In the summer of 2014, I was arrested and detained at the Texas border. My sin: I am a Philippine national living in the United States without proper legal documents. This was not a secret. In fact, I had made it widely known, against the advice of my lawyers and despite the deep reservations of my family. But sometimes you have to risk your freedom to set yourself free. So after graduating from high school and college, after more than a decade working as a journalist (I was part of a team that won a Pulitzer for The Washington Post), and after years of lying to employers and friends about exactly how I immigrated to the United States, I revealed my status as an undocumented immigrant in an essay published in The New York Times Magazine in 2011. A year later Time put my face on its cover to help illustrate a follow-up story titled “Not Legal, Not Leaving.”
All of the articles and photos from our special Immigration Issue are available in the October 2016 issue, on newsstands now.
As a result of that very public coming out, I became the country’s most visible “illegal,” as Donald Trump and many others call people like me. I realized I was in a unique position to educate people about the undocumented. I made a documentary on immigration for CNN that used my own story—my mama sending me to live with my grandparents in California at age 12; discovering my immigration status at age 16, when I tried to get a driver’s license; going public as an undocumented person at age 30—to shed light on the challenges that all undocumented people face. I appeared on MSNBC and Fox News to reach people of all political persuasions. I founded DefineAmerican.com, a nonprofit that seeks to humanize what is too often a partisan, polarized issue, and set about collecting stories of undocumented immigrants.
Yet in spite of all that, I found myself sitting on the cold floor of a jail cell, unsure of what would happen to me. During the eight hours I was locked inside that Texas detention center, I found myself thinking, I don’t want to be merely a poster boy for the undocumented; I refuse to keep being labeled as “the face” of the immigrant rights movement. I am, after all, only one person—mine is simply one story. In an era where people can easily tell their own stories to the world via social media, there is no single immigrant narrative. I concluded that I was neither the advocate nor the activist that immigration reformers and members of the media expected me to be. I was, and am, at my core a journalist and a filmmaker whose personal saga is inevitably married to those of millions of undocumented people who call America home. Shortly after being released from that detention center, I left the East Coast, where I’d been living for ten years, and moved back to the West Coast. I settled in Los Angeles for two reasons: It’s the epicenter of storytelling, and it’s the heart of our country’s immigrant population, documented and undocumented. This diverse metropolis was the perfect place, I thought, to form #EmergingUS, a journalism and multimedia start-up (hosted by the publishing platform Medium) that uses video and commentary to explore three issues that are inextricably entwined—race, immigration, and identity. Our country is living through an unprecedented demographic shift; 55 percent of the total U.S. population growth in the past 50 years is due to a modern influx of immigrants, mostly Latinos and Asians, according to the Pew Research Center. In the next 50 years, Pew predicts, immigrants and their descendants will constitute 88 percent of overall population growth.
A large segment of the “emerging us” that is Los Angeles is made up of undocumented newcomers. Of the estimated 2.67 million undocumented immigrants who reside in California, an estimated 815,000—or more than 30 percent—live in Los Angeles County, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Over the next four pages you will meet a few of us and learn a little bit about our lives: the jobs we do, the bills (and taxes) we pay, the questions we get asked every day. We are housekeepers and construction workers, teachers and city commissioners, entrepreneurs and, in my case, a CEO. We are Mexican and South Korean and Romanian and African and Filipino. We are proud to be your neighbors. Like you, we call Los Angeles home.