It is my attempt to reflect back on the challenges I faced as an undocumented student in the U.S. Although the experience and struggles are by no means “cool”, the new generation of DREAMers have made this movement what it is today: a force to be reckoned with.
The immigrant rights movement has reached one of the most important milestones of the last two decades. Finally, politicians are responding to the demands of advocates asking to reform a broken immigration system that has marginalized millions of undocumented immigrants.
We see this in the form of Senate Bill 744 proposed by the Bipartisan Senate Coalition referred to as the “Gang-of-Eight” which is by far the most comprehensive piece of legislation we have seen in recent years. Such progress is due to the masses of brave DREAMers (undocumented youth) who came out of the shadows to declare their legal status for the purpose of telling their stories to the American public.
Senate Bill 744 incorporates many of the provisions outlined in the most recent legislative proposal known as the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) with added flexibility in the requirements for legal permanent residency by removing the age cap of 30 for applicants. DREAMers residing in the U.S., who entered the country younger than 16 years of age and prior to December 2011, would be eligible for Legal Permanent Residency (LPR).
This proposal is now inclusive of the elder generation of undocumented youth, those of us who came prior to the DREAMer movement. We were not called DREAMErs as the only known label used to identify us was illegal alien. That is because the term DREAMer did not exist until after 2001 when the first version of the DREAM Act bill was introduced in Congress.
To some extent, the illegal alien identifier was accurate in describing my experience growing up during my high school and early college years, which was one of alienation. Intrinsically, I knew that in order to survive and protect myself from danger, I had to hide the fact that I was undocumented. This seemed rather challenging when you live in neighborhoods and attend classes at a school where you feel and look like an outsider. Not to mention facing a communication barrier as you are trying to learn a new language. If my looks were not enough to alienate me, my foreign accent did the job. Consequently, as a young adult I felt so different from everyone. I also knew that my life would be about surviving in a society that did not care to recognize me as a full human being.
It was clear to me that the fight for survival was one I had to do on my own. During my high school years, I did not have any friends, mentors, or counselors to assist me as I was faced with sorting my life after graduation. How would I explain to someone that I could not apply for jobs, internships, financial aid, etc.? My parents provided the stability I needed at home, but when it came to navigating the outside English-speaking world and the educational system, I knew I had no one but myself.
Although I was an honors student and belonged to the top three percent of my graduating class, my future was uncertain due to my undocumented status. Could my way out of such predicament be an education? That was a question I did not know answer at the moment, but college seemed like my only alternative. I saw how much my parents struggled to climb the economic ladder with a 6th grade level education. So, if I wanted to have a different outcome, I had to do something different. My plan for self-sufficiency included pursuing a college degree. Thankfully, the hard work in high school paid off as I was accepted to California State University,Northridge (CSUN). I began attending college in the fall of 1998.
I get asked the following frequently – “If you were undocumented, how were you able to attend college?” My answer to this day is a simple one – “Nothing stopped me from applying”. But it is a valid question to ask because the outcome could have been very different if Proposition 187 had been upheld. I started college only four years after Proposition 187 (known as Save Our State Initiative) was approved by voters in California. Such measure was intended to create a state-run citizenship screening system to deny undocumented immigrants access to public services including healthcare and public education. It’s principals are not very different from laws that have recently been upheld in states like Arizona. Although the “Save Our State” measure was still facing legal battles in court, a restraining order preventing this law from being in place allowed many like me to stay in school. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals eventually repealed this measure and it was effectively killed in 1999.
Although such an anti-immigrant measure did not come into fruition in California, its aftermath was still felt. Such political climate furthered cemented the feeling of marginalization I felt growing up. I was simply a voiceless illegal alien that should not be in this country. I had no say, no vote, and no rights. That’s the message I got from those that wanted to criminalize my family and those like me. It was then that I decided to continue to stay “under the radar” and did as much as possible to appear a normal college student. On the other hand, this also fueled my desire to rise above my legal status. I wanted to be able to make it through college regardless of all the obstacles that were in front of me.
During my college years, I was living in the neighborhood of what is now called South Los Angeles which is 30 miles away from CSUN. Since California had also banned licenses for undocumented immigrants in 1994, driving was not an option for me. I resorted to making a four-hour daily trip to arrive at my college campus, which included a journey of three buses and a metro ride. This meant that after a full day of school and extra-curricular activities, I would return home at the late hours of the night. A 10 pm arrival was not too rare.
Breaking through the isolation became a second challenge to tackle. Thankfully, being on my own only lasted through the completion of my freshman year. I realized that somehow I needed to feel part of a community and began my involvement when I joined a student organization focused on volunteer work. I started to feel at home for the first time in my life in the U.S. Volunteering for the American Diabetes Association, AIDS Walk, Habitat for Humanity and many other non-profit organizations gave me an avenue to make a difference in others. This in turned helped me grow as a student leader and it encouraged me to be civically engaged on campus. It was here where I began to meet other students who were also undocumented. We created a type of camaraderie that served as a support system, but it was more on a one-on-one basis rather than in an organized way. It still felt we were the minority on campus and that in order to get through college, we needed to keep our status hidden to the outside world.
My last year at CSUN was life-changing as I stepped into the ultimate student leadership role, becoming the first Latina President of Associated Students– the university student government. The public fights we took on were primarily to protect college affordability given the proposed tuition fee increases by the Governor Schwarzenegger’s administration which continued to slash public funding for higher education in the midst of a state budget crisis. I knew this was an important battle, not only because it would impact all my college student constituents but also the at-risk students which included undocumented immigrants. But hiding my immigration status continued to be my modus operandi, especially in a more visible leadership role. Only friends in my closest circles knew about my legal predicament. Finally, in 2004, I was reaching the improbable finish line, becoming the first college graduate in my family.
I believe that my personal journey resembles that of First Generation DREAMers, as I would like to call us. Being undocumented was the cross each of us had to carry on our own. Some of us were lucky to have found a mentor or friend that understood our circumstances and encouraged us to continue, especially in challenging times when one is about to give up all hope.
Has anything changed in the last decade for the DREAMers? Not much. Lacking a comprehensive immigration reform policy, the struggles continue to be the same and perhaps even worse in states that have adopted anti-immigrant measures. However, somewhere in between, the newer generation of DREAMers became tired of being scapegoats and has done what their predecessors were afraid to do. They came out to the world as “Undocumented and Unafraid” demanding a change through a campaign that modeled other civil rights movements seen in American history. Now we are witnessing the rise of student groups on college campuses such as CSUNDREAMs to be Heard established to advocate for immigrant rights and create a support system for DREAMers.
The Undocumented and Unafraid movement has become an inspiration to me. It has taught me that in order to generate change at a mass scale, you have to be willing to put yourself on the line. Even as a deported DREAMer, coming out publically with my story of deportation has allowed me to be part of this movement which is reshaping the conversation on immigration. Most importantly, it has redefined the immigrant community itself. Being Undocumented is no longer something to be ashamed or afraid of.
Our stories could make the difference in passing legislation for DREAMersand their families in the U.S. as well as for those of us residing on the other side of the border.
Nancy Landa is a deported honors graduate and former student president of California State University, Northridge (CSUN.) Nancy has lived in Tijuana since her deportation in 2009 and has shared her story to highlight the need for comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S. You can follow Nancy on Facebook, Twitter or her blog at mundocitizen.com. This blog post first appeared on juancristobalquevedo.com