A group of 25 young people gathers at a community center on a chilly Sunday in late October. Those organizing the event have brought soft drinks and supplies for icebreakers. They promise there will be pizza later.

More people file in, some early and some very late, and chat in little groups. Twenty minutes late, the organizers call everyone together into a circle. It is reminiscent of summer camp, of high school clubs, of an innocent team building exercise.

Each person introduces him or herself.

“I am undocumented.”

“I am an ally.”

The group is the Immigrant Youth Justice League. The community center is in Chicago’s Albany Park. The setting is relatively new for the immigrant community, but it is an old model of gathering struggling communities together. The vocabulary and rhetoric they use to describe their situations evoke that used in other circles where shame or hiding is the historic norm. The LGBT community knows the drill. Being undocumented is in many ways the new “coming out of the closet.”

“There is a certain wish for authenticity, and for reaching a sense of self in the friendships, in the new relationships, that is more genuine,” says Simona Cirio, a licensed family and marital therapist with the Family Institute at Northwestern University. “That’s a big motivating factor, a sense of being known for who we are and knowing others, so those relationships deepen.”

Cirio specializes in working with immigrant families. She is herself an immigrant, having moved to the United States from Italy twenty years ago for her husband’s job. Cirio lives and works in the country on a temporary visa that she renews every five years, a decision she says is difficult to explain to people who ask her why she is not an American citizen or permanent resident.

“I came dragging my feet. I am not ready to be a citizen yet,” Cirio says. “I can only imagine when you have a bigger thing to explain, that I shouldn’t even be here by law.”

The phenomenon of coming out as undocumented offers a different spin on the question of who is accepted in society. By the nation’s laws of immigration, the young undocumented people at the IYJL event fundamentally do not belong, and not because of their sexual or lifestyle preferences, as with the LGBT community.

IYJL provides what it terms a “safe space” for young undocumented immigrants and allies to come together and share their experiences. Everyone in the room is “out” with one another, but many hold jobs and thus do not want to be identified more publicly.

Rainbow out of paper stars displayed at the Annual Immigration Integration Summit in Feb. 2012 (Click on photo to go to Uniting America: In the LGBT Community)

The risks of “coming out” go beyond stigma and harassment, as it was and still is with the LGBT community; the risk is deportation. Coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender has resulted for many individuals in disownment by families; coming out as undocumented can result in separation from families by national borders. The stakes are just as high, or higher, and while many young immigrants hope to come out on their own terms, that is not always the case.

“In high school, I was playing Apples to Apples with friends,” one young man at the IYJL event recalls. It is a subjective party game with the goal of collecting the most “green apple” cards. The way he tells it, he was winning the game. “One of the girls said, ‘Wow, he has like all of the green cards.’

“And then this guy, who was my friend but he’s kind of a [jerk] says, ‘What are you talking about, he doesn’t have a green card.’ I hadn’t told any of them I’m undocumented, but my face just went white,” he recounts. “I was so scared. I hadn’t told anybody before.

“But now, when I tell people I’m undocumented, I remember I don’t have to rely on some jerk to say it for me. I can say it.”

Cirio says a person’s sense of morality often guides them.

“I think that, as with gay people, it’s pretty natural to tell a few trusted people and friends before telling more people, that seems like a natural process,” Cirio says. “There’s a certain level of fear always present, and also shame to some degree, that a person feels when they are doing something that is not legal, whether it’s right or wrong. ‘I think I’m in the right, I’m fighting for this,’ but that the current society and laws are saying I’m not doing something right and legal.”

With the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and proposed legislation such as the DREAM Act, it may be possible for undocumented youth to stop accruing unlawful presence in the United States, and have a path to legal status, even if it is temporary. DACA alone gives accepted undocumented immigrants work authorization and eligibility for a driver’s license. Proposed legislation in Illinois may allow Temporary Visitor Driver’s Licenses (TVDLs) for all undocumented immigrants, even if they are ineligible for temporary status programs such as DACA.

“I do think that there is a lot of hope in legislation, but there also may be a little bit of skepticism,” Cirio says of new policies such as DACA and the proposed DREAM Act. “I think the sense of not being safe in disclosing one’s status is huge.

“We should never underestimate; it’s hard to advocate when you feel you could lose any stability you have.”