Becoming undocumented and unafraid : impacts of “illegality” on identity formation and university student activism




Hernandez, Ana Vidina

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This study explores the ways in which the construction of illegality impacts the identity formation of undocumented organizers, as well as how this identity and broader understanding of social oppression leads to university student activism. This thesis documents the process by which this occurs, which is complex, painful at times, and beautiful. Through an analysis of 15 qualitative interviews with undocumented student organizers and field notes of meetings, hearings at the state capitol, and protests, this study uses activist research methods that serve a practical purpose for the social movement and contribute meaningfully to the academic knowledge base. Each participant, through their examples of interactions with systems, discussed the ways in which their skin color, perceived race, and legal status combined in oppressive or discriminatory experiences. Whether interaction with law enforcement, medical systems, or educational institutions, these students articulated the ways in which their identities impacted their perception in society, and thus their own identity formation. Participants also discussed the process that led them toward activism. This thesis explores the ways in which undocumented status is not necessarily noticeable on the outside, which contributed to students’ feelings of isolation or of thinking they were the only undocumented students in high school or college. Interviewees emphasized their start as organizers as being part of a call to action rooted in their experiences of finding a community to belong to. Participants also discussed allies’ contributions to the movement, burnout and emotional stress related to organizing efforts, and the complexities of the phrase “undocumented and unafraid.” Taken as a whole, this thesis details the formation of these individuals’ identities over the course of their lives. Overall this research provides further evidence of the potential for advancing rights for those who fall outside the arbitrary bounds of illegality and further demonstrates the power of young people in this movement.


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