When Angy Rivera started her advice column for undocumented Americans in October 2010, she didn’t expect to get many questions.
At the time, Rivera was volunteering at the New York State Youth Leadership Council, an undocumented youth-led advocacy organization. After thinking about what information was missing on the web, she came up with the idea to start a semi-anonymous advice column, “Ask Angy” — a play on “Dear Abby” — to help answer undocumented people’s questions, based on her own experience and research.
Nearly two years later, Rivera’s “Ask Angy” column has been featured in New York magazine and Rivera has fielded nearly 40 questions from all over the country, spanning topics from finding scholarships and grants for college to dealing with depression.
Rivera, 21, says the sheer range of questions she gets has shown her how varied the undocumented experience is and helped her look at her own situation differently.
“When I first started I had this idea that since we’re all undocumented we’re all the same,” Rivera told VOXXI in an interview. “This helped put me in other people’s shoes and not assume.”
Rivera says her advice column has shown her that she is privileged to live in New York, a city where undocumented immigrants can commute to work via public transportation without needing a driver’s license and she’s allowed to enroll in higher education.
(In 2009, Rivera started studying criminology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of New York’s public college system.)
But answering the questions isn’t always easy, she says, and it can take her up to a month to formulate a response. If the questioner is writing from New York, she knows the system well, but if he or she is from another state, Rivera often consults experts and does research online to find links to the proper forms.
If the person is interested in getting involved, Rivera suggests an advocacy group in the questioner’s area, or if the writer just needs someone to talk to, Rivera finds a supportive listener. She also has to be careful when she references the law, sometimes adding disclaimers stating that she’s not a lawyer or counselor.
Rivera is undocumented (she was born in Colombia), so many of the situations hit home.
One question made her cry for days before she could answer, she said. A young undocumented woman was dealing with severe depression because her younger siblings didn’t know her status and she was having a hard time convincing them to pursue college, when she herself hadn’t. The young woman didn’t want to tell her siblings the real reason higher education wasn’t an option for her.
“I had never thought about what if my own home wasn’t a safe place,” said Rivera, whose three younger siblings all know she is undocumented.
Another tough question came from a young undocumented woman who wanted to know if her having children was “selfish.” Rivera says she had to pause — she’s far from having her own children — and ask her mother, who is also undocumented and gave birth to Rivera’s siblings in the United States, for advice.
“A lot of people are very honest and expect something from you,” Rivera said. “You can’t just give them a sentence or two and send them a link.”
The column has also brought Rivera closer to her own mother, she says, as she’s learned about the generational gap in the undocumented population that makes it OK for Rivera to “come out” as undocumented, but leaves her mother afraid to do so.
“She is referred to as a criminal because she knowingly came here,” Rivera says of her mother, who was 23 when she came to the United States. “She puts a lot of blame on herself. When I became involved after graduating, I was able to tell her it wasn’t her fault.”
Now Rivera is working with her advocacy organization to help spread the word about President Obama’s recent recommendation not to deport some immigrant youth who would be eligible for the DREAM Act, allowing them to apply for work permits. She’s cautioning undocumented youth to watch out for scams targeting DREAMers and working to create a list of lawyers that can help.
“Many people have emailed me asking ‘How can I apply for a green card?’” she said. “There’s a lot of misinformation.”