Angy Rivera's Journey to 'Coming Out' as an Undocumented Immigrant

The 24-year-old activist, who has been advising other immigrants for five years, is the subject of a new PBS documentary.

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Sep 26 2015, 4:39am

All photos via POV Documentaries

Angy Rivera was 19 years old when she first came out as undocumented, in 2010. Since then, she's helped countless others in similar situations, running Ask Angy, an advice column and video series in which she provides guidance to undocumented people in the United States. For years, people have sought out the young Colombian-American activist's advice about living a life without papers, and she faithfully wrote back to them with information about everything from getting a driver's license to getting married. Many of these people had nowhere else to go, afraid that exposing their undocumented status would provoke the brutal force of US immigration law. In her column, Rivera not only doled out counsel, she also helped chip away at the stigma attached to the "undocumented" label. Now 24, River is the subject of a new documentary, No Le Digas a Nadie (Don't Tell Anyone), which premiered on PBS earlier this week.

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No Le Digas a Nadie captures Rivera's activism in the immigrant rights movement in New York while also chronicling the emotionally taxing process she went through to apply for a U visa, only granted to immigrants who are victims of mental or physical violence. It's a status that was created through the passage of the Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act of 2000; Rivera was eligible because she had been abused by her former stepfather. VICE spoke to Rivera about Ask Angy, her new documentary, and why she didn't celebrate when she got her visa.

VICE: Talking about being undocumented in public is tricky, because it means exposing yourself. Why did you decide to start your column?
Angy Rivera: In March 2010, New York State Youth Leadership Council had our first "Coming Out of the Shadows" rally in New York. I handed [out] my email on a flier and people started emailing me. We thought it would be cool to have a place where people can ask questions anonymously, because I remember being undocumented when I was in high school and there was really nothing online where you could seek out that kind of information. You had to dig around a lot. Sometimes you couldn't even find anything. I didn't really think anyone was going to ask anything. But I did get a lot of questions.

What kind of questions were you getting?
I've gotten questions about how to drive without a license, about working while undocumented, about dating, about telling their children that they're undocumented, about depression and sadness. I've gotten questions from citizens who want to marry somebody who is undocumented. I've gotten questions about same-sex couples and their immigration status issues. And I've also gotten questions from people abroad asking me how to come to the United States.

Were there ever any questions that struck you, or moved you in a particular way?
There was an undocumented young women who was trying to convince her siblings to go to college. They didn't want to go because she didn't go, and they didn't want to make her feel bad about it. She didn't go because she didn't have papers. But they didn't know that.

"It's really hard to explain that [my visa] only came out of assault. To say that I'm 'lucky' to get these papers felt like they were saying that I was lucky to have been assaulted."

You're in a mixed-status family yourself, meaning you're not documented but your siblings are. What was it like growing up with siblings who were documented when you didn't have papers?
Being in a mixed-status family, I think, changes with age. When we were younger, we didn't really notice the differences. We all went to ESL classes and we struggled together. Until we started getting older and they start qualifying for certain privileges because they were born here and I [wasn't]. That's when things start to get awkward and complicated. I remember there was a lot of pressure on my siblings to do better than me. My siblings often felt guilty about having papers just because they were born here, when they felt like they hadn't earned them.

I think what a lot of people imagine when they think of the undocumented people is a disparate group of people who are scattered across the United States, because undocumented people have to keep their status secret. But you describe undocumented people in the US as a community, as a networked group of people. How did you discover the community? What is it like?
When I was in high school, all my friends were citizens. There are specific experiences and opportunities that you can't access when you don't have certain papers. So that's a little bit difficult to navigate when everyone else around you can access these things—for example, getting a license or registering to vote or getting financial aid, going on trips outside of the country, going back home. It's very heavy. It gets worse, because you have to figure out how to get to college if you want to go to college, how to find work if you need work.

When I joined the New York State Youth Leadership Council, I met other people who were not the same as me, but I can relate on different levels of experience. Many of them were older than me so I was able to see how people were going to college or pursuing a master's or working or getting their own apartment. These were all things that I didn't know I could do, because I didn't have anybody else. It was just my mom.

Angy and her mother Maria

You use the phrase "coming out" to describe the point when someone decides to go public about their status as an undocumented immigrant. What's the significance of using that kind of terminology?
A lot of the people that lead in the immigrant rights movement are queer women, and many of them brought up this idea of "coming out" with your immigration status. So it was very much inspired by the LGBTQ movement. That came about in 2010, when the Dream Act was a hot topic, and it was going to be up for a vote. A lot of them pushed for immigrants to speak for themselves, and not have other people speak for them. We wanted to be our own faces and our own voices.

In the film, you document the process of getting your U visa, which is granted to immigrants who are victims of crimes. You talk about how reporting the abuse you faced from your stepfather helped you get your non-immigrant status. What was that process like emotionally?
The application process was very dehumanizing and it was frustrating to go through all this paperwork and read things and basically beg to be able to stay here. All the years that I lived here didn't really matter because everything was centered on this assault that had happened. Having to relive everything is frustrating and painful when the one thing you want to do is move forward. When I got [the visa]—well, you can see in the film that it was not at all what I had expected. There's this short clip in the beginning, when I'm first applying where my attorney asks me, what are you going to do if you're accepted? I was like, "Oh, well I guess we should all go out and celebrate." Months later, when I was accepted, it didn't at all feel like it was supposed to feel. I think that not only frustrated me but people around me, who wanted to celebrate. "Angy, why are you not happy? You're so lucky!"

It's not as easy as filing papers, because there's a lot of emotional labor and the burden that comes with it. It's really hard to explain that this only came out of assault, and to say that I'm "lucky" to get these papers felt like they were saying that I was lucky to have been assaulted. It felt like all the other work and contributions that my family and [I made] didn't matter. We always say, "Immigrants need to learn English and pay their taxes and work hard." But at the end of the day, that wasn't at all what impacted my case.

The immigrant rights movement is so much bigger than just getting immigration papers. I've have plenty of people come up to me and tell me that they had been assaulted in a different country or they were assaulted and never reported it. These stories go untold. They're never going to be able to qualify.

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