Undocumented and unafraid

A new wave of young and diverse Immigrant protesters risk serious consequences to call for change. 

Guardian photo by Brittany M. Powell


Business as usual means buses depart from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in downtown San Francisco every weekday, ferrying deportees from throughout the region to federal detention centers or the airport. Even in San Francisco, a Sanctuary City where local law enforcement agencies have limited cooperation with ICE authorities, life can be filled with uncertainty for those who lack legal citizenship status.

In recent years, many immigrant activists have taken the step of publicly revealing themselves to be "undocumented," to sound a call for immigration reform and to push back against the fearful existence that the looming threat of deportation can create.

But the young people who are profiled here have taken things a step further, going so far as to risk arrest by protesting deportations and pushing for immigration reform, all while identifying themselves loud and clear as undocumented.

In the same vein as protesters who marched for civil rights, gay rights, free speech, or in anti-war movements before them, the undocumented youth are putting themselves on the line. Their mantra, chanted at top volume, is "undocumented and unafraid," highlighting the ever-present possibility that they could face stiff penalties for their actions.

Nationwide, an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants remain in limbo as a push for federal immigration reform, which would create a pathway to citizenship for people in the country illegally, remains stalled in Congress. While community-led campaigns have yielded legislation that creates safeguards against deportation for young people who arrived with their parents as children, bureaucratic nightmares and forced deportations continue unabated.

Nearly everyone we interviewed for this article mentioned their grandparents while sharing their personal stories with the Guardian. While the politics and policy surrounding immigration reform are tremendously complex, the impact the current system has on people's lives often boils down to problems like not being able to take a flight to visit an ailing grandparent because it would be impossible to return.

"It's intense," says Nicole Salgado, an American citizen who lives with her foreign-born husband in Mexico. "Because you know, it's essentially an issue of trespassing, and so it seems to me like it's a really harsh penalty for a civil infraction. No harm was done to a person, and that's the case for the vast majority of people who are in this situation."


Alex Aldana is nervous.

He's stopped making eye contact, which is strange, because Aldana doesn't normally break eye contact, and isn't the nervous type. Since 2012, he's been arrested seven times.

All seven arrests stemmed from acts of civil disobedience, each carried out to protest the same issue: immigration laws that he views as unjust, because they lead to forced deportation.

Aldana, 26, is an undocumented immigrant. He entered the US legally from Guadalajara, Mexico, in February 2003 on a work visa, but when the time on his visa ran out, he was left undocumented. It coincided with the departure of his father, a man Aldanda says deceived his family.

Like many other undocumented immigrants, he has been trying to give a largely misunderstood population a face. Unlike many others, he's doing so in a way that carries a great deal of risk.

He's part of the growing contingent of undocumented immigrants who are, as they say, "undocumented and unafraid." And when they say it, they shout it.

Aldana participated in a sit-in inside Gov. Jerry Brown's office. He's faced the Ku Klux Klan at pro-immigration reform rallies in San Bernardino. He's been a key link in a human roadblock created to halt a deportation bus in San Francisco. He's been detained by ICE and local police departments. He normally comes across as fearless, but not on this day.