Jumping hurdles: Undocumented Trojans share their stories
Fear, vigilance and exhaustion. These are feelings commonly shared among Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients here at USC — a worry that the majority of the campus population may never understand the experience of navigating life as an undocumented student.
After the U.S. Supreme Court ruling blocked the Trump administration from terminating the DACA program in June, students such as Selene Castillo, a sophomore from Guanajuato, Mexico, majoring in Spanish and international relations, felt as though their worries had finally reached a slight pause.
“We were venting about it every so often,” Castillo said, remembering how she and her roommate felt before the ruling was in place. “Our entire careers depend on this … but what happens if I go into the real world and I can’t work. So what am I going to do? Is my Plan B go to Mexico and try to get a job over there?”
In July, the Trump administration released a new order on DACA after its ruling had been passed in June. The new memo stated that the Trump administration would not open the program to new applicants and would also limit the DACA renewal period from two years to one. The order comes with a daunting impact: a sharp growth in uncertainty among existing DACA recipients and those who wish to apply.
With the elections quickly approaching, much is at stake for DACA recipients, Castillo said. The Trump administration, if reelected, could bring DACA back to court after the June ruling failed to address the legality of the program itself, meaning the administration could have time to contest it again.
OBSTACLES AND FEARS
Many DACA recipients are worried about what their next possible steps as undocumented students could look like, causing great uncertainty in their lives. For students including Luis, a junior from Yucatán, Mexico, who wished to withhold his last name for privacy reasons, navigating undocumented status has come hand in hand with navigating barriers.
“Until I was applying for colleges, that’s when I first recognized I was undocumented, just because I never had a need for [DACA] as a senior in high school,” he said.
When realizing that he was unable to apply for any federal student aid, scholarships or even funding to attend out-of-state universities, Luis knew the hurdles were only starting.
Although he was eligible for the DACA program, Luis chose not to apply since he was seeking a U visa with hopes of gaining authorization to work in the United States. However, Luis just recently received his work authorization after a four year wait. Through unpaid internships, Luis had to adjust to his new normal of not being able to gain the same experience within the workfield as he hoped.
“I always have to monitor myself that I am not getting into trouble because I know if I were to get in trouble with law enforcement, that can turn into going to a detention center or going through removal proceedings, which I don’t want … even traveling [locally] I have to be cautious … racial profiling from officers, things like that for me I have to take that extra step,” Luis said.
Castillo, who came to the United States at age 1, said her life has largely revolved around the Supreme Court decision. She said it was difficult to focus on school and grades back in June because her biggest priority was to figure out whether her status would be kept safe to continue the work she had put toward her education.
Castillo said there have been many times in her life when she has debated students who did not understand DACA, often repeating the difficulties she has faced while fighting to obtain a direct, less strenuous path to citizenship in her future. For Castillo, feeling pressured to demonstrate to the U.S. government why she and hundreds of thousands of other undocumented students deserve to continue their lives in the United States is exhausting. She has built her life around American ideals, continued her degree, paid taxes and abided by the law, hoping that a direct path to citizenship can someday weigh true.
“Regardless, I am going to be here … Why do this to kids like me where I didn’t have a say as to whether I should be brought [to the United States] or not?” Castillo said.
During this time of uncertainty, undocumented students have turned to the organization Improving Dreams, Equality, Access, and Success for information and support. As the assistant director of external affairs, Cenia Martinez has shared legal and immigration updates and advocacy to help students keep up with the latest news regarding DACA status.
“Trying to advocate for centralized support on campus … is the number one mission,” Martinez said. “Having staff who really understand the [undocumented student’s] experience … is one of the biggest things we try to do.”
Similarly, Lorena, a junior from Guanajuato who asked that her last name be omitted for privacy reasons, said coming to the United States at the age of 4, and as a DACA recipient, wasn’t an easy process. Lorena can’t simply reveal her status to others, as she fears what individuals of opposing views may tell her and how they may make her life more difficult. Sometimes, during elementary school, she said she would feel as if she was part of a separate societal bracket.
“I know I didn’t have an understanding of coming to the United States as the ‘city of dreams’ … until I got older,” Lorena said. “When I arrived, one of the most important things that I realized was the language. I didn’t know how to speak [English] — I didn’t understand it.”
LIVING WITH DACA
Castillo’s life has revolved around American culture ever since she could remember. However, she is frustrated with constantly having to prove her right to reside in the United States outside of basic DACA protocol to others.
“I can be Mexican, but my culture, what I know, what my nation [is], this is my nation … I have been taught the ideals of an American, what the flag itself represents,” Castillo said.
For Lorena, not knowing English as a young child caused her to feel entirely excluded. She faced constant isolation from friend groups and at school and felt targeted and bullied during her adolescence. Comments such as “you can only play with us if you speak English” pushed Lorena to learn the language quickly and to the best of her ability.
Becoming a part of the USC community has been Lorena’s most prized accomplishment. Her journey began as a student in the Educational Opportunity Program at CSU Los Angeles, seeking a college education after her year break from graduating high school and working to be financially stable. The program granted students like Lorena the chance to overcome social and economic barriers to higher education.
Because Lorena was attending the program from morning until night to catch up to her college’s curriculum, she found it difficult balancing school with work. Before completing the program, Lorena noticed that she was not being granted any financial assistance due to her undocumented status.
Lorena said she was lost but not hopeless as her new path turned to community college.
“I was so devastated,” she said. “Then I went to community college … there was no way anything else was going to stop me. I’m going to go for it … I looked for resources and everything to get through my community college. When I ended up applying to USC and I got in, I took it as a major lesson, I felt like those obstacles were meant to happen to me for a reason. If I would have started at Cal State L.A. … who knows what would have happened.”
When she first arrived at USC, Lorena didn’t fully know how she would be able to navigate her financial barriers. Overall, Lorena feels that USC’s organizations such as the Latinx Student Assembly and the Latino Business Student Association have been helpful resources for updates on the status of DACA. However, Lorena is most grateful for her academic adviser for supporting her beyond choosing classes at school and reaching out to DACA programs for Lorena to join.
“Being at [USC] means so much to me,” Lorena said. “It makes me feel like I am here to represent the students who get stereotyped … I’m here to prove to other kids that if I can do it, you can do it too … especially being DACA.”
Through organizations such as IDEAS, which creates a safe space for undocumented students and allies, Martinez shares a form of fellowship and a community of allies who support students as much as possible. However, Martinez believes the University as a whole should provide a more holistic support system for its undocumented students, since student-run organizations like IDEAS can only do so much.
At USC’s Immigration Clinic at the Immigrant Legal Assistance Center through the Gould School of Law, staff attorney Jennifer Macias knows that safety and trust is a dire need in the undocumented community at USC. At the clinic, she provides free legal consultations within immigration law for students and their families.
“Knowledge is power … [DACA and being undocumented] is daunting because it’s such a [difficult] situation, but knowing what the possibilities are and having a plan for the future or possibly knowing what your future options can be is super helpful,” Macias said.
However, Luis feels as though USC doesn’t accommodate to the needs of undocumented students as much as he would expect at such a prestigious university. Though finding partial support within the USC Dream Dollars Scholarship, feeling consoled by USC is not all that easy for Luis, as outside costs beyond University attendance are still barriers he faces.
“The fact that I have to go about and look for [support] is kind of stressful because I feel like there should be someone to accommodate my needs and help me through this process, rather than me having to strangle through one group [or organization] to another to be able to get information and resources,” Luis said. “USC needs to do a better job of consolidating and voicing that [organizations] are available for [DACA] students … being more inclusive on how [USC] does programming as well.”
Lorena said the emotional roller coasters she has faced have shaped her into the woman she is today. Her determination and perseverance hold a voice that represents DACA students as a whole and reflect that she is meant to be where she is no matter what odds are against her.
“I want to be able to inspire any friends I have ever made,” she said, “whether they are DACA or not.”