Alejandra (right), an undocumented high school student in Oakland, with a friend.

Alejandra (right), an undocumented high school student in Oakland, with a friend. (Courtesy Undocumented Lives)

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor

If you’re like most people, your Instagram feed is populated with food, vacations, selfies and cats. And then there’s the Undocumented Lives account — containing, as an example, a photograph by Diana Clock, in which a 19-year-old named Bismark stands in front of a college building with a stare at once hopeful and apprehensive. The caption, culled from an interview with Melissa Pandika, shares that Bismark crossed the U.S.-Mexico border at 17 years old, with brother and sister in tow.

“We’re terrified of what might happen, but that’s not going to deter us from anything. It just means that I have to take more precautions, and speak to my parents and my siblings about what we can and can’t do anymore,” Bismark is quoted saying. “We’re saving up money, making sure we all know how to confront an ICE agent. … Making sure our house, at least, is somewhere we can feel safe.”

Bismark is 19 years old, undocumented and queer. At only 7 years old, Bismark came across the U.S.-Mexico border unaccompanied, along with their brother and sister. Now in college, they are a lead organizer with the North Bay Immigrant Youth Union, which fights for undocumented youth and the larger immigrant community. The group organizes rallies and workshops, and has reached out to local officials in favor of initiatives that would keep immigrants out of the detention and deportation system. Bismark is also a DACA recipient. – On recent government actions and their DACA status: "Obviously, it's really scary to realize that the government has so much information on us. And that they're going to be able to use that information as they wish. We're terrified of what might happen, but thats not going to deter us from anything. It just means that I have to take more precautions, and speak to my parents and my siblings about what we can and can't do anymore, and how we can prepare ourselves for deportation proceedings if that were to happen. We're saving up money, making sure we all know how to confront an ICE agent. What to do, what not to do. Making sure our house, at least, is somewhere we can feel safe." – #undocumented #dreamact #daca #immigration #undocumentedstudents #immigrationreform #undocumentedandunafraid #resist #humanrights #immigrantnation #undocuqueer #refugeerights #socialjustice #choosehumanity #heretostay #immigration #migration #nobannowall #wmaga

A post shared by Undocumented Lives (@undocumentedlives) on

Bismark — a college student and lead organizer with North Bay Immigrant Youth Union, which advocates for undocumented youth — is one of many undocumented students that Bay Area journalists Clock and Pandika photographed and interviewed over the past year as part of their ongoing project, Undocumented Lives. Their intention: to provide a platform for undocumented youth to counter conservative narratives about migrants by telling their own stories.

“Much of the coverage on undocumented immigrants I had encountered tended to describe them as this faceless, monolithic group,” writes Pandika over email. “I wanted to learn about who these immigrants were, beyond the statistics and political debate, but as individuals, each with unique stories.”

Cuahuctemoc, an undocumented UC Berkeley graduate. (Courtesy Undocumented Lives)

Pandika’s own parents lived undocumented in the United States for a short time, and she always had trouble placing herself in their shoes when hearing their stories, she says. When she began the project last year, “I wanted to understand further what it means to be young and undocumented in the U.S. — especially in the face of a possible Trump presidency — and help others do the same.”

Pandika and Clock started off by getting to know one student, who they had been introduced to by a friend who teaches high school in Oakland. After getting to know each other and building trust, their first subject then began introducing Pandika and Clock to others. Students also began reaching out to them through the Undocumented Lives Instagram account.

Throughout the project, Panika and Clock have made sure that the youth they work with feel safe and comfortable, as well as being careful not to share too much identifying information. The duo works solely with young immigrants covered by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy implemented by the Obama administration in 2012 that protects eligible immigrant youth from deportation. Still, Trump promised several times on the campaign trail that he would repeal DACA once in office — and though the policy is still in place, 23-year-old DACA recipient Juan Manuel Montes-Bojorquez was deported in February without explanation.

“I think they feel like they don’t have that many rights, and they need to fight for what rights they do have to make sure that they’re not repealed,” Clock says of the subjects. “I think that’s motivating them to share. That’s exactly why we wanted to do this project, to give them a spotlight.”

Kevin, an undocumented UC Berkeley student. (Courtesy Undocumented Lives)

Undocumented Lives mostly features high school students, but also includes some college students, as well as a few who have already graduated. The majority interviewed are involved with community organizing and volunteering, while many others go to school during the day and work in the evenings to alleviate difficult financial circumstances at home. Clock and Pandika follow them throughout their day, then interview them about their lives, backstories, fears, and dreams for the future.

Pandika and Clock have also published pieces on specific subtleties of the undocumented experience that are often left out of even progressive narratives about immigrants, such as the emotional nuances of being both undocumented and queer, and the excessive pressure put on undocumented students to be the best in their classes.

“These students are not necessarily only valedictorians or criminals,” says Clock. “There are many students who fall in the middle, and they’re just normal students who are trying to go about their lives and doing the best they can.”

Included in Pandika and Clock’s Fusion piece about queer undocumented youth, Bismark expands on the particular difficulties of that intersection, which can be difficult to explain to both the queer community and the undocumented community. “I’m a survivor of sexual assault, so if I were to be detained, I would definitely be scared. A lot of folks don’t like to acknowledge the higher rates of assault queer and trans folks face in detention,” Bismark says. “But we can’t hide anymore. We can’t afford that. We’ve been through our time in the closet. It’s time to step up and not be ashamed.”

‘Undocumented Lives’ will be exhibited beginning June 2 at UFO Gallery in Berkeley. The show features Clock’s photographs alongside excerpts from Pandika’s interviews. Opening reception on June 2 from 6–10pm; all proceeds benefit Define American, a nonprofit aimed at changing the conversation around immigration and citizenship.

Undocumented Youth Tell Their Stories on Instagram 24 May,2017Sarah Burke

  • Curious

    Illegals are a huge drain on this country- socially and financially. They must be deported.


Sarah Burke

Sarah Burke is a journalist, critic, and curator living and working in Oakland, California. She is a regular contributor to KQED’s Culture Cue, for which she writes about topics at the intersection of art, culture, and identity. Her work has been recognized with first place awards from the American Association of Alternative Newsmedia and The Society of Professional Journalists. Previously, she served as Managing Editor at the East Bay Express.  Find her on twitter at @sarahlubyburke.