The Courage to Be Undocumented

Former Washington Post journalist turned immigration reform activist, Jose Antonio Vargas, center, an illegal immigrant himse
Former Washington Post journalist turned immigration reform activist, Jose Antonio Vargas, center, an illegal immigrant himself, speaks at an informational news conference supporting President Obama's announcement to stop deportations of younger illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, in Washington, on Wednesday, June 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

My senior year in high school was a tough one. My mom suffered a devastating accident, my college dreams were fading away, and I felt like the biggest liar in the world.

It was the year 2000, a year before the DREAM Act to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented children was introduced in Congress. I knew I couldn't be the only one, but I had not heard of a single person like me -- someone who came to the U.S as a child and thought America was home. I didn't feel like a DREAMer, I felt like an imposter.

The thought of telling anyone, even my closest friend, that I was an "illegal alien" seemed impossible -- and equally impossible was the thought of not keeping my immigration status a secret. The idea of publicly "coming out" never even crossed my mind.

One day, I gathered all the courage I had and decided to tell Troy, my high school boyfriend. I was nervous in the same way I was nervous when I had to tell my parents I did something wrong. I don't remember exactly what I said, or how I said it -- it's all a blur now.

The day after I told him, we skipped school and made our way to the INS office in San Antonio to ask for the requirements for "my friend" to become a U.S. Citizen through marriage. In retrospect, that was probably a terrible idea, walking into an INS office, saying here I am.

I was somewhat relieved when we realized that even if we got married, I still wouldn't be able to become a U.S Permanent Resident, because as high school students we didn't meet the income requirements. I didn't want to marry Troy, or anyone for that matter. I didn't want to get married at 17.

Regardless of whether I would be able to fix my immigration status by telling him, I felt an incredible sense of relief that someone knew, that someone understood. I no longer had to make up excuses for why I wasn't applying to colleges for early admission. I could share all my fears and anxiety with my best friend. It was great to be able to tell someone everything. It was great, that is until I wanted to break up with him. This was high school and I wasn't immune to high school drama, and fleeting high school love.

During an English class project, I developed a huge crush on my teammate, we'll call him Jesse. But how could I break up with Troy? Troy was my best friend. I cared deeply for him and I didn't want to hurt him. He pawned his guitar so he could buy me a Christmas present, he wrote me poems and drew portraits of me. He was the sweet guy. He understood me, he knew everything and I didn't have to feel embarrassed around him. I felt a deep sense of guilt and betrayal for even wanting to break up with him, and I also felt trapped. I broke up with him, got back together with him, broke up with him again, got back together. The relief of telling him my secret was quickly overshadowed by guilt. It took years before I trusted anyone with my secret again. I didn't want to put myself in the same situation. I didn't want to feel obligated to anyone just for understanding me and for not judging me.

It took 15 years, the film Documented and a U.S passport obtained through marriage to publicly share my story. I get countless messages from people telling me I was so brave to share my story. I must admit that I don't feel so brave. I lived in the shadows for what felt like an eternity. I didn't risk being deported, being separated from my family, being fired from my job when I shared my story. I wasn't declaring from the top of my lungs that I was undocumented and unafraid. I kept quiet, I kept to myself, and I tried to blend in.

When I watched Documented on April 17, 2014, everything changed. In the documentary, Jose Antonio Vargas risks everything to "come out" as an undocumented American. I watched with admiration and excitement as the DREAMers inspired him to share his story, to join the fight.

His film and his very personal story gave me the confidence to share my own. It inspired me to finally own up to my past -- I realize now that I never gave Troy the credit he deserved, that the guilt was all mine.

It's not the year 2000 anymore and the DREAM Act hasn't passed, but over the last 15 years a movement has been brewing. There have been many truly brave heroes who have made it possible for me to share my story, to feel less alone and to hopefully help other undocumented Americans along the way in my role at Define American, a media and culture organization started by Vargas.

At Define American, we believe there is tremendous power in personal stories. One story changed the course of my life. Imagine if our collective stories can change history? This question is at the heart of our new "Coming Out" campaign, which encourages undocumented Americans to step out of the shadows.

I hope there will be thousands of people who will be braver than me, who will join in writing a different story for America -- one that ends with our great country embracing the diversity of all its residents.

Julissa Arce is Director of Public Affairs at Define American. Prior to that, Arce spent nearly 10 years on Wall Street as a vice president at Goldman Sachs, some of those years while undocumented.