A new art exhibit at the Levine Museum of the New South is focused on the plight of undocumented youth who were brought to the United States as children. (Photo: Glenn H. Burkins)

As the national debate over immigration reform drags on, one fact remains indisputable: The number of undocumented immigrants living in the United States continues to grow.

At the Levine Museum of the New South, a new exhibit focuses on a particularly thorny aspect of this emotional issue – the plight of undocumented youth who came here as children. While many consider the United States home – the only home some have known – they also live with legal barriers and fear of deportation.

This bifurcated existence is the theme that permeates the Levine’s new exhibit, “Out of the Shadows: Undocumented and Unafraid,” which is part of the museum’s two-year exhibition series “Destination Freedom: Civil Rights Struggles Then and Now.”

Organized by Charlotte-based artist Annabel Manning and independent curator Carla Hanzal, “Out of the Shadows” features portraits, artwork and interactive media that reflects the lives of undocumented immigrant youth from Charlotte and the Triangle Area.

“The Latino undocumented youth are visible in their own Latino community, but they are invisible to the rest of world,” Manning said during a recent interview with Qcitymetro.com. “This participatory art project allows the youth to explore through the art process what it means to be visible and invisible at the same time and to show the public what this state of invisibility feels like.”

Hanzal, who help with the project, said her goal is similar.

“My hope is that this exhibition will create the space for meaningful dialogues about the many issues that affect immigrant youth and their families,” she said. “They have dreams of higher education and also are committed to keeping their families together. They have great courage to reveal their undocumented status, to come out of the shadows so that they may advocate for their rights and those of their families.”

Levine Museum President Emily Zimmern said the exhibit was a perfect fit for the museum.

“While they (undocumented youth) have grown up here and consider this home, without citizenship, they are not able to fully participate. Their lack of participation affects their lives and our community in multiple ways.”

“Out of the Shadows” uses various and interactive media, including video and audio components.

Hanzal and Manning said that they didn’t want to prepare a simple documentary exhibit but wanted to include conceptualized exhibits to articulate the dilemmas faced by the children of undocumented immigrants.

One part of the exhibit features students’ portraits that have been digitally altered to portray both their visible and invisible existence simultaneously.

Other pieces in the exhibit feature personal and revealing glances into the lives of undocumented youth.

Some participants in the project are members of United 4 the Dream, a youth-led advocacy group in Charlotte that is part of the Latin American Coalition. Others are young people associated with the Immigrant Youth Forum in Carrboro. Both groups work to advocate the causes of undocumented youth, especially in the area of education.

Zimmerman said she hopes those who see the exhibit will leave with a “a deeper understanding of the young people behind the headlines — what their lives are like, their hopes and fears, along with greater insight into how public policy affects people.

Zimmerman said she also visitors to better appreciate how, in our American system of government, people who view policies as unfair or unjust can mobilize to work for change.”

Manning said she hopes the exhibition will cause viewers to “develop a sense of responsibility” and ultimately fight for what she considers to be the rights of undocumented youth.

“They should have equal rights,” she said, “…the right to in-state tuition, the right to have driver’s licenses, and the right to stay in this country with a secure and short-term path to citizenship.”

Out of the Shadows will be on display through June. For more information, visit the Levine Museum website.

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