Esmy Jimenez is just like any other USC student. The junior environmental studies and international relations major works at Ground Zero, is a Dornsife ambassador, and is a member of the Women’s Student Assembly. No hint of a foreign accent is audible when she speaks. But there is one thing that sets her apart: Technically speaking, Jimenez is not supposed to be here.
Jimenez is one of an estimated 11.7 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, at least three of whom currently attend USC. Though she lived in Washington state from the time she was one until she came to USC, Jimenez was born in Mexico.
“Unfortunately, my biological father was abusive and just not a good individual and so [my mother] was stuck in a really bad place,” Jimenez said. “She recognized that she wouldn’t be able to build a life for herself … so she decided to go up north [and] follow the American Dream.”
Every year, thousands of people immigrate to the United States illegally, many following this elusive American Dream. Though most come from Latin America, some, like Amy Lee, come from other regions of the world. Lee emigrated from South Korea with her grandparents when she was in the third grade. Lee’s parents, who remained in South Korea, and grandparents had a similar idea to that of Jimenez’s mother.
“They talk about that you have a better education when you come here, it’s all part of the ‘American Dream’ that they talk about,” Lee said.
That dream hasn’t always been easy for students like Jimenez, Lee and Alma Lemus, a senior majoring in political science, to live. In fact, the three Trojans had difficulty getting to USC.
Though several laws that allow students to apply for financial aid have been passed since Jimenez, Lee and Lemus entered college, when they applied they were not eligible for financial aid.
Lee, who received the half-tuition Presidential Scholarship, was only able to come to USC because of some help from her community.
“I was a really fortunate case,” Lee said. “I got to meet some great people in high school who set up a private scholarship fund for me, so they pay part of it. Without that, I would have gone to community college.”
Lemus took the community college route for both financial and personal reasons before transferring to USC.
“I did get a couple of scholarships, but it was still not enough and I wasn’t prepared to go challenge the world with my status,” Lemus said. “I felt like I was still too lost to be able to recognize and fully be able to succeed.”
Jimenez was starting to think she wouldn’t go to college at all after she didn’t receive a scholarship to New York University. But in a happy accident, Jimenez checked a box on the scholarship app that allowed other schools to see her application. Later that spring, she received a packet originally thought to be junk mail, welcoming her to the Trojan family and inviting her to interview for a full-tuition scholarship.
“My school was so, so good,” Jimenez said. “It was a small school, and they didn’t have many resources but they were really good with community. So they pulled together and paid for my ticket down here and then I was able to interview.”
Jimenez received the Trustee Scholarship and quickly decided to attend USC.
PAYING THEIR WAY
Aside from not being able to apply for financial aid, getting employment could sometimes be a struggle for these students as well. Lemus, who grew up just outside of Fresno, in the rural town of Farmersville, Calif., often worked backdoor jobs because of her undocumented status.
“I was a farm worker since the age of 14,” Lemus said. “I was working in the fields, harvesting fruit. I would have to carry a huge ladder, a huge sack. It was hard labor, especially because Central Valley gets really, really hot. It will get up to 110 degrees, and it will get really cold in winter as well, it will go to 20 degrees.”
Lemus said she often had burns on her skin from the pesticides, as well as bee stings. Despite the difficulty of the conditions, she did not always get a regular wage.
“I remember once I only made $8 working from seven in the morning to 3 p.m.,” she said. “They could pay you whatever they would like to pay you.”
Opportunities for Lemus have gotten better since June 2012 when President Barack Obama’s administration issued the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals memorandum, which allows those who arrived in the United States before the age of 16 and who had not yet turned 31 by June 15, 2012, to have the chance to receive employment authorization. Though the memorandum means young, undocumented immigrants are not in danger of being deported, it does not provide a path to citizenship.
For Jimenez, the memorandum meant she could go back to work at Ground Zero Performance Café. She had worked there for six months before the fake social security number she had used for her paperwork was exposed.
“I really grew to love this place and I hated the idea that the business was going to get in trouble for any reason because of me so I pulled from it … I remember being really shaken up, they were being so helpful, and that’s when I told them about [my status],” Jimenez said. “And luckily, within the next six months the Obama administration passed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.”
Jimenez’s managers weren’t the first to find out about her status. Since high school, she had written about the topic for sites such as the Daily Kos to bring light to how the issue was affecting individuals and share her own personal story.
“After I received such positive feedback from people, I was like I should probably keep writing about this because so often immigrants don’t have the resources to talk about it, they’re not comfortable talking about it, it’s not something that we’re told to do,” Jimenez said. “So I decided if I could have a voice with it, especially in such a privileged place like this, then I probably should.”
Jimenez also said she was inspired by Lemus, whom she heard speak about her struggles with her status at a WSA conference. Lemus said she also learned she needed to talk about the issue if she wanted to see change.
“Having to explain myself constantly made me realize that if I don’t constantly share that part [of me], how are people going to understand my situation, how are they going to be able to help me?” she said. “So that’s why I’ve learned to be vocal about it and not be afraid to ask for help when I need to ask for help.”
Hearing Lemus served as an opportunity for Jimenez to connect with other undocumented students at USC. She had been searching for a support network, and one had actually been created just a few years prior.
In the spring of 2011, Billy Vela, the director of El Centro Chicano, was in his office when he was approached by a student who was struggling with his immigration status.
“I was … having a conversation with a newly admitted undocumented student and he was talking about his frustrations about not having a place he felt he could go,” Vela said. “There didn’t seem to be a lot of different resources here on campus that seemed visible about dealing with his particular personal issue, so I spoke to him about creating a club and organization.”
From that meeting, Improving Dreams, Equality, Access, and Success — better known as the IDEAS Movement — was born. Jimenez, Lee and Lemus have all been part of the organization at one time or another, but Lemus said the group has more allies than undocumented students.
These allies are still a minority at the school, however, since no one knows exactly how many undocumented students attend USC, and many don’t know there are actually any at all.
“This population doesn’t come out and say ‘Hey I’m here, I’m undocumented.’ It’s much more reserved,” Vela said. “Some of them are not sure quite if they can be upfront and honest in the sense of just saying ‘this is who I am’ and it won’t have any repercussions.”
Aside from the community not making itself known to other students at USC, sometimes undocumented students don’t realize that they have resources like the IDEAS movement. Vela said he believes many of these students have difficulty feeling comfortable in their own skin.
“Feeling like they can be themselves and feeling like they can say [they’re undocumented], they can talk about it, they can be who they are without fear of any sort and just feeling completely like they can be themselves here at USC,” Vela said. “I think that’s a challenge I’ve seen and heard when I’ve talked to many of these students.”
Those who have reached out to a wider community at USC have mostly done so with positive results.
“More than anything I’ve been shocked and very, very happy that people choose to become part of the network … It’s good to know people now know the honest part about you, and they still respect it, and they’re not rejecting it,” Jimenez said. “They’re embracing it instead.”
As for those who don’t react as well, Lemus said it’s all a matter of brushing it off.
“You do encounter those kind of people who try to tell you that what you’re doing is wrong, who kind of try to tell you that you’re in the wrong place and you don’t belong here,” she said. “But, for me, you just always have to move forward from it.”
Despite the fact that all three girls plan on staying in the United States after graduation, all three also mentioned a desire to travel outside the country — a luxury they don’t currently have.
“One thing I’ve always wanted is actually to meet my grandparents,” Lemus said. “They live in Mexico. Because when I’m here in the United States, I don’t feel like I have a huge family … But in Mexico we have so many cousins, so many uncles and aunts.”
Lee also wishes she could go back to South Korea to see her parents and extended family. She said she last saw her dad when he came to the United States about five years ago and her mom comes to visit every other year.
“I haven’t visited South Korea since I came here,” Lee said. “I’d love to go back.”
Another college activity unavailable to undocumented students is studying abroad.
“Everybody talks about study abroad and people always ask: ‘Why don’t you apply?’” Lee said. “I’m like ‘yeah I will,’ but you just kind of say that because in the back of your mind you’re saying, ‘I’m not even going to think about it because that’s not possible.’”
Jimenez, Lee, and Lemus each had different ideas about just how “American” they were. Lemus said she is caught somewhere in the middle, a hybrid of Mexican and American that the community has come up with a term for: chicana/o.
“If I were to go to Mexico, they would call me a gringa, they would call me an American, but for me I don’t feel like I’m that American because when I’m here they tell me ‘Oh no, you’re not American, you’re from Mexico, you’re not even born here,’” Lemus said.
Jimenez, however, saw the issue in a less ambiguous light.
“I am American by default, whether or not they give that to me,” she said. “I don’t need their letter of approval in order for me to identify as American.”
Some in Congress, however, are working to let students like Jimenez take the first steps toward becoming officially “American.” The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (or, DREAM, in perhaps some wishful thinking) Act is a measure that would provide permanent residency to some immigrants. Introduced in 2001, it still has yet to be passed, and many question if it, or any other immigration reform, ever will be.
“I joke about it like ‘Oh I’ll just marry somebody,’ but I really think that’s the only way I could [become a citizen] with the current situation,” Lee said. “I guess I’m not naive about the DREAM Act being passed, and I’d rather stay realistic and not get my hopes up.”
But politics is not about to stop these three students from living their lives.
Lemus has clear plans about her future. Though she wants to take a year off after she graduates in December to participate in fellowships and internships, Lemus eventually plans on either going to graduate school to help work against human trafficking or toward immigration reform.
“I grew up in a very poor low-income family, so seeing the system, you know how it doesn’t really help everyone else,” Lemus said. “It’s really difficult for some people to get out of that cycle, that circle, so it kind of pushes me to go for social justice. I’ve been … reading a lot about human trafficking and about how the majority of the trafficked individuals are immigrants.”
Until then, though, Lemus, along with Jimenez and Lee, is just another Trojan. Lee said that despite her status, she still feels that she’s living the American Dream.
“Look at me, I’m going to USC, I’m majoring in computer engineering,” Lee said. “I have so much opportunity even as an undocumented student.”
This post has been updated.