THE BLOG
02/18/2013 07:14 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2013

Immigration: A Kid's-Eye View

Emily Klion, director of the Marsh Youth Theater in San Francisco, wanted to tell the stories of the "dreamers," children caught in the battle over immigration. To help her tackle this thorny topic, she approached award-winning poet Gary Soto. The son of Mexican immigrants, Soto grew up in Fresno, Calif. The topic hit a chord with the poet, who had spent much of his youth working in California's fields. After some hesitation about approaching the controversial subject, Soto signed on to write the play.

The task was daunting; before the writing could begin, Soto needed to sort through over 300 pages of interviews with undocumented youth. The interviews were organized and coordinated by the program Voice of Witness Education Program, founded by writer Dave Eggers and physician and human rights scholar Lola Vollen.

Choosing just a few stories to tell in In and Out of Shadows was one of the most difficult challenges. With hundreds of interviews conducted up and down the state of California, Soto's inclination was to include every interviewee's story. "Each one was so important, so poignant," he said. "I wanted all the stories to have a voice." Of course, that was impossible, but Soto was unclear where to cut. With the help of Marsh dramaturge David Ford, Soto decided to narrow his focus to two cities: Richmond and Pinole. The play features four family stories: Pilipino, Chinese, Mexican and Indonesian.

Over the course of the 90-minute play, we meet a single working mother who is picked up for possible deportation, regardless of the fact that she has three school-aged children. We hear stories of Mexican children being told to crawl through sewers, surveillance helicopters intimidating undocumented kids and the intercultural tensions between documented and undocumented kids.

We also get a gut-wrenching dose of the anxiety with which undocumented kids are forced to cope. "I'm only 14, but I feel old," one of the actors says early in the play. We hear parents discouraging their children from college, ostensibly because of the expense, when in reality their hesitation comes from the fact that the students are undocumented. In their desire to protect their children, parents often hide the fact of their status from their children.

Surprisingly, perhaps, In and Out of Shadows is a musical. Soto wondered how he was going to write joyful lyrics about interviews that had made him weep. In the context of this challenging and painful topic, the writers and musicians infuse a huge helping of hope. Klion and her husband, jazz composer and performer George Brooks, composed music and lyrics that are uplifting. They weave indigenous Spanish dance and music, Pilipino singing and games, Indonesian dance and gamelan and Chinese song into the fabric of the play. Particular songs, especially "Just 14" and "Show Me Your Papers," provide the audience a vehicle to reflect on the children's fear, worry and loneliness.

The thread that ties the vignettes, songs and stories together is the AB 540 conference. AB 540 is the law that allows California-based immigrant kids to attend UC and Cal State schools and pay resident rates, regardless of their immigration status. According to Gary Soto, it is the Mexican Americans who are leading the way in the many immigration battles that are raging. In our interview, Soto described the challenges to children whose culture was not comfortable with political action. When he encouraged the Chinese actors during rehearsals to "get loud," their response was, "We don't get loud."

At recent count, there are over 11 million undocumented immigrants. According to the Los Angeles Times' most recent statistic, over 1.8 million are youth. In Arizona, the state with the toughest anti-immigration laws, Gov. Jan Brewer signed an executive order directing Arizona state agencies to deny driver's licenses and other public benefits to illegal immigrants even though they qualify for the Obama's DREAM Act program. No federal program, the governor says, gives undocumented immigrants legal status in her state. Obama's DREAM Act, if implemented, would provide a path to citizenship for immigrant kids, based on finishing college or serving two years in the military.

Regardless of AB 540 and the DREAM Act, children and families are entangled in immigration battles of epic proportions. One of the stories in In and out of Shadows is of Putri, an Indonesian immigrant. Putri did not realize until she was a high school senior that she was illegal. She connected with ASPIRE, the first Asian-American undocumented student group. Legally, she could apply to a community college, but soon after she graduated from high school, the courts began proceedings to deport her parents. After giving a talk at San Francisco City Hall days after President Obama's announcement on deferred action, Putri was emboldened to request that DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) allow her to delay her deportation case. Still, her parents' deportation case is active.

In and out of Shadows reaches a beautiful crescendo with the ensemble piece "Sueños" ("Dreams"). If the new laws are passed, if the kids can support each other and not succumb to shame and hopelessness about their status, "Seuños" tells us, things can change.