In announcing a dramatic policy shift that would halt the deportation of undocumented immigrants brought here as children, President Obama underlined an issue at the heart of the debate over a generation of immigrants who have known no other home but the US: What does it mean to be American?
"They pledge allegiance to our flag," Obama said Friday. "They are American in their hearts, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper." With those words and a stroke of his pen, Obama effectively called hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants out of hiding. He also spoke directly to thousands more immigrants who have emphatically declared that they will no longer hide -- immigrants like Julio Salgado.
Salgado is a graphic artist and undocumented immigrant whose work
and life story have come to embody an increasingly vocal and youth-led immigrant rights movement.
He's the co-founder of the collective Dreamers Adrift,
which helps undocumented youth tell their stories through art and
performance. He has campaigned for his right and the rights of others like
him to claim American identity through the online comic strip Liberty for All and on a Tumblr blog whose name is as defiant as it is declarative: I
EXIST. And this week, he is featured along with dozens of immigrant youth in the TIME Magazine cover story "We Are Americans," written by activist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas.
Earlier this month, Salgado fired off a series of poster images called Undocumented Apparel. The series offered his most biting commentary yet on the immigration debate by taking on the hipster clothing chain American Apparel, whose recent ad campaign featured a fashion model clutching a Latino farmer like an of-the-minute handbag.
The images feature Salgado's real-life acquaintances as models of a very different kind, with bold graphics and stinging text that distill the complex issue of immigration into the simplest possible human terms. "Things don't get better. We get stronger," Salgado quips in one ad that directly references the "It Gets Better" anti-bullying campaign.
If Obama's end-run around Congress was designed for anyone, it was designed for people like Salgado: In 1995, at the age of 11, he arrived in the US from Mexico with his family on temporary visas. When doctors told Salgado's family that his little sister had a life-threatening kidney condition, his parents faced an impossible choice: return to Mexico and risk her health, or remain in the US for a long and slow recovery from surgery. In choosing the latter, they became undocumented once their visas expired. Now just under 30, with a degree from Cal State Long Beach, Salgado will potentially be one of many eligible for work permits under the temporary order.
Salgado, who is gay, spent his childhood hiding in more than one closet, keeping both his illegal status and his sexual orientation secret. Last fall, he described that double marginalization in a radio interview in his home state of California.
Hearing his story of fear and desperation as a closeted immigrant -- and seeing the paralysis that has gripped Congress, stalling passage of the DREAM Act -- you have to wonder if, as the slogan goes, things are going to get better beyond this two-year reprieve for a generation of students who consider themselves Americans in every sense of the word.
"The first time I came out as undocumented to someone other than my family was my ninth grade computer teacher. She’d offered me a summer job as a translator for her adult computer classes," Salgado said in the interview. "I remember I was so embarrassed to tell her why I couldn’t take the job. I needed my parent’s permission and my Social Security Number. I had the former but not the latter.
"When I finally had to tell her the truth, I was almost in tears," he said. "You’d think I was going to tell her I was the worst person in the world the way I was confessing my status. She simply shook her head, almost crying herself, and told me that my secret would be safe with her."
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