The new ‘coming out’

Jose Antonio Vargas flies the undocumented flag at a Mitt Romney presidential campaign rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 2012. (Photo courtesy Apo Anak Productions)
Jose Antonio Vargas flies the undocumented flag at a Mitt Romney presidential campaign rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 2012. (Photo courtesy Apo Anak Productions)

“We mow your lawns, we work in your houses, maybe we’re your doctors, maybe we’re nurses,” says Jose Antonio Vargas in a voice over from his recent film “Documented.”

“We’re not who you think we are.”

It’s a line that could be lifted right out of a Marriage Equality campaign — a message that challenges stereotypes and underscores the everyday ordinariness of an often-politicized group. But Vargas isn’t talking about LGBT rights. He’s talking about America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Vargas famously “outed” himself as undocumented in a 2011 New York Times Magazine article and has gone on to record the “coming out” of many undocumented immigrants through his “Define American” project. As a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, filmmaker and immigration advocate who is both gay and undocumented, the LGBT rights parallel is not lost on Vargas.

“[We] can’t change the politics around this issue unless we change the conversation around this issue,” says Vargas who will be in Seattle this evening for a screening of his movie at the Social Justice Film Festival (The Seattle Globalist is a media sponsor of the screening) “I think part of the change that we’re seeing is that more undocumented people have come out and are coming out.”

Vargas believes that through increasing the visibility of undocumented immigrants Americans will be forced to see the significant, even mainstream, contributions of this often maligned population.

But that decision to make yourself more visible can be agonizing says Jennifer Martinez, a seventeen-year-old Redmond High School student. Especially when you’re outing the rest of your family.

“I was scared of potential legal actions against my parents,” says Martinez who herself is a citizen but whose parents are undocumented. Martinez made news last year when she and a friend confronted House Speaker John Boehner in a Washington D.C. diner about the impacts of deportations on families and children.

“They could be deported, separated from their families, they know they could be putting a target on their back,” says Rich Stolz, Executive Director of OneAmerica, a Seattle-based immigrant rights organization, explaining the potential dangers of publically revealing your status.

Stolz says it’s still not common for people to come out — the risks are just too great. The ones that do are often “dreamers,” like Martinez, who are the children of undocumented parents and feel a responsibility to advocate on behalf of their family members and communities.

Martinez says she was motivated by a childhood where the specter of her family’s mixed citizenship status loomed everywhere. Like the afternoon when she and fellow neighborhood children were quickly ushered inside to hide from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or when she didn’t sign up for a Redmond Police Department youth program because she was afraid it would endanger her parents.

That was the hardest part about coming out for Martinez. After sixteen years of trying to protect her parents she was putting her family in the spotlight — revealing the very secret they’d all worked so hard to hide.

“[When] I got back to the hotel room [after the confrontation with Boehner] I just called my Dad and burst into tears,” remember Martinez who works as a youth organizer for OneAmerica,  “I said ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know it was going to be this big.’”

And that burden can’t fall to undocumented people alone says Vargas, who believes that any successful civil rights movement (and he does see immigration reform as a civil rights issue) needs allies.

“Can you imagine the LGBT Rights movement without Gay Alliances?” asks Vargas who would like to see more American citizens “coming out” in support of the undocumented people in their lives — whether they’re family members, employees, neighbors, students or friends.

Martinez says community support was key in the days that followed her decision to “come out,” but that no reaction was more important that of her dad — who she says responded to her tearful phone call that night with, “I’m so proud of you.”

“Documented” will be playing tonight (Friday) at 5:00PM at University Christian Church: 4731 15th Ave NE Seattle 98105 followed by a panel with Jose Antonio Vargas and local immigration leaders. Tickets and details here

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.