Undocumented Student Program Blocks College Gate on Open Day to Protest Budget Cuts
Empowered by University-Funded Advocacy Programs, Undocumented Students Speak Out
By Grace Bird
WASHINGTON, D.C.- Luis Gonzalez doesn’t remember arriving in the United States when he was eight.
“I do remember waking up, and there were like a ton of lights and we were going down this street,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez is 19 now. He is a sophomore at Georgetown University with a 3.8 GPA, a job, and an internship.
There are 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the US. There were 12.2 million in 2007, according to the PEW Research Center. Like Gonzalez, 66 percent had lived in the US for at least 10 years in 2014 – compared to 31 percent in 2005.
Luis Gonzalez in his dorm room (Photo provided by Luiz Gonzalez)
Gonzalez’s parents were seventeen when they became pregnant with him. Their small-town of Nayarit, Mexico was economically depressed and they struggled to find work. Shortly after giving birth to their second child, Eduardo ten months after Gonzalez, they crossed the border. Gonzalez and Eduardo were left in the care of their grandparents. Gonzalez’s parents settled in Orange County California, found work cleaning housing and washing dishes, and sent money to their sons. Gonzalez remembers speaking to his parents on the phone each Sunday.
“I don’t think that I understood that my parents aren’t here,” Gonzalez said. “I just thought, my grandparents are my parents.”
When Gonzalez was eight, he and Eduardo were reunited with their parents, who they no longer recognized, in the US. Gonzalez’s parents had a third child, Jesse, while living in the US, and the five shared one bedroom in a family member’s home in Orange County. Gonzalez and Eduardo attended a predominately white elementary school. Neither child spoke English, and the teacher and students in the affluent, could not speak Spanish.
“There was this one time when I just started crying in class because I just felt so frustrated,” Gonalez said.
Isolated in a whitewashed town, Gonzalez’s parents decided to relocate to a one-bedroom apartment in Latino-majority, Santa Ana. Here, Gonzalez soared: his school had an ESL program, his teacher spoke Spanish, and his homework was bilingual.
In Santa Ana, Gonzalez’s father developed a drinking habit and became verbally abusive, he said. Two weeks before the end of seventh grade, Gonzalez’s mother discovered his father was having an affair. They separated, and she filed for a restraining order.
“I think that I’ve just kind of blocked it out,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez’s mother, who had supported the family at home for some years, found work as a dishwasher in a restaurant. She and the children moved into a friend’s garage.
“This is when I understood that education was the best thing that I could do,” Gonzalez said. “I had to try really hard in school…to ensure I could provide for my mom when I grew up.”
Gonzalez’s mother remarried when he was a sophomore, a prospect he said he was excited about. However, this marriage was similarly ill-fated: it ended with domestic violence and drug addictions – and two additional children.
For Gonzalez, school was an escape. Classmates weren’t aware of his home life. He found solace in his ninth-grade English teacher who he arrived early to class to talk to, about “everything.”
“Mentally, I would just create a separation between my home life and then school,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez graduated with straight A’s, nine AP classes, and a 4.69 GPA. Considering many state schools do not allow enrollments or charge undocumented students out-of-state rates, Gonalez’s high marks were deliberate. He was accepted into UCLA and UC Berkeley, however Gonzalez’s status barred him from receiving any federal aid. A private institution like GU is not subject to the same laws, and in March 2015, Gonzalez learned he’d received a full-ride scholarship.
For undocumented immigrants, airports are resolutely off-limits. However, when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was signed as an Executive Action by President Obama in 2012, children like Gonzalez could travel – and live – without the threat of deportation for the first time in their lives.
750, 000 undocumented Americans have received work permits and deportation relief under DACA: 78 percent of the 1.1 million who are eligible, according to the PEW Research Center.
“Without DACA, I wouldn’t be able to go to Georgetown,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez’s was eighteen when he travelled on a plane for the first time. It took him to Washington, D.C., for a four-day orientation at Georgetown.
In his freshman year, Gonzalez dived into advocacy work. He mentored underprivileged D.C. children, joined student activist group UndocuHoyas as well as the faculty-student run task force for undocumented students. Arelis Palacios was appointed as a part-time Undocumented Student Coordinator on Nov. 20, 2016 – nine days after the election.
“It just makes sense to me to look after the most vulnerable people in our society,” Kendra Northington, GU Career Counselor and member of the task force said.
Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), a Georgetown alum and lead sponsor of the 2001 DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act that would promote a path to citizenship for undocumented residents and failed to pass, shared Luis’ story on the Senate floor on Jan. 14 to demonstrate the importance of DACA. Durbin read a letter by Gonzalez aloud to implore colleagues to cosponsor the BRIDGE Act, that sought to extend DACA for three years.
“Will we be stronger if we deport him, take this man’s talent drive and energy and banish it from this country?” Durbin said. “I don’t think so.”
Gonzalez will finish his second year at GU in May. He hopes to work as a high school teacher after graduation.
Mexican-born UC Berkeley senior Juan Prieto was born 15 minutes from the border, in a town he equated to a slum.
“We didn’t have streets. We lived right next to a giant dump,” Prieto, who is currently covered by DACA, said.
Undocumented Activist Juan Prieto (Photo provided by Prieto)
For work, residents chose between the Tommy Hilfiger factory for a dollar a day, or the drug trade, Prieto said. His grandfather supported his daughter and grandchildren by pumping gas until his retirement.
When he was eight-years-old, Prieto’s mother decided to escape the town’s violent, militarized police and rampant poverty, borrowed documents, and crossed the border. Prieto, his mother, and his two younger siblings resettled in Calexico, a Californian town only fifteen minutes from their home.
For Prieto, adjusting to America was difficult. Classmates mocked his broken English and strange accent.
“One time in class, I was supposed to to read aloud… and I just started crying,” Prieto said.
Regardless, Prieto was selected for the gifted and talented program in grade five. His attendance was short-lived: Prieto’s white-majority class ostracized him, and he decided to return to his local school.
Unable to afford the exorbitant, out-of-state fees required of undocumented immigrants, Prieto enrolled in a community college in San Bernadino. He met several unauthorized Americans there and began to publicly disclose his legal status – a process he said was empowering and terrifying.
“When I came out as queer it was just me on the line, Preito said. “When I came out as undocumented, it was me and my family on the line.”
After graduation, Prieto transferred to the University of California, Berkeley in 2014 partially for its progressive views on immigration, he said. Berkeley introduced program in 2012 to protect its approximated 470 undocumented students. Berkeley’s resources for undocumented students includes an immigration attorney, a psychologist, student mentorship, an emergency grant, a library, social events like picnics “and just overall emotional support,” according to Prieto.
“I would have withdrawn from Berkeley without this program,” Prieto said.
Berkeley’s resources for undocumented students were threatened in 2016 when the California’s public university system reported a budget deficit of $150-million, according to the LA Times.
Prieto organized a protest against suspected cuts to the undocumented student program. He estimated fifty students, most undocumented, linked arms outside Sather Gate during “Cal Day” – an annual event that intends to flog Berkeley to prospective students – to salvage resources for undocumenteds. Prieto stayed awake the night before, organizing and making calls to the media.
“Before we knew it, the administration was reaching out, saying ‘what do you all want?’” Prieto said. “What can we do for you all so you can stop doing what you’re doing?”
Prieto will graduate from Berkeley this May. He plans to continue to advocate for undocumented people and work for a non-profit, he said.
“In silence, we accomplish nothing,” Prieto said.
Mexicans have long been the largest demographic of undocumenteds, yet this number fell from 57 percent in 2007 to 51 percent in 2016. This is March 2016 census data – the impact of President Trump’s policy promises are yet to be ascertained.
The immigration debate is notoriously polarized in the US.
President Trump, renowned for espousing anti-immigrant, “America First” rhetoric, professed support for a merit-based immigration system in a speech to Congress on Feb. 28.
“It is a basic principle that those seeking to enter a country ought to be able to support themselves financially,” Trump said. “Yet, in America, we do not enforce this rule, straining the very public resources that our poorest citizens rely on.”
Trump has been unclear about his stance on DACA.
Marshall Fitz, former Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress denounced a merit-based as unfair. It limits immigration mostly to white, western, English speaking people, Fitz said. People who give up everything to come to America to work hard and have a better life have historically changed the country, he said.
“A merit-based system is genius framing,” Fitz said. “But it’s basically saying we don’t want brown people.”
Mark Krikorian, Executive Director of conservative think tank the Center for Immigration Studies, said immigrants feel “entitled” to citizenship. The US economy is too advanced to sustain low-skilled foreigners, according to Krikorian.
“A person with little skill or education has a much more difficult time getting ahead than in the past, when we had an agricultural economy,” Krikorian said.
To Prieto, most anti-immigrant rhetoric is hate speech, and it should not be tolerated.
“Why do I need to prove to somebody that I’m human?” Prieto said. “I wake up knowing that every day.”