Two young immigrants slowly come to grips with what it means to be “illegal” in the only place they call home.
On a cloudy Friday afternoon last March, as thousands of pedestrians passed by and rows of police officers watched intensely, the eclectic crossroads that is Union Square took on an atmosphere unusual even for its own standards. Several dozen undocumented teenagers gathered to share their stories of growing up in the United States anonymously—without immigration papers or social security numbers. The New York State Youth Leadership Council, a nonprofit group led by undocumented young adults and twenty-something volunteers, organized the demonstration and supplied each participant with a black t-shirt bearing the bold slogan: “undocumented, unafraid, unapologetic.” They spoke energetically through megaphones, surrounded by a large crowd and bright yellow banners emblazoned with their unusual admission: “Undocumented.” These demonstrators looked fearless. They weren’t. Coming out of the shadows and exposing their status was a huge risk for each of them—a risk that was wholly apparent to Dominique, a slender, cautious twenty-year-old Trinidadian who watched quietly from the sideline
“I remember seeing them yell their names at the top of their lungs, and I thought they were crazy,” recalls Dominique, who prefers not to have her last name revealed. “I didn’t want to put myself in that position.” Another young woman named Lupe, who was born in Mexico but has lived in New York since she was three, also remembers the commotion, with clusters of young men and women shouting, “Education! Not Deportation!” and “This is my home!” Lupe, also 20, decided not to rush home that day after high school but stayed to admire those who were fighting for her cause. As time passed, she recognized fellow classmates. One of them approached her. “Hey Lupe, what are you doing here?” he asked. “I didn’t know you were…?” “I didn’t know you were either,” Lupe responded warmly, with a smile.
Having hidden for years among their peers, Dominique and Lupe were starting to find some semblance of community and enough strength in themselves to finally share their immigration stories openly.
Last month, I photographed both young women in Union Square. We laughed as Dominique, who is slender and typically reserved, strutted confidently and made exaggerated “model” poses. I had interviewed each of them separately, but had never seen the two friends so animated and joyful. They came from very different backgrounds and cultures, but one thing managed to tie them together and made their two-year friendship even stronger—the commanding dominance that their undocumented immigration status has held over their lives.
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Dominique landed at JFK Airport on May 30, 2009. She had previously visited her aunt in Brooklyn during the holidays, and each time she arrived she’d been enthralled by the massive scope of her surroundings. This time around, as always, Dominique left the airport and, firmly holding onto her one suitcase, took a cab to Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. She never looked back. Though Dominique couldn’t know it at the time, years would pass with no prospect of a return trip to Trinidad.
After a few weeks in New York, Dominique’s aunt begged her to stay and enrolled her in high school. She proclaimed to Dominique that opportunities would be better in New York, that the city would ultimately provide a positive future for her. It was not difficult to convince Dominique, then seventeen years old. She had dropped out of her private school in Trinidad because the tuition was too high. Things were looking bleak for her education. Painfully aware that her friends and family back in Trinidad were going on living without her—that she was missing birthdays and other milestones with her parents and sister —Dominique intentionally missed her return flight. She did not at first fully realize the consequences of her decision. Only gradually did Dominique learn that she would never be allowed to work legally and that if she decided to make New York her permanent home, without papers, she would never be able to return to Trinidad to visit.
Dominique settled in at The Manhattan Comprehensive School, a nontraditional transfer school for older teenagers, and was introduced to a non-profit called Reel Lives, which teaches young adults how to make documentaries. Her short film begins with these powerful lines: “If you have a state I.D., a social security card, and a US passport, you will be recognized as a human being rather than an alien; the sickness of depression will never plague you as it does me; your future will never seem so vague.” She adds, “Lacking a sequence of nine digits causes me to live differently. No matter what happens, I am not going to give up easy. I am going to do everything in my power to make things better for me.”In the thirteen-minute film, Dominique does not reveal her face or her name, which underscores the overt message, and title, of her film: “I am: Anonymous.” She used a still photograph as an opening image, her face wrapped in bright yellow tape covered with bold letters forming the word “Caution.” The photograph, Dominique tells me, represents how she first felt in the United States: an unwanted hazard to the public.
I first met Dominique last November, when she was still working on the film. She and I met at Rockefeller Center on a cold day, and chatted over cups of warm tea on a windy café terrace. Dominique was wearing her usual shades of black and grey clothing. She had a meeting later that afternoon with her lawyer, yet she still seemed calm and collected.
Rockefeller Center, she told me, “is the only place I really feel inspired by the city.”
“It represents my turbulent relationship with New York,” Dominique went on. “At first, I staged the photograph with the caution tape here. But now, I look at the square, surrounded by flags from around the world, and it gives me hope and makes me think of all the things I want to achieve here.”
“I also like to stand here and blend in with all the tourists; it makes me feel comfortable. During those moments I don’t think of myself as illegal; I am just like everyone else.”
Although Dominique had been in New York for over two years at that point, it still didn’t feel like home. She missed her family and friends in Trinidad. She missed the warm weather, the palm trees.
“But educationally,” she said, “the States is definitely better, which is why it is important for me to stay.” Dominique speaks with a confidence that is unusual for a teenager, but her voice trailed off here as she thought of Christmas at home. It was clear that choosing to stay was an incredibly painful decision for her.
Starting high school in New York, for one, was not an easy transition. Dominique would hardly talk to any of her classmates, afraid that they might judge her. She didn’t want to discuss her citizenship status. She would look after her younger cousin during the day and attend high school at night. Lupe would later come to be her best friend, but it was only through their internship—outside of the classroom setting—that their relationship finally blossomed.
The first person Dominique clued in to her status was her boyfriend at the time, Danny, a Haitian classmate of hers who has lived in New York for most of his life. After months of dating, Dominique found the courage to tell him during a class trip to Long Island. They walked hand in hand in the PATH train station, and it reminded Dominique of landing at the airport.
“I wish I could travel again,” she told him, hesitantly.
At first, Danny was confused. “What do you mean?” he asked, telling her to use her passport. “And we can leave the country and travel together.”
“No,” she replied. “I don’t think you understand. I don’t have a U.S. passport. I don’t have an American I.D. I don’t have social security here. I am undocumented, and if I left I would never be able to come back.”
Danny was shocked that Dominique had not told him earlier, but was also supportive of her situation and convinced her to start applying for citizenship immediately.
Dominique’s life was slowly falling into place: through Reel Lives, she had become close with Lupe, who helped her make her film; she had a boyfriend; and she was succeeding in school. But things took a turn when she came home one night and was immediately confronted by her aunt “She opened the door and gave me two options; either return to Trinidad or move out,” Dominique said, staring into her mug of tea. “I didn’t really understand what was going on. I knew that I couldn’t look after my cousin as much as she wanted me to; she thought I was taking things for granted. Except, I didn’t agree, I told her that I lived here too, and I needed a life of my own. I was working hard and keeping busy. I didn’t want to give up my life here”
There had been a time when Dominique would go to church every Sunday with her cousin and aunt, but since their falling out she has only seen them once. Ironically, the only news she receives of them is through relatives back in Trinidad.
Dominique relates all of this with a nervous smile on her face, her hands playing with her golden rings. “It doesn’t seem so bad now. Maybe it was for the best, but that summer was incredibly stressful and painful. I slept on a blow-up mattress in my friend’s small, one-bedroom apartment. Then her mother told me I needed to find somewhere else to live.”
“I was taking up too much space,” Dominique said.
Through another nonprofit called The Door, which provides young people with legal and immigration services, Dominique found a lawyer who helped guide her through the legitimate immigration process. Together, they prepared a testimony explaining why she was in New York and a list of reasons why she should be able to stay. It was a lengthy process that required several court cases. Dominique also kept a diary and wrote notes of what life was like back in Trinidad. She dug through her past and recalled unpleasant memories in order for the judge to sympathize. (Dominique would rather not disclose the extremely personal details.) Ultimately, this past summer the court granted her permission to stay in the U.S.
“I remember once the court case was over, I ran out the room shaking with joy!” Dominique remembers.
After more than two years of anxiety and determination, Dominique is now waiting to receive her Green Card and can finally look forward to visiting her family in Trinidad as a permanent resident of the United States. She graduated from high school and is currently pursuing a degree in Communications at New York City College of Technology, with the goal of ultimately landing a job in media. Dominique and Danny have broken up and she is now temporarily living in the Reel Lives’ office space, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
* * *
Lupe is about five-foot-four with dark brown hair that reaches past her shoulders. She’s easy to talk to and extremely honest and open. I met with her on a Friday afternoon in November at the Reel Lives’ office. As I walked in, Lupe left the table covered in hard drives and laptops, where students worked on their films, and we walked into Dominique’s temporary bedroom. Sitting down, Lupe’s voice trembled a little and she revealed that I would be the first person to hear her entire immigration story. She is no longer witnessing Dominique’s struggle, and helping her friend make sense of it all on film—she’s living it herself.
“Oh god,” she said, “I hope you don’t mind if I cry. I think I’m the most sensitive person in the world!”.
I asked her to start from the beginning, and tell me about the moment she first realized she was undocumented.
“I’ve always known about my status, but denied what was truly going on,” she began, her shoulders slumping as she leaned back in her chair. “When people asked, I brushed it off.”
Indeed, Lupe was at least somewhat aware of her status by the age of ten, when a teacher asked her if she had papers. That night, her mother confirmed what she already assumed was true—she was undocumented. Throughout school, Lupe was bullied. She had two battles to fight: her insecurity related to her body image, and an inner battle about how to live as an undocumented student while preserving any hope at a decent future. “Even though it was a racially diverse school, people often think of Latinos as all having crossed the border illegally. I didn’t want to fall into that stereotype too,” she said. “I already felt very depressed about my weight and didn’t want this to become another problem.”
Lupe carried the burden with her all through school and did not tell her story to a single person. By not sharing her story though, she consequently wasn’t able to educate herself about the implications of living an undocumented life. While her immigration story is quite different from Dominique’s, by her teenage years she found herself in a very similar place: illegal, and not fully cognizant of what that meant for her future in America.
It was only after seeing “I am: Anonymous,” Dominique’s short film about being undocumented, that Lupe truly understood what her own status meant. “I saw a lot of her in me, and her story helped me never give up,” Lupe said. She started researching her options, but still resisted sharing her status with others.
“I haven’t told anyone,” Lupe admitted to me, a year later as we sat in Dominique’s small bedroom. “Because once you start talking, you really start believing what you’re saying and the life you’re living.”
Lupe flew to New York with distant relatives when she was three years old. Since she was so young, she had no problem at the airport immigration control. Her father was already in New York, working in the restaurant industry and her mother joined later that year. Both had crossed the border illegally, on foot, led across by “coyotes.” Entering the U.S. illegally has never been as dangerous as it is today, but even twenty years ago it was an extremely exhaustive and psychologically demanding trip. Gang violence was very present on the Mexican border, as it is today; women were often raped, and it was not uncommon to finish the trip stripped of all of your belongings, including your identity. Lupe’s parents had little in the way of food, drink or sleep during their crossings. When Lupe talks about this, she cannot help but cry, thinking of the danger and horror that could have befallen them—of the sacrifices they made for her, for their family. Her father started working in the Bronx as a busboy after arriving in the city, and has risen to become a waiter. She describes him as her hero. Her mother doesn’t work as she looks after Lupe’s younger brothers but is very active within the local community and often attends school meetings.
A few years ago, Lupe’s father returned to Mexico to visit his own sick father. Crossing the border, he was not allowed a cell phone, so there was no contact between him and his family. Lupe would worry every night, wondering whether she would ever see her father again. Then, one night, without notice, he was dropped off in front of her apartment building in the Bronx. Lupe remembers being shocked at how much weight he had lost, but recognizes how lucky he was that he hadn’t suffered more significant mental, physical or emotional scars from the trip.
Relatives back in Mexico often wonder when Lupe and her parents will return to visit. “When are you coming back? When we’re lying in our graves?” they ask. When Lupe’s grandmother suddenly passed away on Thanksgiving Day last year, none of the family could risk returning home, and they were wracked with sadness and guilt as a result.
Still, Lupe has her eyes cast toward the future. Despite little help and a high school counselor who told her she had no chance of attending any college other than City University of New York, Lupe set her sights on the Communications program at Syracuse University. “It became my dream school,” she says. “I loved the idea of living on campus and going to class in a Syracuse sweatshirt.”
However, after meeting with a counselor there, the situation seemed hopeless. Lupe could not afford tuition and it is nearly impossible to apply for financial aid when undocumented. Plus, she would not be allowed to stay in the dorms due to her status. Depressed and humiliated, she continued applying to different colleges in New York and decided to pursue her interest in fashion. She applied to Parsons The New School for Design.
One day, walking through the garment district in Manhattan, she recognized Tim Gunn from a distance. Gunn, the chair of Parsons’ Fashion Design program from 2000 to 2007, is now better known for his role on the reality show “Project Runway.” Lupe was stunned to see him, and without much thought, couldn’t help but approach Gunn and ask if he could help a young, aspiring artist like herself to afford the school’s tuition. Their conversation did not last too long, but Gunn took note of Lupe’s name before he left the fabric shop. It was only until she received a letter of admission and a partial scholarship to Parsons’ Fashion Design program that Lupe remembered her brief conversation with the celebrity. She attended Parsons for a year but ultimately had to defer as she realized that, even with the scholarship, tuition was simply too high.
Lupe is currently an intern at Reel Lives and also working in the Christmas market in Union Square, as she tries to save money in order to return to college. “Now, I am starting to think I want to become a school counselor. I had no one to guide me and there are so many undocumented youth out there who need help,” she tells me, her eyes wet with tears. “This is urgent, people can’t wait much longer. I can always have fashion on the side as my passion.”
Lupe is also thinking of getting involved with the New York State Youth Leadership Council, the group that held the spring rally where both she and Dominique had remained in the background, afraid to speak up as undocumented immigrants. The campaign’s priority for 2012 is passing the New York Dream Act, a bill that would allow immigrant youth who have grown up in the U.S. to access state-funded financial aid programs. Lupe is also currently applying for a Visa under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a policy announced in June by President Obama that would halt the deportation of certain young immigrants and provide them with work authorization. Such an application costs $465 and if she receives it, Lupe could legally remain in the United States for two years before having to re-apply. For now, she must wait.
* * *
The night of the presidential election, Dominique paced around the Reel Lives office finding the political debate and dramatic build-up to the event actually quite boring. “Even in Trinidad I was not into politics. So here it’s even worse,” she says smirking, “I just don’t trust anyone.”
Although she watched only half-heartedly as the results came in, she was still in favor of President Obama. Lupe, on the other hand, was pinned to her couch at home in the Bronx, her eyes fixated on the TV. She was extremely nervous throughout the evening. Every time a state turned red, she panicked and could not resist releasing a cry of worry, while chatting ferociously to Dominique online. But when it finally became clear that Obama was returning to the White House, both girls had no words to express their relief; not only because the Dream Act would have a chance at passing on the federal level, but also because it meant that Lupe would not have to return to Mexico immediately. Her parents had already decided they would rather return there than live in fear and constant scrutiny under the Republicans’ stricter stances toward immigrants.
Lupe’s response to this possibility was perhaps best summed up by the reaction of her younger brother, who was born in the United States and has always lived in New York. He has no firsthand knowledge of life south of the border, much like scores of other young immigrant New Yorkers feel no such connection to their parents’ and grandparents’ homelands, or even their own places of birth in many cases.
Hearing their mother’s explanation that they might have to return, Lupe’s brother was shocked. “What?” he asked pointedly. “Why Mexico? This is home.”
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Sophie Butcher is a freelance writer, photojournalist, illustrator and designer who lives in Brooklyn. She has exhibited work in The New York Public Library and The Museum of the City of New York, among other places. She is currently working in the photo department at TIME Magazine.