Still Dreaming

How four undocumented immigrants are working toward achieving their own versions of the American Dream.


This is a compilation of four stories. The subjects are all undocumented, and they all immigrated to America with their families as children under the age of ten. These undocumented minors identify as DREAMers.

DREAMers not only identify as such because of the piece of legislation they’re named after, but because of the obstacles and experiences they face trying to accomplish their dreams.

The obstacles undocumented students face — fear of their parents’ deportation, being a primary provider for their families, not being able to afford college — are resulting from a country that is divided on immigration reform. Those for reform argue current policies are separating families, and that the process in place to obtain documentation takes too long. Those against reform argue that illegal immigrants are using up public resources and jobs that could be for legal immigrants and citizens.

And undocumented immigrants who came to America as children are caught in the middle of this debate.

“I will never truly understand the fear, courage, isolation or triumph of my students,” said Jennifer Crewalk, the Assistant Director for the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Multicultural Education at George Mason University.

Crewalk, who has been working with issues related to diversity, inclusion and education while she was overseas in the Peace Corps, believes that undocumented students could help build stronger communities, universities and government if they were citizens.

“A lot of the students I see feel hopeless, stifled — they want to voice their opinions on immigration and they want fight for citizenship to a country they’ve always called home,” Crewalk said. “But they battle with those feelings, their hopes and dreams, and the reality of protecting their families.”

Seeking a solution to break down educational and community barriers, more undocumented students are coming together and forming DREAMers organizations.

Greisa Martinez, Ray Jose, Dayana Torres and Laura Bohórquez were all involved in student organizations for DREAMers — some even started them — so they could spread awareness of their situations and create change within their own collegiate communities. They all show what it is like growing up as an undocumented minor, going to college as an undocumented student, and adjusting to life as an undocumented immigrant in the United States.


GREISA MARTINEZ

“My mother had dreams for me before I had dreams for myself,” said Greisa Martinez, 26.

“My mother had dreams for me before I had dreams for myself,” Greisa Martinez, 26, tells me. Her eyes were bright and clear, like eyes tend to be after a good cry. But Greisa never cried. She never broke down, no matter how her voice would sometimes catch on harsh words like “cancer” and “deported.” She didn’t hesitate with uncomfortable silence or shift her eyes away from me as I asked her to explain what it is like to be an undocumented immigrant who considers the U.S. her home.

Martinez traveled to America as an infant, around six months old. She and her family were from Hidalgo, Mexico, and worked in agriculture. Economic instability was the main reason Martinez, the oldest out of four children, and her parents immigrated to Los Angeles. But they didn’t plan on staying for long — only until they could save enough money to move back to Mexico and begin their own business.

In five years they made that happen. Martinez now had two younger sisters, and her parents packed the girls and everything they could take with them into three cars, and they travelled back to Mexico.

“They really had high hopes,” Martinez said. “They were going back to Mexico with a leg up. But the economy in Mexico wasn’t, and still isn’t, OK.”

Martinez’s parents opened a business selling school supplies at a local market. But it wasn’t enough to support their family of five — soon-to-be six.

“After two years, my family decided it just wasn’t worth it anymore,” Martinez said. “Like any family, they wanted a home; they wanted to be able to have their kids go to school. They realized that wasn’t going to happen in Mexico.”

Martinez and her family moved back to America; but this time, to Dallas, Texas. They had family in Dallas, and as Martinez told me, “my parents’ dreams could be realized.”

Martinez’s mother could finally have a home to raise her children in, and she could send them to good schools. Martinez’s father became an ordained Baptist minister and opened up a small business, which flourished in comparison to his attempt in Mexico.

“Life, at some point, just became normal,” Martinez said. “We have a house, we have jobs, we have family. My mom was a stay-at-home mom. It was all normal.”

In 2003, Martinez was accepted to Texas A&M University, which, under the Texas DREAM Act, allowed undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public universities. Texas was the first state to pass a version of the DREAM Act, and until 2012, when President Obama pushed through his executive action, DACA, many undocumented students could not afford to go to college. Martinez, and other Texas DREAMers, were the exception until other states followed suit.

“My dad was so proud — so happy,” Martinez said. “He wanted me to become a doctor, so I went into my freshman year as a biology major.”

Going to school a few hours away from Dallas, Martinez frequently went back home over weekends and holidays. She began telling me about her junior year of college when she went home over Labor Day weekend:

Martinez went back to school, but it was not the same. She went into a depression and her grades began reflecting that. She started to see a college counselor.

Martinez credits her emotional recovery from her father’s deportation to the community of undocumented students she found at Texas A&M.

“It was a place where I felt at home,” Martinez said. “We could relate to each other and tell each other our own stories. We could support and comfort each other. I wouldn’t have been able to finish school without their constant support.”

But there was one unforeseen roadblock standing in Martinez’s path: her mother was diagnosed with lymphoma.

Martinez had to drop out of college and go back home to live with her mother and younger sisters. She sold used cars to earn extra money. She sacrificed her education to make sure her mother received treatment.


Martinez has now finished school, and her mother is now in remission. Though she’s dealt undoubtedly dealt with hardships, she still says, “my story is not unique.”

“There are still thousands, maybe millions, of undocumented minors and students, undocumented immigrants, that have gone through what I have,” Greisa said. “Except some of them have to go it alone.”


RAY JOSE

“I was like the minority of a minority,” said Ray Jose, 24.

“I didn’t know about it until my senior year of high school, about four months before I graduated,” said Ray Jose, a 24-year-old Filipino who came to America with his mother, father and older sister on a tourist VISA.

Jose was scouted by Virginia Polytechnic Institute for track and field a few months before he graduated from high school. He was ecstatic and couldn’t wait to tell his parents.

“All the years we’ve spent here we’ve had financial struggles,” Jose said. “I finally felt like I could help my parents in this moment. That this isn’t a problem anymore. They wouldn’t have to worry about me.”

But that wasn’t the case.

Jose’s mother sat him down, began crying, and said in Filipino: “My son, I have failed you.”

That is when Jose learned about his undocumented status.

“After that day, it was just hard for me to keep going,” Jose said. “My only way to get through college was taken away from me.”

Jose’s story isn’t unique. Thousands of undocumented minors find out about their statuses during high school and find themselves caught between anger toward their family for keeping secrets, and a sense of loss that comes from having a goal or aspiration crushed by a force out of their control.

“I was always told that if you work hard, if you study hard, you can get to wherever you want to go,” Jose said. “But because I didn’t have this piece of paper saying that I was a resident of this country that I call home, everything I was told didn’t apply to me anymore.”

Jose stopped caring about school and began doing poorly on homework and exams — he lost hope. It wasn’t until graduation that he realized he still had way:

Jose went to Montgomery Community College to study nursing under the Maryland DREAM Act, which, like Texas’s DREAM Act, allows undocumented immigrants living in Maryland to pay in-state tuition. But during his time at MCC, the future of the Maryland DREAM Act — and his education — became uncertain.

Help Save Maryland, an anti-immigration grassroots organization, got enough signatures on a petition to put the Maryland DREAM Act on referendum, meaning, it was up to Maryland voters whether or not the DREAM Act would survive.

This was the catalyst for Jose to begin working with fellow undocumented students and publicly reveal his status — to the disapproval of his parents.

This sense of disapproval is still present in Jose’s life, but less than before. His father, Ramon Jose, began supporting Jose’s efforts to promote openness about being undocumented. Recently, Ramon announced his own undocumented status.

In a way, having his father break through dense cultural barriers and announce his status as an illegal immigrant is why Jose never graduated. He dropped out, with one more semester left to complete.

“Yes, school is still a priority in my life,” Jose said. “But I want to organize groups and I want to help others who were, who are, in my situation. I think I’ve found my purpose in all of this.”

Jose has plans to enroll in college again, but not to complete his nursing degree. Jose wants to receive a degree in public policy.


DAYANA TORRES

“They told me to keep it all out of my mind,” Dayana Torres said. “But I couldn’t.”

Dayana Torres was unaware of her immigration status until she asked her parents about going on a school study-abroad trip to France. Her parents told her they didn’t have enough money saved up for the trip, so Torres worked baby-sitting jobs to save money. A year later, her freshman year of high school, Torres was awarded a partial scholarship from Brown University to study abroad in Scotland over the summer.

“By then I had saved enough money to go, and so I asked my parents again. That’s when they told me about our situation,” Torres said. “My parents kept telling me to just focus on school, to get good grades, and that by the time I graduated, this wouldn’t be an issue. They told me to keep it all out of my mind. But I couldn’t.”

Torres was in a situation many young immigrants face. She was 9 years old when she and her family moved from Colombia to Arlington, Va. She didn’t know of immigration policies or reform, just like the thousands of other Dreamers, or undocumented minors, who find out about their immigration status and what that means for their future.

Mason DREAMers President Dayana Torres pictured in front of George Mason University’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Multicultural Education. Photograph by Ryan Weisser.

The College Board, a college preparation and resource website used by US high schools to prepare high school students for college applications, estimates that there are nearly 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high schools every year. There is no state or federal law that prohibits the admission of undocumented immigrants to colleges or universities, but some schools treat undocumented students as foreign students who have to pay out-of-state tuition rates. Some four-year public colleges in Virginia — like Torres’s first choice, the University of Virginia — refuse admission to students without proof of citizenship or residency.

However, in June 2012, a few months before Torres began studying computer science at George Mason University, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals went into effect. DACA is an executive action by President Obama that allows undocumented minors the chance to study at a four-year university as long as they are eligible under certain conditions. Torres was eligible for DACA, but in order to complete the application, she needed some of her parent’s immigration information.

Torres was worried her parents wouldn’t sign any forms. DACA is not a law — it could be struck down once President Obama leaves office, and the protection DACA provides could be taken away. Their family’s information would be compromised, and there’s a possibility they could be deported back to Colombia. But Torres’s parents weighed these concerns against the benefits their daughter would receive.

“Now with DACA protection, I believe that she will be able to achieve her goals and pursue integration into this country,” said Martha, Torres’s mother, in an email chat. “This country will be able to provide opportunities for her.”

Torres would be able to get a driver’s license in Virginia. She would be able to have a social security number, meaning she could find work. She would be able to get in-state tuition at GMU, even though she wouldn’t be eligible for financial aid. But she still would be able to go to, and stay in, college.

DACA was recently extended in November 2014 to offer more protection to undocumented students, but according to the Jennifer Crewalk, the assistant director of GMU’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Multicultural Education, “it is only a temporary Band-Aid.”

“Ultimately, our undocumented students could do even more for their education institutions, their families, communities, and government, when they can fully participate as citizens,” said Crewalk, who has worked with Torres over the past few years through the Dream Project, ODIME and Mason DREAMers.

Torres has represented thousands of undocumented students in America by competing in an immigration reform-themed hack-a-thon, hosted by tech industry leaders such as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. She co-founded the Virginia Student Power Network to empower students to come together and advocate for a fair and just educational system. As president of Mason DREAMers, she is trying to bridge the gap between local organizations and national organizations to make changes in US immigration policy.

Dayana (left) and her Forward US hack-a-thon team worked with Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg to create a product pitch for a technology that could impact immigration reform and undocumented minors. Photograph by Alida Garcia, FWD.us political strategist.

And though Torres had to persevere through years of rejection, disappointment and frustration with her immigration status, she still says: “It’s harder for other people.”

“I know it seems like a lot — being a part of all of these organizations and working all of these jobs and being in college — and it seems like a burden, but then again, there are people who aren’t even able to attend college,” Torres said. “I’m lucky to be here.”

Dayana on Her Experience as a Dreamer

Courtesy of Dayana Torres | by FWD.us


Laura Bohórquez

“If we want to go to college, we’ve proven that we will go no matter what,” Laura Bohórquez said.

“I knew I had to go to college right out of high school,” said Laura Bohórquez, 28. “A lot of the scholarships were strictly for people just graduating from high school. I knew that if I didn’t go at that moment, I would be stuck with a high school diploma.”

Bohórquez went to Western Washington University, and similar to her peer Greisa Martinez, she felt lucky to be able to pay in-state tuition and receive scholarships under the Washington DREAM Act. At the time she went to school in 2005, few states had adopted their own versions of the DREAM Act — only undocumented students in eight states were eligible to receive in-state tuition rates.

During Bohórquez’s time at WWU, she helped organize the Student Coalition for Immigration Rights, one of the first student organizations that recognized undocumented students on campus.

“I realized that even though we had the DREAM Act on our side, having legislation that says universities support undocumented students and having universities actually take action to support undocumented students were two completely different things,” Bohórquez said.

Bohórquez kept noticing the lack of information out about education for undocumented students. As a high school student, she says she was lucky to have a counselor who cared enough to help her find information about applying to public universities without papers. But without that help, she doubts she would have made it through college. Bohórquez noticed the same thing at WWU. There wasn’t discussion about what it means to have undocumented students at a university. Bohórquez had to fight for things like payment plans, living on campus without meal plans and scholarships for her remaining years at school.

This fight continued into Bohórquez’s time in graduate school at Loyola University in Chicago.

“Some offices, like student accounts, would just dismiss me,” Bohórquez said. “They didn’t know how to treat the issues undocumented students face. We have unique problems, and instead of learning about them and addressing them, they were ignored.”

Bohórquez explained that this dismissive behavior came from people being afraid to give out misinformation, and they were afraid of backlash from university funders, alumni and board of directors for supporting undocumented students.

“I actually had someone tell me not to tell anyone about a payment plan and scholarships the university gave me,” Bohórquez said. “Everything was done so hushed. There was so much fear around sharing this process that worked for me, because it would encourage other undocumented students to do the same.”

Bohórquez wanted to stop this cycle of fear among staff and faculty at Loyola, so she addressed the issues head-on.

“I basically told them: ‘If we want to go to college, we’ve proven that we will go no matter what,’” Bohórquez said. “It was their choice on whether or not they would address these unspoken issues and help other undocumented students like myself.”

Immigration lectures and training was scheduled. Bohórquez stood in front of her professors, her mentors and Loyola staff, and presented research showing how to address undocumented students at Loyola.

“Thing began to change, slowly, but it was still change,” Bohórquez said. “I think showing how I could succeed with the help they gave me, by working with me and listening to my situation, they realized that they can figure out how to adapt.”

And soon, Bohórquez had to figure out how to adapt to life outside of college. The main reason she went to graduate school was because she felt she had no other option at the time. Even with a bachelor’s degree, she would be unable to find a job without a permit, so she decided to continue schooling. By then, she hoped she would be able to apply for a worker’s permit.

“Even though I had those extra few years in school, I still felt so overwhelmed when I began looking for jobs.” Bohórquez said. “Deferred action had just happened. I applied, and I knew I would receive my worker’s permit before I graduated. I knew I would be okay, but I didn’t have the profile a lot of my peers had: previous jobs.”

This is another barrier Bohórquez and other undocumented students face as they try to enter the workforce. Before President Barack Obama’s executive action in 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, may undocumented students who could afford to go to college found themselves in the same situation as Bohórquez: no, or very little, experience in their chosen career fields because they were unable to receive worker’s permits.

“I started thinking about how I could merge my work with institutional advocacy and education with immigration,” Bohórquez said. “I was actually looking on Facebook and saw that United We Dream was looking for someone to work with them.”

United We Dream is an advocacy group created by undocumented students and young immigrants to push immigration policy reform locally and nationally. They work with DREAMers all over the U.S. to help students make a difference within their own communities and be vocal about their statuses. UWD was looking for someone to manage social media. Bohórquez thought that this opportunity was too go to be true — but it wasn’t.

She got the job.

Originally published at ryanweisser.com.

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