Hopes & Dreams

Out of the shadows: Undocumented immigrant youths share their lives in striking Instagram photos

2 The Neighborhood Center's photo essay This Undocumented Life September 2013 Jose Santoyo
Photo by Jose Santoyo
3 The Neighborhood Center's photo essay This Undocumented Life September 2013 Christoper Rubs
Photo by Christoper Rubs
4 The Neighborhood Center's photo essay This Undocumented Life September 2013 Edgar Rodriguez
Photo by Edgar Eduardo Rodriguez Briones
1 The Neighborhood Center's photo essay This Undocumented Life September 2013 Jose Perez
Photo by Jose Perez
6 The Neighborhood Center's photo essay This Undocumented Life September 2013 Jack Camino
Photo by Jack Camino
5 The Neighborhood Center's photo essay This Undocumented Life September 2013 Edgar Romero
Photo by Elmer Romero
The Neighborhood Center essay photo
Photo by Aimee Woodall

"This Undocumented Life," an ongoing crowdsourced photography campaign organized by Neighborhood Centers, gathers Instagram images submitted by undocumented youth living across the United States.

Using the hashtag #ThisUndocumentedLife, upwards of 100 photographs blend to render a realistic collage of the experiences, thoughts, hopes and dreams of some of the one million young unauthorized immigrants who arrived as children — and their friends and supporters.

This photo essay includes some of the art, 12 of which comprise an exhibit at the Ensemble Theatre, alongside quotes from the participants.


"The picture was taken in Washington, D.C. in the week of July 8-11, which was when United We Dream hosted a naturalization ceremony.

I was standing by the 'I have a dream' quote, located on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

At the time, I was still undocumented. I raised my hands as a symbol of victory and freedom. The lifting of hands is also a sign of strong faith.

I received my Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals about two weeks ago."

— Jose Santoyo, Michoacan, Mexico

Washington D.C., Hands raised in front of the Washington Monument

"We were in the middle of a road trip that departed from Denver, through the beautiful American Southwest, on our way to a convention in Las Vegas.

"My brother, Christian, and I decided to take the scenic route. I had heard of many places of interest, but there was one that I couldn't get out of my mind.

"There was this amazing and magical place located within the depths of Arizona's arid land, in the middle of the desert, also near lakes and rivers, about 620 miles from Denver.

"The journey was long, driving through rocky roads that were surrounded by the solitude of the immensity of the land — so much to look at!

"When we arrived, we met with a young group of the Navajo people, who guard, protect and guide nature enthusiasts through the corridors of the canyon. We walked by yuccas and cactus plants and other spiny native species.

"There was a crack in the rocks through which we saw how the canyon below had been carved by the elements. It had been sanded and worked by particles of dust, cleaned and erode by streams of water and wind for millions of years.

"Once there, time stops and you get a feeling of respect and humility. It was magnificent.

"I snapped many images and kept many memories."

— Christoper Rubs, Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico

Antelope Canon in Arizona, Man inside of canyon

"Friends and fellow members of the then named Students for The D.R.E.A.M. Act organization had traveled from Beaumont to Washington, D.C. to be part of a massive protest in support of the D.R.E.A.M. Act.

"We had traveled nonstop to be a part of this event.

"When we got there, we joined up with other like-minded youth who were there from different parts of the country, many of whom had traveled even greater distances.

"The image was taken in 2010, a portrait of my friend as he was walking, flag in hand, to join the other dreamers."

— Edgar Eduardo Rodriguez Briones, Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico

Washington, D.C., Flag in front of the capitol

"A close Peruvian friend whose family had immigrated illegally to the United States had recently received legal residence status. He invited me to go with him to visit his native country.

"While visiting his family in Lima, whom he hadn't seen since he was a child, we had the opportunity to travel through the country.

"During this amazing tour of Peru, we visited Machu Picchu and toured the Sacred Valley of the Incas. After experiencing the Andes Mountains, we headed west toward the coast where the desert meets the ocean.

"This photo was taken while hiking through the Atacama Desert near the city of Pisco. We were in search of an elusive oasis that locals said could only be reached by foot."

— Jose Perez, United States

Atacama Desert, Pisco, Peru, Sandy Beach

"This picture meant a couple of things, though the reason I took the picture was to preserve a copy of a document in case the original be lost or misplaced — not necessarily knowing whether a copy like this would be a valid substitute.

"I made a promise at the Miami Airport: To do good and to help others if I were in a position to do so.

"I promised this at the Miami Airport because I wasn't certain that the immigration agents would allow me to cross that port of entry.

"The proposed solution on immigration reform isn't friendly to the whole community of immigrants who needs a dignifying status. I pledged to protest the proposed immigration reform because it excluded those without an I-94.

"If certain solemnities are fulfilled, because I got that piece of paper, I would be on a path to citizenship."

— Jack Camino, Ecuador

Miami International Airport, Document stamp

"A few days after President Barack Obama's announcement of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals for undocumented youth, Neighborhood Centers and FIEL, a Houston-based youth group, organized the first information summit in Southwest Houston, an area known for its diverse community.

"That day, the community stepped from the 'shadows into the light.'

"More than a thousand people gathered at the campus looking for honest and accurate answers to their questions in reference to their personal immigration status and new opportunities under the new policy.

"Because of the large number of attendees, some were not able to gain entry into the auditorium. The immigration team at Neighborhood Centers and the community center staff helped people inside and outside.

"Although everyday I have the privilege to work on this campus where participants — seniors, children, youth and adults — attend classes and activities to reach their goals and dreams, I'd never seen this many people in the center before. Many new faces, filled with hope, were looking for reassurance and support. I took many photos that day.

"People were sitting everywhere, standing side by side and waiting . . . "

— Elmer Romero, El Salvador

Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center, Deferred action girls with paper

"The immigration bill could provide a path to citizenship for 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States. That includes about one million young people who came here as children.

"They call themselves DREAMers. In Houston alone, there are 75,000 DREAMers. 

"On Aug. 15, Neighborhood Centers hosted a special dialogue with some of Houston's DREAMers and unveiled a special photo exhibit , titled 'This Undocumented Life,' which featured a selection of Instagram images submitted by undocumented youth from across the country.

"The images capture the everyday life moments that are so often in the shadows and are now brought into the light. This photo was taken that evening. It captures the shadow of one of the DREAMers on stage, sharing her story."

— Aimee Woodall, United States

Houston, Shadow, taken during a "This Undocumented Life" exhibit event, on view at Ensemble Theatre.