By the time Larissa Martinez walked up to the podium to give her valedictorian speech, she’d overcome an abusive childhood, poverty, and countless all-nighters. But on her graduation day, the McKinney, Texas, resident had to face the fear of telling her classmates who she really was.
“I am one of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows of the United States,” she said into the microphone. “I decided to stand before you today and reveal this unexpected reality because this might be the only chance to convey to you all that undocumented immigrants are people too.”
The audience erupted in cheers and applause. Martinez felt overwhelmed, heard, and important. That same day, more than 200 miles away in Austin, Texas, valedictorian Mayte Lara Ibarra would be heard divulging the same thing as Martinez, except via Twitter. This time, however, the cheers would be drowned out by hundreds of negative comments.
“Valedictorian, 4.5GPA, full tuition paid for at UT, 13 cords/medals, nice legs, oh and I’m undocumented,” Lara tweeted on an account she would later delete because of threats and harassment.
“And I’m undocumented” would bookend at least two other tweets from high school graduates extolling their GPAs, scholarships, and college acceptances.
During an election cycle that’s been filled with anti-immigrant comments fueled by Donald Trump’s promises to build a wall, deport undocumented immigrants, and ban Muslims from entering the U.S., these high-achieving students are using the platforms they earned to come out and inject their own narratives into the national political conversation.
“My speech was the only chance to really get to a large audience, though I never expected it to get to this large of an audience,” Martinez told BuzzFeed News. “If the people in the audience were going to be the people choosing the future of America, I thought it would be fair if undocumented immigrants got a say because they’re not only changing their own lives, but ours as well, even if we don’t get a vote.”
Martinez came to the U.S. when she was 12 with her mother and younger sister, fleeing her alcoholic and abusive father. During her speech she took a jab at Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, saying undocumented immigrants like herself have become part of the U.S. and want to “Make America Great Again” without the construction of a wall built on “hatred and prejudice.”
By the time Lara, who lives in Austin and graduated from David Crockett High School, deactivated her Twitter account, her tweet was retweeted by more than 9,400 people and received nearly 20,000 likes. Still, the sheer number of comments criticizing her, including a screenshot of what appeared to be a tip to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, scared her.
“I feel that all the harassment wasn't necessary. But there's always going to be negative people who say negative things, rather than highlight my accomplishments,” Lara said in a statement. “I tweeted that to highlight my achievements and show people that you can accomplish anything, no matter where you come from or what you're seen as, and whatever obstacles you have in front of you.”
The next day, Erik Vargas, another high-achieving Texas graduate, was scrolling through Twitter before writing his own tweet about his academic accolades and undocumented status when he came across Lara’s.
“I actually came across Mayte's and was shocked there was someone else like me,” Vargas told BuzzFeed News.
The tweet — “Ranked 9th, 4.0+GPA, $282,220 in awarded scholarships, Upenn C/o 2020, and I’m also Undocumented” — would get at least 800 retweets and 1,465 likes before he deleted it due to attacks from what he called the “Trump Twittersphere.”
The 18-year-old moved with his family to Irving, Texas, from Mexico when he was just 1 and is attending the University of Pennsylvania in the fall.
Vargas said he used Trump’s infamous quote about Mexican immigrants being rapists and bringing drugs and crime to the United States as fuel. It was also one of the reasons he posted his tweet.
“I wanted it to be a testimony to the fact that that’s not true — we actually succeed in ways you would want any human to succeed,” Vargas told BuzzFeed News. “I wanted to prove Trump wrong.”
More importantly, he wants other undocumented high schoolers to know they can achieve what they think is impossible or what others would want to deny them.
“Being undocumented doesn’t hold us back — we have some voice and some kind of power,” Vargas said.
In Tennessee, Moises Rodriguez Cruz would not only come out as undocumented, but as a member of the LGBT community, a secret only a few of his close friends knew.
“Ranked 4th, 4.0 GPA, $290,872 in scholarships, UChicago c/o 2020, LGBT, a human being, and I’m #undocumented,” Rodriguez Cruz tweeted out on Thursday with pictures of his graduation in May.
He knew Martinez and Vargas through a college program and wanted to join them in the hopes of changing people’s minds about immigrants. He figured it was time to come out of both closets, even though he lives in a conservative area.
“We’re at a point where we have a tough decision to make with this election where we can either prove we are indeed a progressive country that really does value the culture and beliefs that America professes,” Rodriguez Cruz said. “Or we can give in to the hate and rhetoric that the U.S. has shown in the past, a hatred that recently didn’t have a voice until Trump.”
Texas law allows undocumented students, who meet certain criteria like having graduated from a state high school, to pay in-state tuition and be eligible for state financial aid.
Despite identifying as undocumented, three of the four graduates are protected from deportation under a federal program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The program legalizes certain undocumented youths and allows them to obtain a Social Security number and work permit temporarily, a two-year period that could be renewed for two years. At least for now they are no longer undocumented.
Martinez is the only one who didn't qualify because she missed the June 15, 2007, cutoff date. She could qualify for an expansion of the program, but it has been tied up in the courts while thousands of immigrants like Martinez wait.
For now, all four graduates have expressed concern for the safety of their families as a result of their public comments, but it’s worth it, Martinez said.
“Sharing my story was more important than anything that can happen to me; if anything, I’m afraid for my family,” Martinez said. “If something bad were to happen I would never forgive myself, but at the same time I know it needed to be done.”