Angy Rivera had two crucial secrets in her life. The first was that she was an undocumented child living with her mother and siblings in New York City for 19 years. That secret was a constant source of fear: If her immigration status was discovered, she could be deported and her family shattered.
The second secret was more tragic: Rivera had been sexually abused by her stepfather from ages 4 to 8, a secret she eventually revealed and which, in the strange world of immigration law, helped her gain the visa she had always desired.
Director Mikaela Shwer met Rivera, now 24, while the young woman was still undocumented. After the two developed a friendship, Shwer began filming Rivera's quest to help others living in immigration's "shadows" and to gain a visa for herself. The result was Shwer's first full-length documentary.
"Being undocumented isn't something we can put in the back of our heads. When I wake up, it's the first thing I think about," Rivera says early in the film, adding that her secret has even haunted her dreams. This was the only life she had known. When she was 3, her mother, Maria, decided to flee the growing violence and unrest in their native Colombia, selling their possessions for a one-way ticket to New York. The United States was their promised land, but would remain so only if Rivera promised not to tell anyone that she was undocumented.
Don't Tell Anyone (No Le Digas a Nadie). Photo: Mikaela Shwer
"Deportation is the biggest fear," Rivera explains, and that fear shaped all aspects of her life. While her three younger siblings were born in the U.S. and had full citizenship, Rivera and her mother, who was also undocumented, faced the constant fear of discovery. Had they been sent back to Colombia, the family would have been forced to separate.
Yet Rivera eventually grew tired of being held captive by her immigration secret and started a column on the New York State Youth Leadership Council website called "Ask Angy," the first undocumented-youth advice column in the country. She also started a YouTube channel offering similar advice, support and humor that currently boasts more than 37,000 views.
She knew all too well the pain of living "in the shadows." Without a driver's license or other official ID, for example, traveling outside of New York, especially by air, increased the chances of detection and was avoided. And when Rivera graduated from high school and discovered that getting financial aid for college was impossible without a Social Security number, her dreams for a better future were shaken. All of her hard work in high school, including extracurricular activities, "didn't matter." According to the American Immigration Council, only 5 to 10 percent of America's approximately 65,000 undocumented high school grads go to college, primarily because of financial constraints.
Rivera took an even bolder step in 2010, when she joined a "coming out" demonstration across from immigration offices in New York City. Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word "Undocumented," she stood before a small crowd and announced, "My name is Angy and I'm undocumented." Her feeling of relief was immense, she says. In one sense the truth had set her free, though her openness about her immigration status was deeply unsettling to her mother.
She paid another price for her openness: hate mail. One detractor insisted that that U.S. "close the tortilla curtain." And while supporters helped finance a semester for her in college, Rivera was forced to drop out of school several times to raise additional money.
Despite setbacks, she never stopped helping other undocumented youth. "Love yourself," she advised. "Stay strong." She also reminded detractors that people in her situation had not chosen their fate. "This is not my fault," she says. "I was pushed to come here."
Don't Tell Anyone (No Le Digas a Nadie)reports (and U.S. Department of Homeland Security data confirms) that the U.S. deported more than 400,000 undocumented people in 2012, a record number. Rivera, however, eventually received a visa, though it was a bittersweet victory.
With the help of an immigration counselor, she was granted "U Non-Immigrant status (U visa)," which was created to protect immigrants who had suffered violent crimes--in her case, being molested early in life. The program is part of the Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act. While thankful, Rivera observes that "being raped makes you eligible. But not just living here." She was even the subject of a front-page New York Times story about the program in March 2013.
She is now moving on with her life, enjoying the company of her mother and three siblings in Queens and celebrating the fact that she is no longer "just the undocumented girl. My life is so much more than that." But her support of other undocumented young people has not wavered. "We will fight until the end. We are survivors." In an especially poignant segment near film's end, her tearful mother "comes out" as undocumented, casting aside the secret that protected yet confined her for so many years.
While Rivera's story ends on an upbeat note, Shwer says there is still much work to be done. "Working with Angy and the many incredible undocumented young people in her community has been extremely inspiring," Shwer comments, "but it's also very frustrating to see the power of their movement result in so little change. Our hope is that these personal stories reach a wide audience and spark dialogue to amplify the voice of the movement."