Growing up undocumented was tough. I remember always trying to hide my “Mexican vaccine” (i.e., the vaccine that is typically used in Mexico against tuberculosis, but not in the United States) because people would ask me if I was from Mexico. If people knew you didn’t have papers, they would make fun of you. Sometimes it was people from our own community that did it to us.
Since I was young, I knew I was undocumented. My mother always told me to lie and say I was born in the U.S. because if I didn’t, then we would get deported. I hated getting asked, “Where are you from?” because as much as I was proud of where I came from, I couldn’t share that information. Fear took over my life for years.
The fear of my status and the limitations that it placed on my future educational outcomes were more pronounced when I entered high school. When I was in high school, I applied for the California Dream Act. The Dream Act extended eligibility for state financial aid to students in California, one of those eligibility requirements entailed being an undocumented student who qualifies for in-state tuition under AB 540. During the time of college applications, all the seniors typically gathered in the library. My school was relatively small, so there were about 100 seniors. They divided us between “FAFSA students” and “Dream Act students”. Our table was small, and we had one person guide us through the process. I remember wanting to be with my friends, but I was not allowed to.
After high school, my plan was to go to a 4-year Cal State university, but I could not afford it. I remember my friends being excited because they were going to live on campus, but I did not have enough money to pay for tuition. The end of senior year was difficult, I had officially become an adult, but was not allowed to do what adults do. I recall talking to my counselor, but she had no idea how to help me because of my status. I consulted another teacher, but because I did not have Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) status, she could not help me either. I made an appointment with the Dream Center at the Cal State, but again they could not help me. I was lost and upset. I had no community or support and felt like my world was ending. My acceptance ended up being rescinded by the University, therefore, I had to go to community college. Fortunately, because of the College Promise program, I could get my first two years of tuition covered. College Promise is a program that waives your fees in community college if you are eligible.
As I was navigating my first year in college as a first-generation student, all I wanted to do was build a community. But I quickly noticed the lack of support for undocumented students. Our Dream Center was very small and did not have the necessary resources to help students like me. I was in disbelief because our campus was one of the colleges with many undocumented students, but lacked representation. To make matters worse, our financial aid office had only one financial aid advisor who was an expert on the Dream Act. I had spent months and months looking for him. Because of my status, all the other financial aid advisors stated they couldn’t help me. I once got yelled at because I was simply looking for the financial aid advisor and asked if anyone knew where I could find him.
Some folks from the Dream Center and I decided to revive a club for undocumented students. The club had slowly been forgotten as those involved began transferring and graduating. I wanted to bring back this club to fight for more resources for undocumented students. We were able to revive the club, and I became the secretary. At this time, DACA was not accepting first-time applications; therefore, many undocumented students coming to college did not have DACA and could not work. My club and I wanted to create a resource to help support non-DACA students.
Many of us had skills ready to be used, and some of us were offered jobs on campus but could not take them. At that time, re-elections were happening; therefore, my community had many uncertainties. But my club and center could not provide full support to address these uncertainties. Between the election and the onset of the Covid19 pandemic, there was a lot going on at the time I was preparing to transfer into a 4-year university.
Attending community college was a blessing in disguise. I made such a beautiful community that helped me transfer and deal with the uncertainties of my status. Transferring to the University of California, Irvine has been one of my most significant accomplishments. Since arriving at UCI, I instantly became involved. I transferred in 2020, right when the pandemic begun. My transition was difficult. I had recently moved out of Los Angeles to Irvine. I felt very lonely without my family, and being unable to go to campus and meet people physically made me feel disconnected from everything. This changed when I was able to get involved in the Dream Center by becoming a peer mentor for undocumented students. I was thrilled to work closely with the Dream Center and connect with other undocumented students from different backgrounds. All I wanted to do was build a community. But the pressure became so hard, and my uncertainties took over me.
Because of the struggles undocumented students go through and all the extra barriers we must break, it becomes very mentally draining. The constant comparison among peers and feeling very unseen and unheard is tough. Having to be resilient and continuously advocate for opportunities while managing other responsibilities is draining. All I kept thinking about was: Is this all worth it? I don’t have DACA nor a pathway to U.S. citizenship, what use will my degrees be when I graduate? Is this stress worth it? I thought I would never be able to practice what I love. If it wasn’t for my mentor at the Dream Center, one of the most empowering humans in this world, who has helped me navigate these fears. My mentor was also undocumented therefore, we could relate at a more personal level. She would encourage me to be kinder to myself and learn boundaries. She encouraged me to go to therapy. I remember her explaining that this journey is not for anything, it is for me. I kept telling her, “Well, what if I get deported? What will I do then? All my hard work is gone.” She made me realize that my hard work is my hard work. I have been through so much to be where I am, and I still have such a long journey to go and should be proud. I will be ready to use my degrees when relief comes my way. And if for some reason, I never get to adjust my status and use my degrees, then I did what I could. I maneuvered institutions that were not meant for students like me. I should be proud of the person I am. My mentor gave me much power and fuel to continue my journey at UCI. Her mentorship was so important to me. Without her, I do not know where I’d be. I am so grateful to have met someone like her. Her advocacy and power are why I have the opportunities today.
As my undergraduate experience was coming to an end, fear began to surround me again. I plan to go to graduate school and get my Ph.D. Before these plans, I would like to take a gap year, something my parents are not too happy about. Unfortunately, because I am not a DACA recipient, I still cannot work legally in the United States. It is scary to think that I will not be able to provide for my family or myself. The uncertainty of my future is scary. But I have always figured something out. My family and I came to this country without anything, and we figured things out. My parents are getting older and are tired of being in this country. Being undocumented is hard, but it has taught me to be creative and enjoy the little things in my life. I am constrained in this country and not allowed to do many things, but I take advantage of the opportunities I do have. I am scared for what’s to come in my life, but I know I am prepared for anything.
My lived experience and the upcoming barriers I must face because of my status are the result of the criminalization of undocumented immigrants. Throughout the years, the topic of immigration has been switched from a civil to a criminal matter. As an immigrant, I feel like a prisoner in this country. My parents brought me to this country because they wanted me to have a better life and more opportunities, but unfortunately, the federal government had different plans. The topic of citizenship has been introduced in Congress for many years, and nothing ever gets done. I have only seen the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment since having a racist president. People are now more vocal about being against immigration and dehumanizing those coming to this country for a better life. Congress is so divided on this topic that it has been over thirty years since some form of amnesty was passed. The federal government has instead passed legislation to make it harder for someone to fix their status. For example, (re)entries without inspections have been further criminalized. I have attempted to fix my status, but because I crossed the border without a visa and have an “illegal entry”, I would have to first leave the country and hope that I am granted forgiveness and the ability to return, which may not happen. Things in this country have become more conservative towards my community and have left us no choice but to continue navigating life as undocumented. My community is resilient and has overcome many barriers. Therefore, I will not let my status define me. Being undocumented has made me stronger and grateful for the little things in life. I will continue to pursue my dreams and seek opportunities available to me no matter what happens. And, if some miracle happens and I get to fix my status, then my degrees and I will be prepared.
AURA is a 22-year-old undocumented student from Nayarit, Mexico. She arrived in this country when she was two years old and grew up in East Los Angeles. She recently graduated with a double major in Criminology Law and Society & Social Ecology. Currently, Aura is interested in doing policy work. She has become interested in studying laws and their impact on communities. Aura is also interested in higher education, specifically in community colleges. Her focus is on immigration, and she hopes to one day become a leader who helps immigrant communities and helps provide citizenship for all.
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Categories: Personal Stories