For Mexican immigrant Hugo Sanchez, 24, being undocumented was the kind of problem that separated him, made him feel alone and caused an unending amount of stress. Then he heard of others who were in the same predicament. The difference was they did not hide in the shadows. This eventually inspired Sanchez to share his status in a particularly public way.
Last year, he joined his sister and four others to block the street at a major Phoenix, Ariz. avenue in an act of civil disobedience. For hours, 150 activists rallied around them and chanted, "Undocumented and unafraid!" They also called for Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to arrest them in a state well known for deportations. In Sanchez's view, this stance was the only liberating option.
"[Hiding] is not the life I wanted," he said.
Sanchez was arrested -- although not by Arpaio -- and later released. Still, by making his struggle a public one, he joined a rising tide of undocumented immigrants who, in growing numbers, have revealed their status. Now, where fear and shame were once associated with being undocumented, being "undocumented and unafraid" describes a new norm, which hit its stride in 2012.
The slogan, and its message, grew out of the grassroots fractures of the nascent DREAM Act immigrant-rights movement about two years ago. In 2010, university student activists from across the country coalesced around the DREAM Act, a federal bill that would have offered a pathway to citizenship. The immigrants they represented became known as dreamers.
In Chicago, the Immigrant Youth Justice League held a coming-out rally where immigrants gave testimonies of being undocumented. Their signs and chants reflected the changing winds. The March 2010 rally, according to "Undocumented and Unafraid," a book by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Center for Labor Research and Education, was the first demonstration of its kind in the nation.
"We finally lost the fear of talking about our long-kept secret: we are undocumented," Ireri Unzueta, one of eight who came forward, wrote in the book. "We realized the power of speaking about our experiences in public and using our voices to sway opinions and counter the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has flooded our country."
This initial act of civil disobedience was followed by similar demonstrations across the country. On May 17, 2010, five youth were arrested after occupying Arizona Senator John McCain's office in Tucson. They were calling for immediate passage of the DREAM Act and focused on McCain because he did not vote on it in 2007 "in order to court anti-immigrant Republicans."
In 2011, Jose Antonio Vargas, who has become perhaps the best-known spokesman for the dreamers, came out publicly in The New York Times Magazine and has since toured the country telling his story.
Then, in 2012, Vargas' cover story for Time magazine included dozens of young, diverse and educated immigrants with similar stories. "I've also been witness to a shift I believe will be a game changer for the debate: more people coming out," he said.
The article could not have been more timely. Earlier that month, President Barack Obama had announced a program – dubbed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – to give younger undocumented residents a two-year deportation deferral and work permit.
The program followed coordinated pressure from members of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance who staged sit-ins and hungers strikes at Obama re-election campaign offices.
South Asian immigrant Adrian James, 26, was among those who occupied Obama for America offices in Los Angeles. He says he felt a moral obligation to join his community.
"First, I thought only of my individual risk. I felt strongly that I was risking all of myself for the cause. But I didn't realize that I was getting something in return – the feeling of community and solidarity," he said. "I learned that we can only truly secure our communities when we ban together as individuals in the community and protect our resources and most importantly our families."
In an election year, not only did James and other dreamers capture national attention, they also continued to mature their movement.
In July, the UndocuBus took to the road for their "No Papers, No Fear" campaign. About 30, mostly undocumented, riders drove east from Phoenix, crisscrossing Southern states promoting their cause. The bus tour emphasized a broader community of immigrants – not just dreamers.
They took their message, not only to undocumented immigrants, but also got in Secretary of State of Kansas Kris Kobach's face at an immigration law hearing in Birmingham, Ala. and were arrested at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
That is a significant turn from roughly a decade ago when undocumented immigrants bore their status with shame. "[Now], people who are coming out are seen as brave," Deisy Del Real said. "Being undocumented and unafraid is an act of courage."
Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, points to two books the center has published on the movement as further examples of this shift. "When the first book came out, everybody used pseudonyms – everybody disguised their identity. We worked so hard to protect the authors from being outed," he said to an audience. That was not the case with the second book. The fear was not the same.
Still, while these changes represent a new tendency, this trend is clearly segmented. Those who are coming out are more likely to be college-educated dreamers. They have a network of hundreds of undocumented activists and are allied with legal and advocacy organizations that can offer support.
"They have more space to be unafraid. If they are caught undocumented, they have a more compelling story to keep them here," said Del Real.
If developments in the dreamer movement in 2012 are the bellwether of change, we may be approaching a tipping point in the immigrant youth movement, which is now embodied in one simple phrase.
"It has become clear to me that deportations will continue to happen until we all come out of the shadows," wrote Unzueta, in "Undocumented and Unafraid." "My message to the government and those who still think we will silently stand by: we are paying attention, we are losing our fear, and we are not giving up."