUndocumented and unafraid at the “Coming Out of the Shadows” news conference on June 25. Photo: Andy Mager

I called the press conference in which I publicly announced my undocumented status a “coming out of the shadows” event. I did so intentionally because being undocumented, a so-called illegal alien, is to lead a twilight existence. One is constantly hovering between two or more lands. For a while, I didn’t know where I belonged, and, more importantly, if I belonged anywhere.

I have already written a short biographical statement which explains how I became undocumented (see What I want to address in this essay is the decision-making process which led to my coming out.

Being undocumented often means being stressed and/or fearful for most of one’s waking hours. I was always afraid of others discovering my “terrible secret.” I wondered who I could trust, especially since I knew that I was more stereotype than person; I was “an illegal,” which in today’s society often translates into “lazy,”“leech” and “dangerous.” For many of my friends who are undocumented, the simple act of driving is terrifying since a small traffic accident can result in ICE or Border Patrol being called for “translation” services. The result is almost always detention and deportation.

But one of the deepest fears I experienced was an existential one. I started to wonder whether I belonged. This is true of many young, undocumented people who, like me, were brought as children and who are, for all intents and purposes, paperless Americans. Years ago, I had a recurring nightmare in which I was being interviewed by an INS official (the Immigration and Naturalization Service was the main immigration administrative agency before 9/11).  I would plead tearfully to the officer that I was a good person, an American “on the inside” and that I deserved a chance to stay here. The officer sat behind a desk, dressed in a suit and tie, and had a head with no facial features – no nose, eyes, ears, hair or mouth. He was the very representation of an indifferent, Kafkaesque immigration system. I was its prisoner.

Since I couldn’t work, I volunteered with many different organizations, from Better Existence with HIV and the American Friends Service Committee while I lived in Chicago, to Unity Acres, St. Francis Farm and the Syracuse Peace Council here in Upstate NY.  However, no matter how bold my activism, one issue I was terrified to address was that of immigration reform. It hit too close to home.

On 9/11, I remember having two different feelings. Like most people, I was horrified at the scale and magnitude of the event, the wanton slaughter of innocents. But at the same time I thought: “This country will turn very nasty when it comes to foreign policy and will increase its demonizing of immigrants.”  Sadly, that easy prediction was correct.

About three and half years ago, I started to hear that some people in Syracuse were being “disappeared” from our streets. It turned out they had been taken by Border Patrol, which had been aggressively hunting down undocumented immigrants. These were not the criminals you hear about in the political debate – these were good, hard-working individuals, some with US citizen/wives, husbands and children, who were being brutally separated from their loved ones. I decided that I had to help.

There is an activist lesson here. It wasn’t until I saw how the immigration system unfairly treated other immigrants that I started to broaden my thinking. My encounter with other undocumented people in the Syracuse community helped me put my own plight in perspective and made me question the validity of an immigration system that would deport hard-working individuals with families and no criminal records. Unconsciously, I was moving away from personal analysis towards solidarity. After working with two local groups, the Detention Task Force and the Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse (ACTS), I realized that all we could offer undocumented individuals who had been detained was bail money and support until they were deported. We could not stop their deportation. We exhausted every avenue offered to us working within the system. This was deeply frustrating and I flirted with despair.

Finally, in early 2010, I heard about the Trail of DREAMs Action. Four young undocumented people, Carlos Roa, Jr., Felipe Sousa Rodriguez, Juan Rodriguez and Gaby Pacheco, took part in a 1,500 mile walk from Florida to Washington, DC. They shared their stories along the way and met with President Obama to pressure him to push for the DREAM Act, a piece of legislation that would offer undocumented people brought here as children a path to citizenship, as long as they fulfilled either military or educational requirements. This act of bravery shook my world as an activist.  Not only were they out and unashamed, they asserted without apology their right to be here. Beyond the immense physical endurance the walk required, they were under tremendous psychological pressure, including a challenge by members of the Ku Klux Klan while they were marching through the South, a chilling reminder of the racism behind anti-immigrant rhetoric.

They inspired me to confront my own fears about my legal status. Ever since then, I have contemplated coming out in order to provoke some stereotype-breaking conversations here in Syracuse, my home. This process was very long, and I owe an immense debt to a support group that met periodically to help me deal with my fears and frustrations. I am absolutely clear that without their help, I would not have found the courage to come out. This is an instance in which I am privileged. Many undocumented individuals have very little support in dealing with their struggles.

Despite all, I believe that the United States, my home, will eventually pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation that will allow families to remain intact and make it easier, in this increasingly globalized society, for people to cross borders to find the work they are most suited for. This nation is, and has always been, an experiment in migration. Except for Native Americans, all US citizens have stories of immigration. My challenge as an activist is to help re-awaken the immigrant imagination at the core of this country’s DNA. In the next few months, I hope to speak to people in my community, reassure them, and argue that the new wave of immigrants is no different than the older waves. The overwhelming majority of undocumented people are folks who already contribute to this society, who want to integrate, and are already re-invigorating this economy. Contrary to right-wing rhetoric, undocumented immigrants contribute more to this society than they take away. They often pay taxes (income, sales, property) that fund programs they are ineligible for (such as Social Security) and have no access to social services (except for emergency, life-saving health care).

I do understand why immigration is such a difficult topic for many US citizens. We are still in the midst of an economic crisis largely caused by thirty-plus years of supply side economics, deregulation, a relentless assault on unions and workers’ rights, and a banking industry run amok. The productivity of US workers has increased while wages have stagnated (or gotten worse) except for the wealthiest group of US citizens. In this atmosphere, it is very easy to look for economic scapegoats and this role is filled by undocumented immigrants. Undocumented immigrants are not the problem, however, and we have to develop a vocabulary of economic solidarity which will help all workers, both US-born and undocumented. One reason I came out was to help articulate this and reduce the amount of fear-based rhetoric around immigration reform.

When I finally came out on June 25, I didn’t know what the community’s response would be. So far it has been overwhelmingly positive. Those friends who hadn’t known about my status have redoubled their support, and I have had conversations with conservative acquaintances that have been deeply encouraging. So far, I have neither heard from ICE nor Border Patrol, but I am prepared for that contingency. If I have to accept time in detention, or even deportation, it will still have been worth it. No matter what, I will feel like I have expressed something essential: I already am American, and so are many undocumented people who were brought here as youth. We just don’t have the legal papers. Yet.


Aly is an immigration reform activist and is a member of the PNL editorial committee.