There are 11 million undocumented immigrants in America. An estimated 690,000 are Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, who arrived here as children and had to pass a rigorous background check to qualify—commonly known as “Dreamers,” after the DREAM Act, which would grant such individuals a path to permanent residency. DACA paperwork is renewed every two years through the Department of Homeland Security for a fee of $495.
The program was implemented by the Obama-Biden administration in 2012. The majority of recipients are from Latin America, with smaller percentages hailing from other parts of the world. DACA has given undocumented youth the opportunity to remain and work in the country, opening pathways to higher education, homeownership and in some states, obtaining driver’s licenses.
TikTok, an app created in China that debuted internationally in 2018, started as a social media site where users shared videos of themselves dancing. TikTok’s algorithm is designed to keep users on the app for longer periods of time by targeting certain interests and prioritizing such content about those topics.
The largest group of users are Gen Z and young Millenials, who have transformed TikTok into an online space where social issues such as immigration, climate change, globalization, trans rights, healthcare, and colonialism can be openly discussed and debated. These younger generations are not afraid to tackle difficult topics, no matter where or how.
Naturally, then, current DACA recipients have turned to TikTok to gain control of the media narrative of Dreamers, using the app as a safe space for undocumented youth to connect with one another and share resources. The most used hashtags are #undocutok, #undocumentedimmigrants, and #undocumented.
One such user, Artemis Flaca (@ArtemisFlaca), is a 27-year-old DACA recipient completing a master’s degree in English. A fan of the performing arts and theater, when she is not at school she likes to relax by dancing and singing.
Artemis described seeing videos on her timeline geared toward the experience of being a DACA recipient, which is how she found others like her and formed real-life friendships with them.
“Networks are powerful,” she tells Latino Rebels. “Networks are how undocumented people survive.”
Aiming to steer away from talking about the politics surrounding the DACA program, Artemis instead prefers to focus on the mental well-being of recipients, using the app as a healing place where recipients can share their concerns. Social services are unreliable, and peers may not be supportive.
“Seeing ourselves as protagonists can be really healing,” she explains.
Artemis encourages recipients to redefine how they are portrayed in the media by using TikTok to tell their stories the way they want to tell them. She argues that recipients are viewed through the lens of the larger society, which often dismisses the lived experiences of recipients.
“I think we undocumented people are used to being objects of discussion rather than being seen as an audience with autonomy and opinions of our own,” she says. “With my TikTok, I’m trying to give us back that dignity.”
At the beginning of our chat, Spanglish Girl (@Spanglishgirl), an immigrant from Veracruz, Mexico who immigrated at the age of six, explained she would be unintentionally switching between Spanish and English. She fondly recalled organizing the paperwork her mother had saved for years and applying for DACA as soon as the program was announced in 2012. She now works as a paralegal and owns a small organic tea business.
Spanglish Girl started sharing content about being undocumented about six months ago and quickly grew her account to almost 14,000 followers. “I wanted to create a small community where people could feel comfortable,” she tells Latino Rebels. “You only know if you’re one of the group.”
The goals of her TikTok account are to empower DACA recipients to renew their own paperwork and to not be ashamed of their undocumented status. She gives workshops and posts step-by-step instructional videos with screenshots—immigration lawyers often charge large fees to help DACA recipients renew their paperwork.
Most recently, she shared her story about traveling with advance parole. In one teary-eyed video, she hugs her grandfather in Veracruz who she did not meet in person for 24 years.
“I shared my experience to inspire other recipients to not miss out,” she explains.
Growing up, Spanglish Girl, like other undocumented children, felt shame about her immigration status. Only with DACA did she feel safe enough to speak about her experiences. Despite facing potential online harassment, she wants to be a “DACA sister” and offers advice to other undocumented users.
Along with the hundreds of thousands of other undocumented users on TikTok, Artemis and Spanglish Girl hope to inspire their fellow DACA recipients to be open about their immigration status in order to make room for healing and other opportunities.
Yesica Balderrama is a journalist and writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared on WNYC, NPR, Latino USA, PEN America, Mental Floss, and others. Twitter: @yesica_bald