Undocumented and Unafraid
By James Knutila, photos by Jessica Pons
The decision to rescind DACA puts the future of nearly 800,000 young people into question, including an estimated 600–700 UCLA students. Here, three Bruin DACA recipients share their stories and show us this issue through their eyes.
Jorge Herrera heard a troubling story out of San Bernardino. Apparently, police had stopped a man on a bicycle because he didn’t have a proper bike light. They questioned him about his citizenship, and when he turned out to be an undocumented immigrant, the police placed him in custody. ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents later entered the jail, took him away, and eventually deported him.
The incident fit a pattern in San Bernardino County, where a program called 287 (g) enabled ICE agents to coordinate with local law enforcement. At the time, it was legal, but in Jorge’s view, it was wrong. “People were targeted for being brown. They were being profiled,” he says.
He got in his truck and drove to a protest at San Bernardino Valley College. “We wanted to show that our community stands up for one another,” he says. As he sat on a road along with six fellow activists, 40 police officers descended on the scene, and Jorge was arrested and detained in a cell for 12 hours. “They pulled me out of the jail cell, separated me from the group,” he says. “The only thing I told them was I wasn’t going to answer any questions until I had an attorney with me. And they tried to intimidate me, screamed at me that I had no rights.”
Jorge is one of hundreds of undocumented immigrants in the UCLA community. Building on a long history of student activism, he and his peers are stepping out of the shadows to tell their stories and humanize the fraught issue of immigration.
The phrase “undocumented and unafraid” has emerged as a slogan for this new generation of young people. Tired of being pawns in Washington’s political negotiations, and frustrated with the “DREAMer” narrative in the media, they are demanding a new conversation on immigrants’ rights.
Jorge Herrera • B.A. ’17, Chicana and Chicano Studies
When Jorge was 13, he told his dad that one day he would travel to Europe. He wanted to visit the Vatican, just like his grandmother always talked about, and go to a football match in Spain. What Jorge remembers most about this moment is the pain in his dad’s face. It was a face that said don’t get your hopes up, because undocumented people can’t travel abroad. But Jorge’s dad didn’t want to bring his son down, so he told him, “One day.”
When Jorge was four years old, his family left Mexico for the U.S. He doesn’t remember much, but he knows that his own immigration to the U.S. was relatively easy. He traveled through the border in a car, separately from his parents. He woke up the next day in a Los Angeles apartment, surrounded by strangers who turned out to be his grandmother and four of his aunts.
Meanwhile, his parents set out on foot across the desert at night. For his dad, the desert route was tough but bearable. For his mom, crossing a desert on foot while pregnant with Jorge’s younger sister, the journey of several days was extreme. When they joined Jorge a few days later, his mother named the baby girl after the Virgin Mary, who she says watched over them and made sure they reached their destination.
As a teenager enrolled at Carson High School, Jorge was an average student who didn’t view college as a realistic option. Through a program called Upward Bound, he found a mentor who encouraged him to aim for higher education. Jorge turned his grades around, and after high school he attended Los Angeles Harbor College before transferring to UCLA. In Westwood, he took an immigration course with Professor Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, who became another crucial mentor. He worked on research projects, studying immigrant contributions to economic growth.
At UCLA, an opportunity caught Jorge’s eye: a study abroad program in Italy and Spain. After receiving DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status, he could apply for “Advance Parole,” a program that permits travel under certain conditions. The remaining obstacles were airfare and expenses while abroad, money that Jorge didn’t have, despite working a part-time job. He had to make sacrifices, and after considering his options he decided to forgo an apartment and sleep in his truck.
He parked his truck on Gayley Avenue, sometimes on Veteran Avenue. “It was cold,” he says. “I had to go to bed at around 12 or 1 o’clock in the morning — just because of the noise, parties that were going on — and around 6 a.m. I had to be up. There were cars passing by, people going to work. Trying to sneak into the dorms just to take a shower, and going back, grabbing my backpack and going to the library.” He pauses, thinking back to how he felt on those cold mornings, and his eyes well with tears. “It’s … you feel like you’re invisible,” he says. “You’re trying to navigate a system that wasn’t made for you.”
Jorge explains how he came to identify with the phrase “undocumented and unafraid,” despite the pain of his experiences. “The first part,” he says, “is to acknowledge the fact that you are undocumented. The second part is coming out publicly and sharing your story. Letting them know how you came to this country, and the struggles you’ve been through. And embracing that. Embracing your background. Embracing your story. Because just as much as any individual with U.S. citizenship, you’re just as human as he or she is. That’s where it starts. You love yourself for who you are. You love your undocumented status. And you become someone who embraces it, and isn’t afraid to say it.”
Jorge saved up enough to make his study abroad dreams a reality. In between his studies in Spain, he saw his two favorite soccer teams play: Barcelona and Real Madrid. In Rome, he bought a rosary, got it blessed by a priest at the Vatican, and brought it home for his grandmother.
Two days after he graduated last June, Jorge started his first full-time job at a program called Educational Talent Search. He works with under-served students in South Los Angeles, helping them navigate the process of college admissions. When he’s not working, Jorge plays in a community soccer league. His family comes to his matches to cheer him on, and they all love to go out afterward for seafood at the Boiling Crab.
Jorge remains actively involved in the community. During recent congressional budget negotiations, he and several other activists sat outside the door of Senator Dianne Feinstein’s Los Angeles office, refusing to leave until she spoke with them. They wanted her to withhold her vote on the spending bill until the DREAM Act came to a vote. Jorge was arrested, but was let go with a citation. Several days and several demonstrations later, Senator Feinstein announced on Twitter that she would withhold her vote for the spending bill.
Marcela Zhou Huang • M.D. and Master’s ’20, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA
Marcela Zhou Huang’s parents emigrated from rural China to Mexico in the 1980s, joining extended family in a border town just south of California. Marcela and her older sister were born and raised in Mexico until Marcela was 12.
Marcela’s parents always prioritized education, and when they learned about an opportunity for their daughters to attend a school in the U.S., they arranged for the two girls to live with their uncle and his family across the border in Calexico, California. At first, it was difficult to be apart from her parents. But at school, Marcela thrived. She took advanced classes, got involved in all kinds of extracurricular activities, found a supportive community and made new friends.
In January 2007, the sisters went to stay with their parents for winter break. During the vacation, a school project required Marcela’s sister to be back in the U.S., so her dad drove her. On the way back, her dad and sister were stopped at the border and detained for 12 hours. Their fate was left to the discretion of an immigration officer, who revoked Marcela’s sister’s visa. Because she was a minor for most her previous travels, the officer held her father responsible and revoked his visa, too.
After her father and sister came home that night, Marcela remembers the sound of tears and then silence throughout the house. Her sister had acceptance letters from colleges in the U.S., and now she had to turn them all down. It was a tense moment for the family. Soon after, the attention turned to Marcela. She still had her visa, but once she returned to the U.S., she would have to stay there for good. At 15 years old, Marcela had to decide whether to return to a school she loved or stay with her family in Mexico. She chose school.
Back in the U.S., Marcela felt her undocumented status like never before. In her town, she could see the border fence and Mexico beyond. Customs agents and law enforcement workers were her neighbors.
“Suddenly I was carrying the burden of this secret,” she says. Marcela found solace in education. “Everything else was sort of falling apart,” she says, “but I could definitely control this part of my life.”
Marcela became valedictorian of her high school class. She went to UC San Diego and majored in human biology. After graduation, she found her calling at a job in a San Diego free clinic. “Going to the free clinic,” she says, “I felt energized. I think that was a sign that medicine was right for me. I felt a sense of purpose and a motivation to do better.”
In January 2018, Marcela walked into a Westwood coffee shop with a smile on her face. It was a rare day off for her from an often intense schedule as a third-year UCLA medical student. For Marcela, medicine connects back to her immigrant experience.
“Part of the reason why I chose medicine was because a lot of patients remind me of my parents,” she says. “No matter where you’re from, the immigrant struggle is very similar, especially in the health-care system.” Discussing her dreams for the future, Marcela exudes optimism. But when the conversation turns to her family, her pain surfaces. Marcela has not seen her dad or sister since January 2007.
Despite this pain and the risks in today’s political environment, Marcela is committed to telling her story, appearing on CBS Evening News and other major outlets. She is adamant that along with “DREAMers,” parents and families must be included in the immigration discussion.
“If we put so much emphasis on protecting youth and we don’t protect the parents, it defeats the purpose,” she says. “Without them, clearly we wouldn’t have all these fantastic people that we showcase in the media…ultimately, I would like to see an immigration system that takes care of people from all lines of work.”
Maria • B.A. ’17, History and Gender Studies
Maria’s childhood in Whittier, California, seemed largely normal to her. She went on field trips, hung out with friends at the mall and danced both ballet and hip-hop. Maria (who requested that her last name be withheld) knew that she was undocumented, but it didn’t affect her much until high school. When her friends got their driver’s licenses, she couldn’t get one because of her undocumented status. “When I was younger, I used to pray a lot,” Maria says. “Throughout high school … every night I prayed, I would ask for a driver’s license. That was part of my prayer, at the end: ‘And to get a driver’s license.’”
When her friends applied to colleges, Maria started her applications, too, but soon learned that she wasn’t eligible for financial aid. “I was really upset,” she says, “thinking, ‘Wow, all my friends are applying. Oh, they’re getting in. I deserve that, too.’ I knew I could get admitted to a four-year university, but not having the way to pay for it was hard.”
Maria’s family emigrated from Jalisco, Mexico, to California. Her dad found work in a factory, and her mom cleaned houses, worked at a motel and was a caretaker for the elderly. Her parents always encouraged her to focus on education, but as a first-generation student, Maria found the college application process bewildering. She had never heard of community college until a teacher mentioned the option to her. She enrolled in Fullerton Community College in 2010.
In 2012, Maria’s mom called to tell her that President Obama had signed DACA. “It was liberating,” she says, “[But] it wasn’t until I got my driver’s license that I said, ‘This is real. My picture. I passed my driver’s license test.’ I cried that day because I felt free. I was able to move without fear…I was like, ‘For years I’ve asked for this card, and my prayers were answered.’”
With DACA status, Maria felt a renewed motivation to focus on her education and her goal of transferring to a four-year university. Soon, she was accepted to UCLA, where she explored her lifelong love of history, taking courses in different ethnic studies departments, learning history from new angles. She added a second major, in gender studies, and flew on a plane for the first time for a study abroad program in Barbados.
After the 2016 election, she returned to Los Angeles and became more involved with the undocumented community at UCLA. She accepted an invitation to join the Chancellor’s Advisory Council on Immigration Policy, bringing her firsthand experience to the table.
For Maria, the phrase “undocumented and unafraid” is something to identify with, to an extent. “When DACA was rescinded, a lot of people were afraid,” she says. “I wanted to let them know it’s OK to be afraid — that that’s a valid emotion, especially when you don’t know what’s going to happen. I was feeling that way.”
Maria graduated last year and landed a job with a college access nonprofit. She shares her experiences with students and parents struggling to navigate the path to higher education. “When I’m speaking to my students and I’m speaking to parents,” she says, “I am unafraid, because I’m unafraid to share my story.”
Maria plans to merge her passions for education and immigration into a career in law, advocating on behalf of her community. In the meantime, she travels to UCLA regularly to take part in Immigration Council meetings, and she loves to drive to Whittier and spend time with her family. She worries about her parents, who both work in physical jobs without health insurance, and she’s frustrated that their struggles seem lost in the media and in the political debate.
“It’s often stated that ‘DREAMers’ are brought to the U.S. illegally by parents, that ‘DREAMers’ are ‘all’ seeking a post-secondary education,” she says. “Not only does this narrative dismiss countless lived experiences — such as those of unaccompanied minors, undocumented youth that have to work instead of study in order to survive — but it also unjustly criminalizes our parents. For some families, leaving their children is a matter of life and death. For others, the thought of being without their child is unbearable and unacceptable. We need to move away from a destructive narrative that divides our communities between the ‘deserving DREAMers’ and ‘undeserving parents and guardians.’”
“Undocumented and unafraid” means something different to Maria, Marcela and Jorge. But they echo a common desire for a new narrative and comprehensive immigration reform that includes not just “DREAMers,” but their families as well.
Ever the historian, Maria puts this generation and this moment into context: “What I hope for is that this generation — and this period of the immigrant rights movement — is remembered as a generation that challenged the status quo. Not only did we challenge the single narrative, we challenged the temporality of the United States’ immigration policies, and we fought tirelessly to humanize all 11 million.”