Civic Participation and Undocumented Youth

Civic participation and civil disobedience are often thought of as rights reserved for citizens. However, given the growing human rights campaign being waged by undocumented immigrants in the United States, now might be an appropriate time to reevaluate that definition.

Judith Torney-Purta et al. (2006: 352) found that there were “significant differences favouring students who are neither immigrants nor Hispanic in knowledge of civic content and concepts, in understanding democracy, [and] in possessing the skills necessary to understand political communications.” While their sample only included legal immigrants, it is safe to assume that, as one of society’s most disenfranchised and vulnerable subgroups, undocumented immigrants feel those disadvantages doubly. Alienated by the same English proficiency, income, and education gaps that plague other immigrants, undocumented residents must also live in fear of systematic reprisal from the Immigration Naturalization Services (INS) and Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE). This underclass is constantly threatened by deportations, fines, and jailing, which forces them to conceal their identities at all costs. Were another minority so grossly marginalized, they would no doubt demonstrate against their unequal treatment. Yet those whose actions have been deemed criminal, such as “illegal aliens,” rarely invite publicity.

However, that paradigm appears to be changing. A few years ago, a handful of groups representing Latino youth organized the first Coming Out of the Shadows Day. The event was intended to restore pride to a people who had come to associate their identities with shamefulness and secrecy. Employing rhetoric similar to the gay rights movement, undocumented Latinos were encouraged to re-appropriate the stigmas against them by publicly announcing their lack of legal status. The risks are obvious – most of America’s estimated eleven million undocumented residents strive to protect themselves from being outed. Yet each year, many undocumented residents challenge their country to confront an issue that is so close to home, yet so often shunned by citizens, lawmakers, and media. The Immigrant Youth Justice League, one of the movement’s principle sponsors, claims that the coming out movement is intended to “push the boundaries of what it means to belong in the United States and call this country home – as a juxtaposition to the way the government criminalizes us and our families” (Unzueta 2011).

It is difficult to pinpoint where and when this sudden surge in undocumented activism arose. Hinda Seif (2011) cites the large-scale protests against the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, during which demonstrators donned shirts reading “We Are All Immigrants,” as a possible catalyst. The gay rights crusade has undoubtedly been another source of inspiration. Journalist and author Jose Antonio Vargas, by far the most prominent immigrant to out himself thus far, explicitly cited Harvey Milk as an influence in his announcement (Vargas 2011). Undoubtedly, gays’ public identity revelations played some role in the startling pace at which they have advanced their agenda in the past several decades. It is understandable that an analogously marginalized subgroup would want to replicate that success. But, regardless of its exact origins, the coming out movement represents a generational shift in undocumented residents’ attitudes toward their identities and national responsibilities. Perhaps it is time to consider that civic participation is the duty of all those who feel they have a stake in their country’s fortunes.

Work Cited

Unzueta, Tania. 2011. “The Politics of Coming Out.” July 13. Retrieved 5/5/12.                                (

Seif, Hinda (2011). “Unapologetic and Unafraid: Immigrant Youth Come Out from the Shadows. Pp. 59 – 75 in New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development edited by Lene Arnett Jensen and Reed W. Larson.

Torney-Purta, Judith et al. 2006. “Differences in the Civic Knowledge and Attitudes           of Adolescents in the United States by Immigrant Status and Background.” Pp. 343 – 354            in Prospects, vol XXXVI, no. 3 edited by Fernando Reimers.

Vargas, Jose Antonio. (2011). “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.” The NeYork                      Times, June 22.