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Filed Away: the undocumented experience

Undocumented Students


Davis, CA

While the debate over comprehensive immigration reform is something we hear about in the news, the effects of current laws regarding undocumented immigrants are being lived by students in the UC Davis community. Undocumented students, Dreamers, AB540 students, and friends and family of undocumented immigrants experience a variety challenges emotionally, politically, socially, and financially as a result of current immigration policy. Filed Away: The Undocumented Experience explores the personal experiences of individuals within this community while tackling commonly held misconceptions about undocumented people.

Exhibition Narrative

The exhibition narrative is told through two main components. The first component explores individual experiences of undocumented people, told through personal objects and first-person narratives. Through visitor engagement activities, the second component tackles issues such as the distinction between legal status and one's definition of “home.”




From its early stages, the board wanted the exhibition to pop-up across campus to engage students, staff, and faculty. This meant it needed to be designed easily mobile and modular in order to fit into a diversity of indoor and outdoor environments. Inspired by conversations with students applying to become U.S. citizens and feeling their application forms were filed away never to be processed, I proposed using filing cabinets as a symbolic structure for the show. Welding casters to their bases, and sanding off the beige enamel from the cabinets' exteriors, I created an eye-catching, transportable and adaptable case system.

Personal Objects

Each personal object in the exhibition sits in its own drawer within a secure cubby with plexi top. The number on the outside of each drawer refers to the number of days the object's lender has been in the U.S. Inside the drawer, visitors are encouraged to lift out the manilla file folder to learn about the object's story.

Object Labels

Each file folder is an object label, visually inspired by a citizenship application form used by undocumented people to gain permanent legal status to the U.S. Given the legal risks involved with "outing" oneself as an undocumented person, the personal identifying information is blacked out, leaving only the number of days the lender has been in the U.S., and their first-person account of the object on display.



Do You Consider the U.S. Your Home?

In this activity, visitors respond to the question using keys to identify their documented/undocumented status. These keys are then displayed to demonstrate that one’s legal status in the U.S. does not define where one feels at home, although we often make assumptions based on where someone was born or has legal residency.

What Words or Phrases Do You Never Want to Hear Again?

At this participatory station, visitors are invited to write a word or phrase used to describe undocumented people that they find offensive. They are then encouraged to crumple it up and throw it away in the trash bin provided. Visitors are also allowed to read “trash” in the bin to learn about these common misconceptions.

A Flutter of Dreams

Visitors are asked to write down their dream for undocumented people on a monarch butterfly (a symbol adopted by the immigration reform community). These magnetized paper monarchs began to cover the filing cabinets, creating a massing of dreams, symbolizing a collective desire for immigration reform.

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