I Couldn't Get Into College Because I was Undocumented. So I Went To The White House Instead
“It changed my life”
Rosa grew up in a small town in Wisconsin where, by all accounts, her life was completely ordinary. She made her way through elementary, middle, and high school, but as college appeared on the horizon, the secrets she kept for so long began to weigh heavy on her mind.
Rosa was born in Mexico, so with no social security number, her applications to Wisconsin’s state schools began to be returned. Her future now rested on the help of one ally invested in Rosa’s academic future and in one law, signed by President Obama, that could help her achieve her dreams.
On June 15, 2012, President Obama signed the highly popular Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy into law, which put in place a series of protections for those who illegally entered the United States before age 16. Among other criteria, the legislation required those who qualified to attend high school or college in the United States or to obtain a work permit in order to stay under protection from deportation. Those who apply and are approved are protected for up to two years and can apply for renewal. They do not, however, gain citizenship or legal status in the United States.
That legislation is now in serious jeopardy.
President Donald Trump can at any time immediately cancel the DACA program, a promise he made several times along the campaign trail, which means that most dreamers now live in a discomfiting in between that can be hard to describe to an outsider looking in. In our series “Limbo,” we share the first-person stories of those caught in the middle.
I came to the United States in 1995 when I was 9 years old from Mexico, and I moved to Wisconsin, of all places. My mom’s family lives there and so that’s where we ended up going.
I was aware (that I was undocumented) growing up. It was something that my mom always told me, that we didn’t have papers. I couldn’t really recall the first time, I think, we spoke about me being undocumented. Just ever since we got here in the U.S, I think. And I kind of grew up knowing that. But I guess as a kid you never quite understand what that means. And so, I was just told to not tell anybody. I never really did until I was in high school. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I realized I couldn’t really go to college becuse of my status. And that’s when I really started realizing what that meant.
There came a point where I ended up telling one of my social studies teachers. And I told her because I had been applying to college and I kept being rejection letters because I kept leaving my social security number blank. So the letters I kept getting were, ‘Sorry we can’t accept you because you don’t have a social security number.’ And I was so frustrated. And I went to her and told her that this was happening and that I needed to figure out what to do because I wanted to go to college. I wanted to be a teacher, and I wanted to run.
She was very understanding and she ended up helping me through the process. She actually found somebody at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh—where I ended up going—who really advocated for me and basically walked my application through the process and talked to a bunch of people. So they basically made an exception for me. That was in 2004.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]My conversation with my mom about (college) caused a lot of conflicts. Like, to the point where I kind of wasn’t at home for a couple of months.[/quote]
My conversation with my mom about (college) caused a lot of conflicts, like, to the point where I kind of wasn’t at home for a couple of months. I ended up staying somewhere else. So it was very, very conflicting (for my mom). The fact is that she didn’t understand. And I don’t think it was specifically a college thing. There was a lot going on—her daughter was graduating from high school and she was going away to school. There was just a lot of conflict going on. Not specifically about that, but about everything. So there wasn’t really a conversation, just more of an acceptance. There was just a lot happening.
For aid, they allowed me to use in-state tuition. So the way that I ended up funding my education was through private scholarships and working on my own. I got one scholarship through my high school. So that was just me really applying through the process of whatever my application for that specific scholarship was. So basically it was an individual person giving money to somebody that they felt was in need and who had merit. It wasn’t really like a process. It was more me just applying to this foundation or individual person for a scholarship.
I was never really told why, exactly, they chose to walk my application through. I think I was just the first person that this lady—her name is Flora—from UW Oshkosh, I think she just really wanted to help her community. She’s Latina also. So she saw a lot of young people who she thought was very deserving and I just so happened to be one of them. So she just decided to work to get us there, from what she thought was right. She saw states like Texas and California doing it, and she thought I should be doing it too.
And that was a time when undocumented immigrants weren’t really accepted into public universities. I know that later on, after I graduated, they began to allow undocumented immigrants to begin going to school just like Texas had. But it only lasted what felt like 2–3 years, and then they fell back to not allowing it. So any undocumented students that wanted to go to school had to go through the same process I did, having to look at their application separately and getting walked through the system just like mine was.
When I got there, I ended up finding a really good community of Latino students, and Flora became my mentor. So, I could go to her with any issues that I had. I never felt alienated, but I did feel like they didn’t know what to do with me because they couldn’t classify me as international, but I wasn’t a resident, either. So, anytime that I was going through any process in the university, they were like, ‘I don’t know how to process you.’ Nobody really knew how to deal with me because it was all very different.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Even through college, I wasn’t really out saying ‘I’m undocumented.’ But, when I met them, they were like, ‘We’re undocumented and proud and we’re here to ask you about this.’[/quote]
I became involved with the student organization for Latinos, which I actually became the president of. So I joined that club, and I believe I became president my junior year. And so we would just organize a lot of cultural activities. And we ended up doing a little bit of activism type of work. And we brought in a lot of speakers that we thought were interesting to show just a lot of the discrimination going on in our communities
(After college), I moved to Austin, and when I was moving, I found out there was going to be a trip to Washington, D.C., being organized by University Leadership Initiative, or ULI, from the University of Texas at Austin. So I ended up joining them. And about a week after I moved down, I hopped in a little van at UT and headed down to Washington, D.C., where we were basically lobbying a bunch of representatives. But, I felt really empowered when I met undocumented kids like me who were so proud to be undocumented.
I remember, also, that when we went to D.C, I also got involved with United We Dream, which is the umbrella organization for a bunch of undocumented organizations around the country. Then, in 2010, I ended up working with United We Dream on several campaigns to end deportations. We also ended up starting a campaign for different actions also. That was pretty cool, too. To really feel like I was hands-on for a lot of things.
Even through college, I wasn’t really out saying, ‘I’m undocumented.’ But when I met them, they were like, ‘We’re undocumented and proud, and we’re here to ask you about this.’ And so, to me, that was very liberating. That’s when I really became a dreamer. I identified with who they were because that’s who I was, and I believed that message. But it was really great to finally be in that community.
I learned how the Dreamer community is just so empowering because they’re a group of people who are brave enough to say, ‘I’m undocumented, I’m not afraid, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, and we all have a right to stand up for what we want and for what we need. These are our rights.’ It was very liberating for someone who comes, basically from a community where there are very few people in the same situation to see that. And it changed my life a little bit.
I mean not a little bit. A lot.
When we were back in Austin, we would fight the bills that (were) always trying to end in-state tuition (for undocumented people). I remember doing that as a local struggle. Then just getting other undocumented youth involved in the movement. We were always doing that.
Plus, there are a few things just anyone can do to make undocumented people feel safer. Don’t out undocumented people, for one. A lot of people will say, ‘Oh, he’s my friend and he’s undocumented.’ Obviously, that’s not how it should go. You have to let the undocumented person come out when they feel comfortable.
Another way to protect them would be to stand up to these anti-tuition bills, or here in Austin. So calling your representative and stating your positions and really standing up as an ally for those people in that community.
Also, I think that people really need to be open to undocumented stories. And that’s one of the things that I think has really helped the movement, to share our stories that people can really relate to. So that’s one—to really listen.