Ten Grossly Misguided Comments on my Undocumented PhD Story

I am well aware that the first rule of the internet is “don’t read the comments,” and a natural second is “don’t engage with the comments.” Last Friday, NBC LA published a story on my UndocuPhD story (you can read it HERE) and today, they published a follow-up gallery (you can view it HERE). Both of these have had very lively comments on NBC LA’s Facebook page, most of which have been congratulatory and supportive. There have been a few comments that are especially entertaining (though somewhat alarming) because they reflect a complete misunderstanding and lack of information related to core knowledge about the “American” immigration system, higher education, taxes, and many other topics that get sorted into an pro-immigrant-anti-immigrant binary.

I’m sharing some of these because even in face-to-face conversation, many folks have no idea how it is even possible for an undocumented student to go through Harvard (twice) and through a Ph.D. program. I am not afraid of the tough questions nor am I ashamed of my journey. I also like to think the best in people and hope that at least some are open to reason and learning more about the topic. What follows is a list of 10 general themes I’ve found within these comments and some examples of those very comments, real and unedited. I also offer a response based on my own experience to connect the dots in the story that was published.

1. The why doesn’t she become a citizen? comments:

“All that smarts and couldn’t figure out how to become a legal citizen.”
“If you put the time and sacrifice into your education why not your citizenship?”

These comments assume that there is a way, a “line” that undocumented people living in the United States could follow, but there isn’t. There are currently very few provision under US immigration law for someone like me, who entered the country as a child and grew up in this country, to adjust their status into a status that is protected and permanent. Two specific provisions are for individuals who are victims of crime or victims of domestic violence (and meet other pertinent requirements). I consider myself extremely grateful that I have not had such experiences that are often traumatic and result in immense personal and emotional hardships. So, navigating through the immigration system has nothing to do with brains. The immigration system itself is problematic and has many nuances. It takes more than money, time, and willingness to start the process. Also, many people, in their comments, go straight to demanding U.S. citizenship without understanding that citizenship is not granted automatically.

2. The complete confusion over DACA comments:

“If she’s part of the DACA program, she’s not undocumented.”
“If she has DACA she’s not exactly undocumented she has legal permission to work and live in the US I’m confused”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement Tweeted on March 9, 2017, “DACA is not a protected legal status, but active DACA recipients are typically a lower level of enforcement priority.” DACA has provided me with a deferment from deportation (renewable every two years), a Social Security Number and a legal work permit. However, these provisions are entirely at the discretion of the Homeland Security office and do not offer a path toward legal residency or citizenship.

3. The whole misunderstanding about financial aid:

“She got it all free on our tax dollars.”
“Probably didn’t pay a cent for her education.”
“It was obtained with illegal funds (citizens pay taxes for legal citizens-not for global funding of education).”

I have attended private post-secondary schools. These do receive federal funding through grants and other opportunities. However, these are mostly for research and projects. Harvard College offers to meet 100% of a student’s demonstrated need regardless of citizenship, country of origin, etc. (i.e. International Students also have the same provisions). Because I do not qualify for FAFSA, my particular funding came from Harvard’s enormous endowment, which is primarily made up small and large donations from Harvard alumni and other folks donating to individuals. I myself have made several checks to Harvard’s financial aid program after graduating. Still, even with their financial aid package, my parents paid at minimum $10,000 to the university to pay for my “student contribution” portion, which I couldn’t pay for myself since I was not eligible to work. I was able to earn money through babysitting and working as an independent contractor through the summers. While in college, I never earned more than the required income threshold file income taxes.

For my Master’s program at Harvard, I received a loan from The Fundacion Mexico en Harvard, an organization that provides grants and loans to individuals of Mexican citizenship for post-graduate at Harvard. The loan was for a little more than $21,000, which was essentially half of my Master’s program. The rest of the funds came through donations from individuals who believed in my educational journey, from family and friends, and from working as an independent contractor for a non-profit in the year between college graduation and the start of my master’s program. I’m still paying for my loan to this day, and I am extremely thankful for the Fundacion’s patience and flexibility on my repayment plan as I continued through my Ph.D. program. My Ph.D. program was funded through a private fellowship and institutional support, which is not pulled from people’s taxes but comes through grants from private and corporate foundations and individual donors. I also have to contribute a small amount for student fees each year.

4. The she should be paying taxes comments:

“Get your citizenship first then you can get your education and degree and pay taxes like we all do.”

I pay income taxes every year and have since I started earning money above the threshold required to file income taxes. It was a learning experience as to how to file taxes as an independent contractor. It took me a few years to pay off taxes from my first year working as a full-time non-profit consultant. But, thankfully, I was able to pay off that debt to the IRS and I now maintain roles as an employee (through DACA, since I now have a work permit and a SSN), a consultant and a small business owner. Every year, I gather my relevant W-2s, K-1s, and 1099s and report all my income (like we all do). Most years, I’ve also had the privilege of sending in a payment to the IRS and to the CA State Franchise Tax Board.

Also, in general, the IRS doesn’t care about an individual’s citizenship, so they’ve facilitated Individual Tax Payer ID Numbers, sole proprietorships, and many other ways for undocumented people to earn a living and report their income. No other questions asked, and with little to no access to public benefits in return. You’re welcome.

5. The if only we had the same opportunities as she did comments :

“I am sure she didn’t pay for a bit of it. That sucks too because you and I wouldn’t get the time of day if we tried to get that treatment from the government. We would all be Ph.Ds if it were free.”

My Ph.D. was not “free,” even when considering the substantial financial aid I received. It wasn’t funded through the government, either. Also, for U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, U.S. Ph.D.s tend to be fully funded through graduate assistantships (teaching and research), fellowships and grants, many of which actually exclude undocumented students (especially at public institutions and where research opportunities are funded through federal funds). Even then, no, we are not all PhDs. It takes a special kind of crazy to persist through a Ph.D. program.

6. The she’s using our resources to benefit her country comments.

“Now she’ll return to her country and be looked at as a hero because she succeeded on the US’s dime.”

This is not something to be concerned. I am #HeretoStay. This is my home, and I am doing what I can every day to make it a better place. But, also, in a world that is each time more interconnected, it’s not just about making the US a better place, it’s about moving the entire world forward.

7. The she’s taking a spot that belongs to someone else comments:

“It is a tough spot to be in but I don’t feel that any American should be displaced by an undocumented person, ever, for any reason. Good for her, but sad for the American student that did not get that spot.”
“That’s so wrong. She’s taking a seat in school from a true citizen.”

Two thoughts. First: in a society that values meritocracy so much and firmly upholds a “survival of the fittest” mentality, it surprises me that people are outraged that someone bested them at their own game, especially when I had significantly more disadvantages than most White and/or Middle Class students. I am not a fan at all of the meritocracy argument, especially because it assumes that everyone has an equal shot at achievement and success. That’s not true at all. It just so happens that in this case, someone with more disadvantages successfully went through the impossible hurdles. Second: these type of arguments assume that by virtue of being “American” or a “citizen” of the United States, they are entitled to certain jobs, educational experiences, etc. No one is “entitled” to a Harvard education, to a Ph.D., to a CEO job, etc., and that is the underlying assumption when folks mistakenly speak about spots being taken away from them by people of color, immigrants, etc.

8. The she needs to be deported comments

“By law she should not be in this country. She needs to leave.”
“Can she get a bus ticket with her degree so she can go home and make her country great?”

I have been in this country for twenty-four of my thirty years of life. I am #HeretoStay and make this country a better place every single day.

9. The nothing matters because she’s illegal comments:

“Must make you proud that no one obeys laws anymore.”
“So why even bother with laws if this illegal activity is allowed all over the U.S.?!!”

First, no human being is illegal, regardless of whether or not they have crossed arbitrary geopolitical lines that have been illegally seized from people who first inhabited them. Secondly, whether or not folks like it, there are 11 million undocumented folks living in this country, who are part of our communities, who are part of our economic and social fabric, and without whom the U.S. economic system would crumble.

10. The comments that are too tangled to even answer:

“Who is going to hire her? Being an illegal alien means she doesn’t have a SSN, hopefully she has a green card.”

Here’s a stab at untangling this comment: I am legally employable through DACA and have a SSN. I can’t apply for a green card because there are no immigration law provisions for me to do so at this time.