CNN Photos

Undocumented youth: A dream deferred

Editor’s note: This blog post was first published in August 2013.

While undocumented immigrants are often portrayed as outsiders, photographer Sam Comen believes the immigrant experience is as much a part of American history — and worthy of documentation — as the “Okies” during the Dust Bowl Migration.

“I felt compelled to document their stories and create a platform in a photographic space. And, although there seems to be some kind of archaic perception of ‘Americanness,’ these undocumented youth are living the American experience,” Comen said.

“This is the perfect time to present these individuals’ stories to inform, illustrate and illuminate the larger policy debate.”

While photographing a small farming and oil community in California’s Central Valley – mostly comprised Chicano and Mexican immigrants – the native Angelino became fascinated with the lives of youth eligible for the DREAM Act.

Once keyed into their network, Comen learned that they were highly organized and empowered student activists. All of them were “out of the shadows” and had no issues being photographed in their environment or publishing their real names.

“I try to bring the motifs of my commercial work that I do for magazines and advertisers to the documentary setting,” Comen explained. “Whether it be a person, famous actor or musician, I shoot them with the same lens that I shoot everyday people, as everyday icons worthy of the public’s gaze and admiration.”

The images have been set in environments that speak to the subjects’ daily experience: workplaces, homes, community centers and amid activist demonstrations.

Anthony Ng, 24, who came to the United States at the age of 12, works as a policy advocate and organizer for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA and United We Dream, pushing for inclusive comprehensive immigration reform.

Rooster Cabrera, 20, who identifies as an undocumented queer punk, came from Mexico at the age of 4 and is the first in his family to graduate from high school. He is now helping manage a community-supported collective dedicated to education, arts and social action.

After fleeing El Salvador’s civil war at the age of 15, David Lemus, 20, and his family settled in Los Angeles. Now he attends UC-Berkeley and works as an advocate who protests for improved working conditions and fair wages for car washers.

Impressed by their openness to let him into their world and willingness to stand up even at the risk of deportation, Comen simply hopes his portraits amplify their message and perhaps call people to lean on their legislators to demand immigration reform.

“Their mission wasn’t only to pass a DREAM act. Some don’t feel comfortable identifying as ‘DREAMers’ but rather undocumented youth. But they all share one thing in common; they are fighting for some sort of solution for their moms and dads.”

Comen said the families of these undocumented youth are being criminalized and living in fear of local police. They are afraid to report crimes because of fear of deportation. He soon realized he was slicing one small topic of the heated immigration debate and hopes people see this is a human rights issue.

He was moved by their rallying cry, “Undocumented and Unafraid,” and wants people to be indignant.

“It’s a human rights travesty that we aren’t giving these undocumented youth the recognition as we have to generations of other migrants in the past,” Comen said.

His ultimate goal is to change the viewer’s perspective, he said.

“If we, as representatives of democracy, can’t do something for these undocumented youth, that so clearly deserve a life without fear, how are we possibly going to answer the question of what to do with the rest of the undocumented immigrants in this country?”

- Cindy Y. Rodriguez, CNN