Undocumented but Unafraid

WKND
// Jacob Geiger

The first time he arrived in the United States, three-year-old Juan Cerda ’15 was on a truck tire floating across the Rio Grande river. Cerda’s parents had decided that wading through the waters would be easier than crossing the desert. From there, they trekked to El Paso and then took a plane to Dallas. All in all, Cerda has spent just four years of his life in Mexico — three as a toddler, and one as a child waiting for his mother to receive cancer treatment. But for almost all of the 16 years he has lived in America, Cerda has had no permission to live in this country.

His status is one that is shared by 11 million others in the country. When he graduated from Grand Prairie High School in 2011, he became one of 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from US secondary schools each year and among the 7.5 percent of undocumented high school graduates who move on to college, according to data gathered by the Immigration Policy Center. While Yale does not keep official numbers, University Director of Financial Aid Caesar Storlazzi ’75 MUS ’84 estimated that there are at most 20 undocumented students currently on campus.

Dark-haired and lean, Cerda arrived at our meeting in the Berkeley North Court Common Room in much the same way that most Yale students do: slightly out of breath and a little flustered, apologizing for being late. It had been a busy day, he said. Folding into a leather couch, Cerda began to recount the number of people with whom he had talked about being an undocumented immigrant. The list included his family, his high school history teacher, one Yale professor and a handful of friends.

“I try to keep my status a private thing,” Cerda said.

I asked whether he was comfortable, then, about revealing it to the greater Yale population. A beat passed before he nodded. “Yeah,” Cerda smiled. “People should know.”

 

* * *

 

When the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act was first proposed in the Senate on Aug. 1, 2001, few Americans understood what the life of an “illegal” immigrant might entail. For most people, it was unimaginable that individuals with neither valid drivers’ licenses nor Social Security numbers could survive as functioning members of society. For a country that had yet to see its students, workers and public figures alike come out as hidden “aliens,” the DREAM Act seemed to be calling for a kind of high and lofty wish-fulfillment: It provided a steady, albeit complicated, path to permanent resident status where none had existed before.

In 2010, four Miami-Dade County college students — Felipe Matos, Gaby Pacheco, Carlos Roa and Juan Rodriguez — embarked on a 1,500 mile journey from Miami, Fla., to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness about immigration reform and advocate a halt on the deportation of undocumented students. The walkers called their project the Trail of Dreams. Along the path, they were joined by a range of immigration reform groups and allies.

June of the next year, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jose Antonio Vargas published a column in the New York Times entitled “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.” In a personal retelling of his journalism career, Vargas revealed his struggles to reconcile his American upbringing — and subsequent deep-seated belief in his own “Americanness” — with his Filipino birth and the lack of documentation he had to support an American identity. Coming out as the first openly gay student in his San Francisco high school, he wrote, had been an easier task than coming out as an undocumented immigrant.

Following this disclosure, Vargas became an outspoken advocate for immigrant reform in the United States, publishing a Time magazine cover story on the issue in the summer of 2012. Shortly afterward, the Obama administration came out with some news of its own: Through a memorandum known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), undocumented immigrants who arrived in America before they were 16 years old (and had not yet reached 31 years of age as of the announcement) were now protected from deportation and eligible for temporary work authorization.

When Obama’s executive order was put in place on June 15, 2012, Cerda was rewiring a chandelier. While most of his classmates at Yale had obtained internships or gone abroad for the summer, neither was an option for Cerda without documentation. For many years, he has gone door-to-door with his dad, selling and installing electrical wires for newly built homes. Spring semester freshman year had been difficult, Cerda explained, because everyone was applying for summer internships, many of which were unpaid or would require legal paperwork.

“I couldn’t explain to my suitemates that I couldn’t do what they were doing — that it wasn’t possible for me,” Cerda said. “When you don’t have papers, you take whatever you can get.”

But that day, Cerda’s father received a call from his uncle, who was watching the news of deferred action unfold on television. His father quickly brought his cellphone up to where Cerda was working upstairs. When he learned of the memorandum, Cerda said all he felt was shock.

Pulling out his wallet, Cerda grinned at me. “Wanna see it?” he asked. He gingerly took out a small, plastic identification card and placed it flat on the table between us. A few days later, another undocumented student — Jordy Padilla, an engineering major at the University of New Haven — would do the same thing, with the same degree of pride. The red-and-blue employment authorization card could not grant them re-entry into the United States, but they could use it to obtain a Social Security number for work purposes, which they could then use to obtain a driver’s license.

“It’s the most treasured I.D. that I have in my pocket,” Cerda said. “If I ever lose it, I’m in serious trouble.”

Cerda began gathering the paperwork for DACA as soon as he heard the news. He sent in his application a month later, and received his work authorization that November. “Money was tight,” he said, before he was able to obtain part-time work. Now he is employed as a Student Tech, a position which he described as “one of the best on campus.”

Just a few years ago, before DACA, the issue of undocumented immigrant status had been much more veiled. When David*, a Yale senior, first arrived on campus in 2010, he was told by workers at the Yale Office of International Students and Scholars to stay under the radar. “Don’t tell anyone,” they said. “Wait until [something] happens.”

When David asked them what his options were, they laid them out to him bluntly: “Worse comes to worst, you’ll have to leave the country.”

“I still remember this very clearly,” David said. “They told me, word for word: Ten years isn’t such a long time.” The figure was in reference to the waiting period generally imposed on undocumented immigrants who return to their home countries in the hopes of eventually re-entering the United States with legal papers.

On June 27, the United States Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would create a path toward legal status for millions of undocumented young people like David and Juan. Section 2103 of the bill addresses the DREAM Act and its provisions for individuals who entered the country as children, but whether the House of Representatives will move on the bill remains uncertain.

 

* * *

 

Step onto any corner of campus, and it’s not difficult to find an immigrant story. Look a little further, and you’re likely to find an undocumented immigrant story.

David was unaware of his status until he was 15 years old, when he went to open a bank account. As identification, his father handed the teller a Latin American passport with the image of a baby-faced David — it was the passport with which he had boarded a plane for the first and last time.

For several years, David had been confused about his parents’ approach to certain situations: They were extremely careful with the police, they were always diligent about paying taxes, they vehemently came to the defense of immigration when the subject arose. Growing up, David felt an uneasiness which he could not explain. There was a sense of “no cuadra” — that things didn’t quite square up.

“When I found out about [my undocumented status], my entire world kind of flipped upside down,” David said. “And yet, it was also right side up for the first time ever.”

Andrea Villena ’15 arrived in the United States from Peru when she was eight years old. For the next seven years, she and her family lived as undocumented immigrants, until her mother remarried. Before then, Villena said she had trouble seeing beyond the day-to-day.

“Seeing college as both the end goal but one that was still very uncertain due to my legal status was what made me work harder than anything else,” she said. “Answering open-ended questions like ‘where do you see yourself in five years?’ has always been downright impossible because it was always such an unknown.”

For other students, the stories of David and Cerda are the stories of their family and friends. Omar De Los Santos ’15 was born near Los Angeles, but his parents arrived in the country from Mexico without documentation in the late ’70s. Karla Maradiaga ’15 grew up among family members and friends who were undocumented. As a child, her mother took her to immigrant rights protests and told her, “Remember that you were one of the lucky ones.”

“I’m not undocumented, but my story and my past are not that different from those of people who didn’t come here legally,” Maradiaga said. “Where I grew up in Seattle, it was rarer to be documented than it was to be undocumented.”

Immigration status as a piece of one’s identity appears seemingly innocuous for most of childhood, right up to the first moment when you are required to fill out official paperwork. For some undocumented students, that moment occurs at the D.M.V., when a driver’s permit, that coveted rite of passage for American teenagers, is denied them. For others, that moment takes place in front of a computer screen or a stack of papers — it is the moment when, while other high school seniors dream of going away, undocumented students realize that college may have to wait.

Padilla described his first three years at nearby Wilbur Cross High School as “just like any other high school success story.”

“I knew that I was undocumented, but I didn’t really think that it was going to stop me,” he said. “But after senior year started, I realized that even though there were four guidance counselors working with me, it was going to be a rough ride.”

Universities do not deny admission to undocumented students because of their status, but obtaining financial aid without proof of permanent residence or a Social Security number presents a challenge for many, particularly those hoping to enroll in public schools.

“Undocumented students are allowed to go to college,” Padilla said. “But how you pay for it is a completely different story.”

Spreading his arms apart as if he were holding a stack of books between his palms, Cerda explained that undocumented students are constantly teetering between two extremes.

“Either you’re extremely successful because there’s no other choice, or you’re down here,” Cerda said, gesturing toward the ground. “Without papers, you work for minimum wage.”

Shortly after David submitted his Free Application for Federal Student Aid as an incoming Yale freshman, his parents received a call from the University’s financial services office. When they were asked about David’s citizenship, they stood by the truth. David said his parents explained that he was undocumented, and the official over the phone accepted it almost wordlessly. Since then, he has had no problems paying tuition.

A year later, Cerda was received in the same manner. “Yale just got the money together for me. I don’t know how they did it.”

Neither Yale’s admission office nor its financial aid office screen for immigration status. Although students are usually honest about their situation, Director of International Students and Scholars Ann Kuhlman said it can be difficult to discern from a student’s initial application alone, and their status does not play a role in their admissions decision. If an undocumented student is admitted, University Financial Aid Director Storlazzi said his or her immigration status will be indicated on the FAFSA system, which performs a match with citizenship records.

Undocumented students cannot apply for federal aid, but they are eligible for Yale institutional funds and loans. The largest financial challenge is perhaps Yale’s self-help aid component of $3300, which most financial aid students fulfill with an on-campus job. Storlazzi said undocumented students must cover the costs with a loan or additional funds. But he pointed out that all in all, undocumented students receive the same amount of aid.

“I am very appreciative of Yale’s policy,” he said. “I think it’s a wonderful, welcoming approach to a difficult issue. There are other schools that aren’t, frankly, as generous as Yale is in cases like this, and it says a lot of things about Yale and the kind of community we are.”

Despite the financial feasibility of a Yale education, there persists for both Cerda and David a loneliness, one that comes with not knowing whether their experience is shared.

Cerda first told La Casa Dean Rosalinda Garcia about his undocumented status at a party in the cultural house. The two were having a casual conversation, Cerda said, when he revealed to her his situation. Garcia responded that he was not alone; in fact, there was someone there, in that same room, who faced the same plight. Cerda recalled looking around, no less hurt in that space between knowing and unknowing.

“Everything looked normal around me, but someone was out there who wasn’t in a normal situation,” Cerda said. “Why couldn’t we talk to each other, provide a support network? It’s one of the bad memories I have of freshman year, because that night I just left La Casa, still alone.”

 

* * *

 

But in his fight against immigration reform, Cerda has found a community of activists right on campus.

On one of the first good-weather days of last spring, around 50 students gathered around Beinecke Plaza holding posters of large monarch butterflies — symbols of movement, of migration. MEChA, a Latino advocacy organization, had organized a Yale contingent for the city’s Immigration Reform March on the New Haven Green. Under Beinecke Library’s looming, white facade, students were stepping up to the memorial cenotaph to tell their stories. Among those who spoke were Cerda, Padilla and members of MEChA and the Black Student Alliance at Yale (BSAY).

Following the testimonies, students began marching toward the Green with signs in hand. They chanted in both Spanish and English: “We want education, not deportation!” “El pueblo unido jamás sera vencido!”

MEChA moderator Katherine Aragon ’14 said the aim of such events was not only to demonstrate support for immigration reform, but also to raise awareness for an issue that many Yale students may be uninformed about.

“I would challenge Yale students to be critical of their surroundings, their administration, their biases,” Aragon said. “I grew up in a very privileged environment comparatively speaking, and so issues such as immigration are something that I also need to bring myself back to.”

Nia Holston ’14, BSAY’s political action chair at the time, spoke passionately about the importance of building solidarity between African American and Latino students on the issue of immigration reform. Over the phone with me a year later, Holston said collaborating with MEChA was valuable for both groups.

“Our struggles are tied up with one another,” she said. “Blacks and Latinos are strongest when we’re united, especially when there has been an historical tendency for us to sometimes not work together on these issues.”

On the state level, Connecticut Students for a DREAM (C4D) began with a coming-out session for undocumented students in December 2010. At Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, a group of nearly 100 undocumented students and allies gathered to speak publicly about their circumstances, many of them for the very first time. Since then, C4D has collaborated with the Yale Democrats and held an undocumented immigrant summit on campus.

C4D’s Lead Coordinator Lucas Codognolla was a sophomore at the University of Connecticut when he attended the kick-off event.

“It was scary coming out for the first time,” Codognolla recalled. “I thought that I was not only putting myself at risk, but also my family. I never thought that I would be as involved as I am today.”

But Codognolla is hesitant to express too much hope about the immigration bill. With the politics as they stand, Codognolla said, it will be a “tough battle” through the House of Representatives. Other pressing issues, such as the debt ceiling, the upcoming budget and Syria, may push immigration reform to the wayside. Codognolla said C4D plans to escalate its work in the month of October in the hopes of pushing for a vote before next year’s midterm elections.

Despite these mobilizing forces, there remain a dearth of resources for undocumented students on campus looking for others like themselves.

“There is a supportive community,” Cerda said. “But that supportive community can’t even fathom what it’s like to be undocumented.”

 

* * *

 

Early this August, while students were making their way home from summers spent near and far, University President Peter Salovey released a statement regarding immigration reform. Before then, the school’s position on the subject had been ambiguous: It was known among certain communities, such as the Questbridge scholars, that Yale accepted and provided aid for undocumented students, but the University had never publicized its stance on the DREAM Act.

“Universities have long struggled with an immigration system that does far too little to encourage talented students and scholars to remain in the United States and contribute to our society,” Salovey writes. “The recent action in the United States Senate to reform immigration law makes important strides toward an immigration policy that promotes economic growth […] In addition, the DREAM Act creates a much-needed path to citizenship for students who are undocumented and have been in the U.S. since childhood.”

In the next paragraph, Salovey notes that Yale supports the Association of American Universities in commending the senators who voted for the bill. The letter ends on a note of hope: “Although the full House has yet to act, we are hopeful that a bipartisan agreement will emerge this year to sustain the momentum of immigration reform and fix a broken system.”

For those who have waited most of their Yale careers for a public sign of support, Salovey’s words were overdue.

“[Salovey] said what he needed to say,” Cerda said. “There’s really nothing more that I can ask of him.”

Cerda and David, who have both shared their undocumented status with just a small group of people, feel that Yale would benefit from a network that connects its undocumented students with one another. “Not a panlist, necessarily,” David quipped, but rather a mechanism for communication for which participation would be entirely voluntary. He imagines a group of students going out for froyo or meeting at a dining hall for brunch — no different, really, than the scores of other student organizations on campus.

Outside the shadow of anonymity, students might feel compelled to come out of their shells and share their stories, David said, pointing out that the “hyper-sensitivity” with which Yale approaches students with undocumented status has been both a blessing and a curse.

“They’re doing their best to be nice and helpful, but it’s sometimes misguided,” he explained. “Undocumented students shouldn’t feel like they have something to hide.”

Silence is a word that undocumented students use often. From the moment they step foot inside the country, they are silenced individuals, opening their mouths only to recount a story that will allow their safe passage over the border. The second time Cerda crossed into the United States, he was riding in a car with his younger brother, his mother and a human trafficker. For a month in Monterrey, Cerda rehearsed the same story over and over again, the one that made the American citizenship-holding human trafficker his father, and his mother their nanny.

As their departure date approached, Cerda felt a mixture of emotions. He missed the little village where he had stayed for a year while his mother was treated for intestinal cancer, but he also missed his father, who was waiting for them in Dallas. At the customs booth, however, Cerda said he “snapped all that emotional stuff out of [him].”

“I just wanted to say my story perfectly, so nothing could go wrong,” Cerda said. “When we approached the customs booth, I couldn’t even look at the guy. In the end, it was almost unreal how smoothly it happened.”

For the most part, Cerda’s immigration status has been an unspoken part of his identity. It would have made his freshman and sophomore year much easier, Cerda said, if he had known others in his situation. Now, he is done with silence.

“[My status] is something that I really care about; it’s been a big part of my life,” he said. “I need to talk about it.”

*Name changed for anonymity. 

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