There are more than 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States, more than 2 million of whom are children, and Jorge Gutierrez knows what it feels like to be among them.
As an undocumented student, Gutierrez—who is among the students featured in Papers: Stories of Undocumented Youth—doesn’t have a Social Security number, can’t legally work in this country and doesn’t qualify for federal loans to attend a university.
“As an undocumented student myself, I’m not able to drive, get a legal job, work in the field that I trained for,” says Gutierrez, 26. “Although I have a bachelor’s degree, I’m still working at a burger joint because those are the only jobs I can get my hands on right now.”
Which is why Gutierrez is politically active in working to get the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act—aka the DREAM Act—passed into law so it can provide undocumented students their legal status via enrollment in higher education or through enlisting in the U.S. military.
“I came over with my mom and four siblings when I was 10 years old,” says Gutierrez, who graduated from California State University, Fullerton, in 2008 with a degree in English. “We started paperwork in 1996-97 and it’s been over 10 years now. Our system is so outdated and broken that there’s really no other opportunity for me to legalize my status but the DREAM Act. That’s why I’ve been really involved—because it affects me personally.”
And if the everyday obstacles he faces aren’t enough, Gutierrez is also openly gay, a choice he confronts head-on as he deals with a double layer of discrimination from within the Latino community.
“Even within the movement, people aren’t comfortable talking about what it means to be Latino and queer,” he says. “How is it that our own people discriminate against our own people? Some folks are holding me back and not allowing me to move forward because for them, being queer is still taboo and something that is shameful and sinful.”
All his efforts have led him to Papers, a documentary from lesbian partners Rebecca Shine and Anne Galisky that tells the stories of undocumented youth and the challenges they face as they turn 18 without legal status.
Gutierrez was at a conference in 2009 after the DREAM Act was reintroduced to Congress and met Shine and Galisky. The filmmakers were impressed with Gutierrez’s volunteer work with the Orange County DREAM Team and invited him to participate in the documentary—which arrives on DVD on Sept. 13.
“I found it very interesting that a lot of folks at the meeting were not only undocumented but also queer,” he recalls. “That resonated with them … and they were able to bring me on board for the documentary so I could make sure that I expressed what it also means to be undocumented and queer within the movement.
“I always make sure that I own up to my queer identity because a lot of the leaders are women and queer people and they’re at the forefront of the movement, but for some reason they’re not comfortable enough to talk about the queer identity,” says Gutierrez, who next wants to apply for grad schools and eventually teach African-American literature. “It gives me the responsibility to be their voice until they’re able to do that. In a way, I’ve been able to bridge those two identities—to be undocumented and queer within the movement. I don’t think it’s going to hurt my chances of gaining legality once the DREAM Act passes, but sometimes it does create some discomfort within the movement. But I’m OK with that and I’m OK with making people uncomfortable because I always have to be true to who I am.”
While he continues to be an activist working with the DREAM Act, Gutierrez—who also started a queer Latino/Latina group in Orange County to “fight homophobia and stand up for our rights here in Orange County”—hopes he can continue to bridge both the LGBT community and the immigrant community to unite for equality.
“You might think that the immigrant rights movement and the queer rights movement do not intersect, but they do and there’s a lot of undocumented queer youth that are being more empowered and coming out,” says Gutierrez, who worked two day jobs to pay his way through college. “I think the queer rights movement needs to work in solidarity with the immigrant rights movement. Imagine all the positive work that these two groups combined could do throughout the nation.
“I know that if I had my documentation, I would already have my master’s,” he says. “But because I’m in the situation I’m in, it took a lot more effort and time. It’s a lot of personal sacrifice.”
For more information about the DREAM Act and Papers: Stories of Undocumented Youth, go to papersthemovie.com.