Undocumented students: finding hope through struggle
April 6, 2020
Sitting in class, senior Rosa Flores* hears them talk.
“I can’t stand these illegal Mexicans taking American jobs!” one says.
“We need to deport all of them,” another argues.
“Everyone knows they’re bringing crime and drugs into our country,” a third adds.
Undocumented students at DGN like Flores bear the brunt of not only financial, educational, and legal hardships that come with their undocumented status, but also the prejudice that reflects the isolation and despair faced by the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
“I feel the same as everyone else in school until someone brings up the topic of immigrants and undocumented immigrants, especially when they talk so poorly about it. It makes me want to just get up and leave. It’s not fair for them to say things like that without knowing other people’s situations,” Flores said.
A FEELING OF ISOLATION
Flores also explained the struggles and worries she and her family must face, and how her status makes her feel that sense of isolation from those around her.
“I feel like something could happen to me and my family if I were to say I’m undocumented. I would feel judged, and when I do choose to tell people they get all quiet and just stare,” Flores said.
Junior Ivan Martinez* described how he feels a similar way when people assume things about his situation and background. Martinez explained how he and his family must work hard as undocumented immigrants to support their relatives in Mexico.
“Many think we’re stealing all their jobs; just because we work hard it doesn’t mean we’re trying to steal their money. We are just trying to support our families and some of the family members that we still have in Mexico. Mexico is hard; I come from a poor household and it’s difficult to make a living,” Martinez said.
In a more general sense, DGN alum Maria Hernández*, now a freshman in college, explained how it is necessary to always stay alert and always avoid situations that could result in deportation.
“I have to always triple-think about my actions,” Hernández said. “Maybe if my friends do something they get a slap on the wrist but I can get something worse or get deported. There’s a lot of looking over your shoulder.”
Without a green card (the document that allows an immigrant to permanently and legally reside in the US), access to certain necessities is limited. Hernández explained the struggles that stem from of that lack of access, especially in terms of finances and health.
“Since I don’t have a social security number I can’t work in any place that pays in check or through a bank account. I can’t travel around the world. My insurance is basically no good. If my health insurance isn’t working and I get sick I can’t go to the hospital without knowing the bill is going to be high,” Hernández said.
Green cards are the most popular way to obtain legal status, but United States immigration law makes them difficult to obtain after entering the country illegally.
The green card application process can feel complex and interminable for undocumented immigrants, many of whom do not fully understand English or the American legal system. Due to strict quotas and heavy demand, the application process for green cards such as the Family Preference Green Card takes 1 to 10 years. It is recommended to consult an immigration lawyer before making any legal status decisions, but those often cost thousands of dollars.
For immigrants who leave their home country and enter the United States illegally to seek better opportunity for themselves and their families, it is very difficult to obtain legal status. However, progressive members of Congress continue to push for more opportunities for success and prosperity for undocumented immigrants, such as the maintaining and improvement of former President Obama’s Consideration of Differed Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program which allows undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children to be eligible for a renewable two-year period of legal asylum.
While there are many struggles and anxieties of being undocumented, immigration relief groups can provide a host of benefits and opportunities. As an example, local group World Relief of DuPage and Aurora provides aid in the categories of green card application and renewal, family reunification, citizenship services, DACA renewal, and more.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Difficulties arise for undocumented students in applying for, paying for, and attending college, but many still hope to achieve these goals. In fact, along with the help of staff at DGN, many already have.
Hernández explained how the process of applying to college as an undocumented student was lessened in complexity and anxiety in part by the help of DGN Student Support Services.
“Some DGN staff members know that I’m undocumented. While I was looking for colleges a staff member would always tell me about scholarships and colleges that supported immigrants. It basically showed me that there is hope for me and my education,” Hernández said.
Many undocumented students plan to apply for college every year, but unequal financial aid opportunities hinder their abilities to afford high college costs.
To help eliminate this issue, as of Jan. 1, undocumented Illinois high school students can apply for state college financial aid through the Retention of Illinois Students and Equity (RISE) Act. The Act’s most notable feature is granting undocumented students the ability to apply for the Monetary Award Program (MAP), Illinois’s most popular need-based tuition grant program.
College and Career Counselor Teri Manderino stressed that undocumented students should not hesitate to ask for help in the college application process.
“The process of completing these forms is time-consuming, but it is not hard. Undocumented students should know that there are counselors in the building who are here to help them through the college application process,” Manderino said.
Counselor Greg Stolzer explained how, while he is open to discussing students’ undocumented statuses and providing beneficial resources to them, he works to provide resources for all of his students to avoid situations where students may feel pressured to identify their statuses.
“I want my office to be a safe space for students. I work hard to connect with students so that they feel comfortable working with me to support their journeys. By making information and resources available to all students, I try not to put students in a position where they feel like they have to self-identify their citizenship status to access support,” Stolzer said.
With the goal of getting into college, Martinez explained how he is motivated to work hard and persevere through the difficulties of being undocumented due to the sacrifices that his parents made to come to the United States.
“For the future, I would like to study art and work hard for my parents. They left everything behind—family, home, culture—just to come here for a better chance at life and to work for my family to be happy and safe. They wanted a better education for us so I’m not going to let them down. I will keep studying for them,” Martinez said.
*The names of these students have been changed to protect their identities