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Why Some Undocumented Immigrants Go Public Despite The Risks

Anti-immigrant rhetoric has driven many undocumented immigrants “to retreat behind a wall of silence,” according to Professor Sarah C. Bishop (Baruch College). But others want their stories known.

For her book Undocumented Storytellers: Narrating the Immigrant Rights Movement, Bishop interviewed undocumented young adults from 18 countries who’ve told their stories as activists, through the arts, or online. Her interviewees included a number of students from CUNY, which currently enrolls some 6,000 undocumented immigrants.

What motivated them to go public? For some, “communal coping” is an antidote to the isolation that often accompanies their lack of legal status. Those brought here as children may not realize they’re undocumented until they’re teenagers, when relatives explain why they can’t get a driver’s license or an after-school job.  Those revelations can lead to anger, fear, or even shame. Others feel grateful toward loved ones who sacrificed to bring them to the U.S. Either way, sharing these experiences is “a way to reckon with the limitations of their status alongside others facing similar circumstances.”

Storytelling is also a way to counteract “oversimplified and misleading narratives” that portray immigrants on the one hand as stealing American jobs and engaging in criminal activity, and on the other hand as “docile aspiring citizens” succeeding against all odds. One young woman said she appreciates stories of undocumented people “just living their lives … I just find it frustrating that in order to get attention, it has to be the worst story or the greatest story.”

But going public entails risks. A former CUNY student who made an autobiographical film was arrested while traveling to a screening he’d promoted on Twitter. He was on a train because he lacked the legal ID needed to fly.

Bishop recognizes that the impact of these narratives may be limited if audiences consist mostly of other immigrants and their supporters. Still, she believes “the future of immigration reform hinges on the power of storytelling.“ Sharing experiences publicly is “empowering,” offering opportunities for disenfranchised individuals to “reclaim the narrative” and reposition themselves as agents of change.

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Undocumented Storytellers: Narrating the Immigrant Rights Movement
Oxford University Press, 2019

Work By

Sarah Bishop (Professor, Communications) | Profile 1 | Profile 2

Colleges and Schools

Baruch College