Activist and co-director of the New York State Youth Leadership Council, Angy Rivera, spoke about her experiences as an undocumented immigrant and sexual assault victim on Thursday, Nov. 8 in Roth Cafe.
The event, hosted by the Long Island Immigrant Student Advocates (LIISA) chapter at SBU, started off with a screening of the Peabody Award-winning documentary, “Don’t Tell Anyone (No Le Digas A Nadie)” which follows Rivera’s journey from living in poverty in rural Colombia to fighting for the rights of undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Rivera was born in Colombia, but her four younger siblings were born in the U.S. Growing up, she was the only child in her family without U.S. citizenship.
“I found it difficult to be a part of a mixed status family, thinking it was a burden for my siblings as my mom and myself could be deported at any moment,” Rivera said. “Growing up, I always understood that I was an immigrant but I never entirely understood the full impact of not having papers, and I always thought that I was the only one.”
While she was living in the U.S., Rivera was sexually abused by her stepfather for four years, starting when she was four years old. She decided to make a video sharing that she was sexually abused, posting it on her Ask Angy YouTube channel in 2013 and found out that it was common in undocumented families. A YouTube comment on the video says “Very deep and well spoken.”
“We are survivors,” Rivera said. “We will always continue to survive.”
In the documentary, Rivera created a book of drawings to illustrate her story. Many sketches focused on her high school graduation, when she realized how difficult it would be for her to attend college. As an undocumented immigrant, Rivera couldn’t apply for FAFSA or financial aid, or provide a social security number.
“I realized that all of the hard work I put in was a waste of time and nothing would fall into place due to the fact that I didn’t have a social [security number],” Rivera said. Eventually, a retired MTA worker, Luis Hernandez, saw a NY Daily Newsarticle that featured Rivera’s efforts to raise tuition money online by selling $5 bracelets. He offered to pay for an entire semester of her John Jay College of Criminal Justice tuition.
While speaking to her immigration attorney one day, Rivera became aware of the U-visa, a United States nonimmigrant visa, which is set aside for victims of crimes who have suffered substantial abuse and are willing to assist law enforcement and government officials in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity. Rivera explained that one goal in producing the documentary was to inform people about the U-visa.
After waiting 13 months, Rivera’s U visa was finally approved during her senior year in college. She still didn’t qualify for financial aid, but she could now get health insurance through an employer. “It’s sad that being abused or being raped makes you eligible for the U visa,” Rivera said.
While she was still in college, Rivera became a part of the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC) where she met other undocumented immigrants.
“The way that coming out for the LGBTQ community is a huge step for them, coming out of the shadows with immigration status is a huge thing for undocumented immigrants,” she said.
Rivera’s decision to wear a T-shirt that read “undocumented” in front of an immigration building as a sign of protest was life-changing. She said that her “heart was racing” and she was “anxious, but [not] intimidated by the immigration officers.” “I’ve always had a love, hate relationship with being undocumented,” Rivera said.
While working with the NYSYLC, she founded Ask Angy, the first advice column for undocumented youths living in America in 2010. “I never thought anyone was going to email me,” Rivera said. “People from other countries were emailing me asking how to come to the United States, which were hard questions.”
This past summer, Rivera was able to obtain a green card, which has been one of her dreams and now allows her to travel.
Rivera wanted people watching the documentary to understand that the fight for undocumented immigrants is much more complicated than a fight to get papers. “I definitely learned about how the U visa works and it stuck out to me because of how raw Rivera’s story was in the process of getting the visa,” Aishah Scott, a history graduate student, said.
Rivera said the most difficult thing about sharing her story with people was deciding what to share.
“It was hard to talk about the part of being assaulted,” she said. “I was scared of judgement and of what people were gonna think.”
Many students, including Evelyn Lopez-Rodriguez, president of the LIISA chapter at SBU and sophomore political science major, said they walked away from the event feeling inspired. “I think Angy Rivera is a great representation of what it means to be a strong Latinx immigrant woman,” she said.
Osman Canales, president and founder of the LIISA, said that he thought Rivera’s presentation was necessary. “It definitely raised awareness about the lack of improper documents, while sharing Rivera’s story,” he said.