The Undocumented

Students are putting faces on the debate over illegal immigration.

Lucas da Silva, an undocumented citizen who volunteers for/works with PICO’s Campaign for Citizenship, shares his story with students in professor Chong's International Human Rights course. (Photo by Justin Braun) Lucas da Silva, an undocumented citizen who volunteers for/works with PICO’s Campaign for Citizenship, shares his story with students in professor Chong's International Human Rights course. (Photo by Justin Braun)

“You can have whatever policy position you want,” says Dan Chong, assistant professor of political science, “as long as you understand the people affected by it.”

He’s sitting in his office on a Monday afternoon, the day before his class will release copies of Immigration Reform Now!, a short booklet relating, sometimes in heartbreaking detail, the stories of undocumented immigrants in the United States. They have been working on the booklet in conjunction with PICO United Florida, a network of about 270 congregations, totaling about 50,000 people, that focuses on helping working-class people and minority communities.

There is, for example, the story of Gilberto, a Mexican who crossed the border in 2000, and was later joined by his son. A police officer stopped his teenage son on his way to work one morning and demanded to see his papers. He didn’t have them. And so the son was taken away and eventually deported. And Araceli, whose mother put her on a plane from Oaxaca, Mexico, to the United States when she was just 10 years old. She graduated from high school with high honors and 37 college credits, but because she is here illegally, she was neither given a diploma nor permitted to attend an American university (she does, however, take one or two classes at a local college, which she pays for out of pocket). And Blanca and Rigoberto, whose undocumented status prevents them from applying for better job opportunities, which may hinder their three children—American citizens all—from getting a college education.

There are nine of these stories in total, all written by Chong’s students. The students in his International Human Rights course interviewed more than a dozen undocumented immigrants, asking them about their life stories and the hardships and in some cases human rights violations they faced. After that, a couple of students edited the narratives down, and with the help of the Office of Community Engagement, formatted and laid out the full-color booklet.

For his students, Chong says, the point of the project was to expose them to people they may not otherwise meet, which in turn could inform their beliefs. Some of his students, in fact, had never before interacted with an undocumented immigrant. “Some were surprised by the trials immigrants went through to get here,” Chong says, “how hard they work.”

He emphasizes that he wasn’t trying to change their beliefs—there were, and are, students in the class with diverging views on immigration reform, he says. And that’s fine. But those views need to be shaped, at least in part, by actual human experiences. 

“It’s difficult for people to understand what the life of immigrants is like,” says PICO United Florida executive director Peter Phillips ’73. So he and Chong, who had worked together on a number of issues in recent years, hatched this project both as a way for immigrants to tell their stories and as a way to bring those stories to the public’s attention, especially as Congress gears up to debate a controversial immigration reform proposal.

After the booklet’s April 16 release—at a small gathering of about 30 students, activists, and a family of Mexican immigrants—on the lawn behind the library, PICO United Florida plans to distribute it far and wide: across campus, to state officials, to members of Congress and other policymakers. “One night,” Phillips told the audience, “their guilty conscience is going to get to them.” Maybe, just maybe, they’d read it—and maybe it would change their minds.

Phillips says he’s optimistic about immigration reform’s chances this year, even though similar efforts—most recently in 2006—have failed, and even though the divided U.S. Congress doesn’t seem particularly prone to sweeping legislation.

“This debate has been going on for generations,” says Phillips. “But in the last 10 years, there’s a huge feeling of ‘we’ve got a major problem that’s got to be addressed.’”

At the end of the day, he hopes the stories Chong’s students recorded may play at least a small role in making that happen.