A few months ago I decided to come out as an undocumented immigrant. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had carried around this secret that had weighed heavily on my shoulders for years, so much so I had simply got used to the burden and the restrictions that came with it. I had found a way to live around it. I’d tell myself “don’t let it get to you Gareth, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Then one day I just decided I’d had enough. Having watched Jose Antonio Vargas from a distance as he slowly changed the debate and more importantly the perception of undocumented people in the US I felt the time was right for myself to get more involved. In order for me to be able to fully realize my own dreams and to really embrace who I am as a person, I had to be honest. I had to be honest with all those around me. My friends, my colleagues, my neighbors and my community.
I’m lucky. I live in an incredible place surrounded by amazing people. San Luis Obispo has been called the ‘Happiest Town In America’ and in many ways it is. With a great university located here and with a new booming tech sector SLO, as us locals call it, is a great place to live, work and raise a family. However, for as liberal as SLO often is, it definitely has its conservative side and I wasn’t sure how that side would react to my story.
As a small business owner I decided to come out to my local business community. The local chamber of commerce holds a monthly breakfast program attended by around 300 business and civic leaders and other local movers and shakers providing me the perfect opportunity to share my story.
As the big day approached things snowballed and I found myself first coming out, live on national television on HLN’s the Daily Share. The Skype interview went well and everyone who saw it supported me. However things got far more real when, a few days later, I was on a local talk radio show. This was when things started to really hit home as I was confronted with many callers to the show vehemently disagreeing with what I was doing, telling me to go home and calling me illegal. In fact the very first caller suggested he was going to ‘come and find me’. I was on the show for nearly two hours and would suggest roughly half of the callers supported me and half were strongly against me.
In many ways the ‘cat being out of the bag’ as it were made it easier to push forward. As much as the radio show had given me pause for thought it only reinforced my belief in the greater cause and illustrated how ignorant and misinformed many Americans are on this issue.
The day of the breakfast program arrived. I was nervous but knew I was doing the right thing for the right reasons. The speech went really well as did the following reception. Many people approached me afterwards and made comments such as “well done”, “thank you for sharing” and one gentleman told me “even though I’m republican I had no idea how complicated this issue was, thank you.”
That evening I was the lead story on my local television news. I had filmed the segment the day before but had no idea they were going to lead with it. The segment was good, although I felt including an interview with a local member of the Minutemen group who suggested “Well we should give Gareth a green card because he’s done something with his life,” was a poor way to show balance to the issue. Although her responses where clearly racist and similar to much of the right wing rhetoric that often swirls around this issue.
The story ran again at 6.30pm and at 11pm. It was their top trending news story on their website that evening by a massive margin. After forgetting about it for a few hours I realized they also post the story to their Facebook page(link). For the next hour or so I spent time reading all the many comments people had written. Many clearly didn’t watch or read the piece and simply wrote ignorant comments based on their own view of the headline. Many more were again hateful, ignorant and almost xenophobic as they suggested “it doesn’t matter if he’s white he should go home”. However amongst all these negative comments I found inspiration. Many people had shared the story with friends, who reading between the lines where perhaps themselves undocumented or friends with someone who was. Many defended me, complete strangers I’ve never met took it upon themselves to push back against the negative and stand up for the cause, and many simply thanked me for coming out and sharing my story.
The last few weeks have been somewhat of a whirlwind but it’s these small gestures of thanks have made it all worthwhile. If my story can help change peoples perceptions, spark debate and maybe inspire others to come forward too then that is all I can hope for.
My name is Gareth Kelly and I am an Undocumented American.