"I Feel Like I Can't Be Fully Myself Most of the Time": Living as Undocumented and Queer
When Ana Ramirez Castillo, 19, first applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in May of 2017, she had consulted with immigration lawyers who warned her against applying. "At the time, immigration lawyers were still saying, ‘we do not recommend applying for the first time.’ But I had to."
More than six months later (at the time of our conversation) she has yet to get an official approval or denial of her application. Ramirez Castillo, who was born in Puebla, Mexico and was brought to Washington state by her parents at 6 months old, had just been elected to a student government position at Western Washington University when she decided to apply for DACA. "I held off applying until May because that’s when I was elected,” she said. Working in student government was a paid position, so she would need the work permit DACA would provide.
When President Obama first announced DACA, Ramirez Castillo was just 14 and too young to qualify. When she was able to apply the following year, her parents held her back. Although she has a brother a year younger than her who is a U.S. citizen, her parents worried if she applied for DACA she’d be less likely to want to move to Mexico with them should they decide to move back. “I was financially dependent on my parents,” she elaborated. “They didn’t want me to apply and I so I couldn’t.” The almost five-hundred-dollar application fee proved to be too much without their help.
When she arrived at Western Washington University, located 30 minutes south of the Canadian border, she made connections with other undocumented people on campus. By then, the 2016 presidential election was in full swing, and an unlikely presidential candidate’s divisive immigration rhetoric suddenly made applying for DACA for the first time a risk. "All these immigration lawyers are like, 'we should wait until after the election,’” Ramirez Castillo recounted about the advice she received. “We don't know if Trump will win, and if he does win, what he will do with DACA."
Ramirez Castillo, currently in her sophomore year of college and double-majoring in Political Science and Archaeology, is a six-hour drive from the town where she grew up, where her parents and brother still live. “I had a hard time because it was my first time away from home,” she shared. "Being so far away from my parents was hard because my mom kept telling me about how she would see Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).”
“That's really scary to think about, especially when I’m so far away from them. What if something happens to them?” Ramirez Castillo mentioned how each time she leaves for school, she wonders if it will be the last time she sees her parents, who are also undocumented. If something happened to them, would she have to drop out of school to care for her younger brother?
Ramirez Castillo is financially dependent on her parents, which makes it difficult for her to be "out" as a lesbian to them. “I am not out to my parents,” she said. “My parents are very homophobic, and I know they would kick me out of the house if they knew I was a lesbian.”
The dichotomy of having parents whom she relies on financially, but who she knows wouldn’t accept her, is difficult for her to reconcile. “I love them. They are my family. They crossed the border so I could have a better life and be in the U.S.”
Her parents aren’t the only people in her life who she feels she has to code-switch with, however. “There is a double closet I have to come out of,” she shared.
“I have a friend who didn’t know I was queer...and [when I told her], she was not very accepting. She had always known I was undocumented and was accepting,” she continued. “Sometimes people are very accepting of one identity and not the other.”
Ramirez Castillo struggles with her identity in romantic relationships as well. Last year, she was romantically involved with someone who didn’t know she was undocumented. “I don’t know how to bring that up. People always ask a lot of questions. They want to know all these details, and sometimes you don’t want to share every last detail.” When it comes to “coming out” as undocumented in her dating life, she always waits to share that information. The same holds true for platonic relationships.
"I tried going to some LGBT organizations on campus, but I feel like I just don't fit in. Most of the people there are white, for starters. They are LGBT, but they don't understand what it's like to be oppressed by both identities. Even if I share my story, I feel like people don't get it all the time." There are some people with whom she shares both her identities, but mostly it’s one or the other. “There are some within the LGBT community that only know about my queer identity and not my undocumented identity. I feel like I can't be fully myself most of the time. It's really hard to not be able to express myself and be who I am, all the time all or most of the time.”
Not being able to be herself is something she thinks about a lot, especially when the possibility of having to leave the U.S creeps into her mind.
"My parents have this idea that, if one of us gets deported, we all have to go back to Mexico as a family. I don't want to do that. I don't know what that would look like for me as a queer person.”
The thought of being outed to her parents also weighs on her. “What if I am there and I have to come out to my parents and they disown me? Where am I gonna go in Mexico? They're all I have there, and if I'm disowned by my parents I'm not going to have anywhere to go. I’ll be in this country I’ve never been to.” Therein lies the conundrum many young undocumented people face: how will they survive in a country unfamiliar to them? For Ramirez Castillo, she questions if she can even speak the language well enough to be successful in school there.
As she awaits a final decision on whether her DACA will be approved or denied, Congress has been unable to stop an hourglass started by the Trump administration, which leaves current DACA recipients and other undocumented people in limbo. Ramirez Castillo shared mixed feelings at the possibility of getting an approval letter in the coming weeks. “I would be very excited, but also I would be almost heartbroken because I would be protected for two more years but I know that everyday 122 DACA recipients lose their status.” She went on, "I would feel sad that I would be protected but all these other people wouldn’t."
I originally wrote about Ana for a series at Into. This long-form piece was the first incarnation of that series.