Coming out in the immigration debate

Valedictorians are rule-followers. They turn their work in on time, and check their spelling, grammar, and references carefully beforehand. They don’t slack off on courses draftthat aren’t interesting or assignments that aren’t important. It’s hard to stay focused all the time, and do it better than anyone else around you. (I imagine; I didn’t come close to delivering that valedictory address as a high school student.) They take everything seriously. We’re impressed with their achievements and their discipline.

That’s why we pay attention when such hyperachievers make waves, as two brave young women did in Texas last week. Mayte Lara Ibarra, valedictorian at David Crockett High School in Austin, tweeted her impressive academic accomplishments after her speech, and revealed that she was an undocumented immigrant. On the same day, Larissa Martinez announced her undocumented status in her valedictory address at the McKinney Boyd high school.

Valedictorians aren’t usually risk takers, and most of their speeches are memorable only to their families. Ms. Ibarra and Ms. Martinez decided to use their moments to make a larger point about a toxic political debate about immigration in which some partisans focus on the few undocumented immigrants responsible for heinous crimes. The true story: a group of some 11 million people will include both achievers and delinquents, but the latter don’t get to keep their status secret. The valedictorians, who didn’t have to disclose, came out about their status to show a fuller picture of America’s immigrants, documented and otherwise. These young women excelled in EVERYTHING in high school; the smart money says that they’re going to continue to excel at the University of Texas and Yale University, respectively, and to make good use of every opportunity they’re given.

President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals made it a little bit safer for these young women than for other undocumented youth who came out over the past 5-6 years, including journalists, students, and civil disobedients pressing for immigration reform. All, however, have been working to push the public debate, offering to serve as poster children for the cause.

And the risk hasn’t disappeared. Thus far, Ms. Ibarra and Ms. Martinez have encountered the toxic sludge of a social media dump, which seems a little less scary until you recall that a) they’re high school girls, and b) on odd occasions, tweeters and trolls are capable of violence in real life. It doesn’t take much imagination to think that a few people on their campuses next fall could work to make their lives miserable. They didn’t have to disclose, and they took serious risks in doing so.

Here, we’ve noted the way coming out works for campaigns about other issues as well, including LGBT activists and people suffering with mental illness. By coming out, these people work to destigmatize an identity or status, and move the political debate. Importantly, even after much progress, risk remains, as the events of the past week in Orlando tragically demonstrated.

Mayte Lara Ibarra and Larissa Martinez left high school and entered the political debate, a move that entails risk and displays considerable courage. They’ve learned enough to know that’s how the world changes.


About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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