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‘Nobody can take education away from you’

Daniela discusses summer plans and student programs with students from Rebecca’s high school. Photo by Joshua Bessex

Undocumented. The strength of the word has changed as U.S. national security policy has.

For a UW student, the status can have great influence on their careers. It redraws a student’s transition between high school and college. Because of House Bill 1079, signed into law in 2003, Washington state is one of a few in the country that allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition and fees. It grants a student resident status but not citizenship. Despite HB 1079, undocumented students face the challenge of being vocal about their status, the lack of protection for themselves and their families from deportation once admitted into college, and the inability to access federal funds to finance their college degrees.

This is the first in a two-part series about the experience of undocumented students as they graduate from high school and pursue college degrees. Both of the students’ names have been changed and the cities of the UW campuses where they study have been omitted on request.

Daniela, second-year UW student

Years ago, when her family still lived in Mexico, Daniela’s father traveled the 2,600 miles between the family’s home in Michoacán and the fields of Eastern Washington. There he would spend the summers working in the orchards and return in the winter when his work was done.

At home, Daniela’s mother owned a business selling groceries. Drug dealers in the area, however, targeted community organizations and business owners, which put Daniela’s mother at risk. When her mother was threatened by drug dealers in the family’s hometown, Daniela’s father made the final decision.

“That was just the turning point for my dad,” Daniela said.

To keep his family safe, he made the “extreme decision” to move the family to Washington. When she was 8, Daniela and her two brothers immigrated to the United States. Her father still does what he loves — agriculture — but that alone is not enough to provide for the family. Field work is seasonal, so her father had to ensure his family would have the money to keep food on the table and the house warm. Between her father’s seasonal work in agriculture, his year-round job at a dairy, and her mother’s job in a warehouse, there is enough money to sustain the home.

Daniela admits that winters are harder for the family — her father is not able to work in the fields and relies on the money earned at the dairy.

Years ago, the family’s situation could have been changed.

Daniela guessed her maternal grandfather obtained citizenship in the United States in the 1990s when the country was providing amnesty to agriculture workers.

“I know a lot of my family actually received citizenship through that,” Daniela said. “I have family in Eastern Washington, [and] … that’s how they stabilized themselves there.”

A few years after submitting a process to have his daughter made a citizen in the United States, Daniela’s grandfather passed away, leaving his daughter and her children without the ability to legally immigrate.

Once the family was settled in one county, Daniela started middle school.

“[I] learned English pretty quick because my parents wanted me to translate,” Daniela laughed.

She was adamant about getting a college education. The first time she considered going to college was early on, on a seventh-grade trip to the UW for the Guaranteed Education Tuition Program.

She asked everyone she could the same question.

“‘Can I go to college? Can I go to college?’ And finally I got that answer I wanted.”

She could go to college, but she had to pay without any federal funding. As an undocumented immigrant, Daniela is unable to access federal funds. She is only able to use private funding: scholarships that don’t require income tax records or a social security number.

Her parents were also resolved to see Daniela attend college. For the lack of money, her father had been forced to stop going to school after finishing the third grade; her mother after finishing middle school.

“Even when I got accepted to UW, I didn’t know exactly how I was going to pay but my parents said, ‘You’re going to go. No matter what we do,’” Daniela said. “‘We’re going to try our hardest to have you go to college.’”

Rebecca, senior at a local high school

Two years is the longest Rebecca, her mother, and younger brother have lived in one place since coming to the United States. The apartment is small — nothing compared to their house in Guatemala. But it provides the now small family with a measure of security and independence they haven’t previously had.

Rebecca was 12 when her parents divorced and her mother brought her and her brother to the United States. What was supposed to be a year has turned into six.

“We moved because both my mom and my dad had a lot of debt,” Rebecca said. “They owe money to the banks, because of credit cards. It was nothing about the house or anything like that, so it was mostly financial. … We were only going to come for one year, so my mom could pay back the money that she owed. But we ended up staying.”

Rebecca’s mother had a job as a nanny for a one-month-old baby girl waiting for her in Los Angeles, where her brother, Rebecca’s uncle, who was already a citizen, offered them space in his apartment. Six months later, the family moved in with her mother’s employers.

“But then after [we moved in with the employers], they wouldn’t pay her at least minimum wage,” Rebecca said. “Because my mom didn’t have a social security number, she couldn’t find a well-paying job. She had to settle for less because she was undocumented.”

It took a year for her mother to pay off the debt. It was the first of a handful of times the family would have to board with other people.

“In Guatemala, I lived in one house, but [in the United States], I was never really stable in one place until we moved to Washington,” Rebecca said. “It was hard to get adapted to [a new] way of living because you’re used to something, and then when you come here, it totally changes.”

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A high-school student looks at a list of possible topics for a summer video project that Daniela introduced. Topics include the LGBTQ community, gang violence in Latino communities, and undocumented students.

But the baby girl grew up, and Rebecca’s mother could not keep the job. Afterward, Rebecca’s mother held multiple jobs — sometimes two at a time — to support the family’s new life: as a housekeeper, at a truck repair shop, distributing and selling telephone cards door to door.

When the three moved to Washington, it took two months for Rebecca’s mother to find another job as a nanny. On top of Rebecca beginning high school in a new state, the family car was stolen, forcing Rebecca’s mother to bus downtown and walk the next mile to her work.

Rebecca wants to return to Guatemala but knows it would be difficult.

“We would love to go back, but … it’s hard to find a job [in Guatemala],” she said. “I personally don’t feel comfortable going back.”

Rebecca’s father has visited her in the United States. But job security is a constant concern for both her parents. Her father’s job as an accountant for a small business in Guatemala keeps him from staying in the states very long. Rebecca wishes she could see her father more often but understands his obligations and the desperate situation.

“I know my dad cannot come right now because of the money issues, but I hope in the future, he will be able to come again,” Rebecca said.

She’s reached more than a few milestones this year: the comfort of an independent space for her family, admittance into the UW, and being awarded enough scholarship money to cover the first year-and-a-half of her tuition.

Status undefined

For both students, the term undocumented only refers to their lack of papers. Without a social security number to identify them as citizens, Rebecca and Daniela said they have had to be stronger; they have had to work harder for what they have.

“It’s like they say we’re undocumented, but we’re undocumented Americans,” Rebecca said. “Undocumented means hardworking people who make sacrifices to better their lives.”

Daniela stressed that it does not differentiate them from their fellow students.

“I have nothing to be ashamed of,” she said. “I haven’t killed anybody; I’m not a criminal. I’m not an alien. I’m a human. I’m a human being. I laugh and I cry and I do everything like anybody else. I just have this thing where everybody says, ‘You have status.’ That’s it.”

Daniela struggled on her own to secure money for her tuition, food, and housing. The high school she attended in Eastern Washington lacked the kind of resources Rebecca once had access to. In the end, however, Daniela has not had to pay for anything out of pocket. This year, her education was funded by three renewable and two nonrenewable scholarships.

Doors do continue to open — there is no federal or state law that prohibits an undocumented student from attending U.S. colleges and universities. No matter which degree a student obtains, however, they are still barred from legal employment in the United States because of their status.

As any student has, an undocumented student has the opportunity to continue with higher education, to pursue a degree at the master’s level, at the Ph.D. level. While her parents want to return to Mexico with her and her brothers once they have finished college, Daniela said she plans on staying in the United States or moving to Canada to pursue her career. Daniela is a pre-med student looking to pursue her M.D.Ph.D., a dual doctoral degree, involving, for some, nearly eight years of work and study beyond the undergraduate years.

“After undergraduate career, it’s really hard to get further especially because then you have to apply for fellowships, loans, and everything else,” Daniela said about pursing an M.D.Ph.D. “And as you know, we don’t have a social security number to apply for those things. I have been thinking about going to Canada afterwards. Canada is a friendlier country. … If I get accepted into school there, I can apply for a visa and it’s for a student visa and it’s almost given that I will get it.”

Regardless of their status or whether their experiences can or should define them as Americans, Rebecca and Daniela share a love of learning and a faith in the inalienability of their education.

“It was always me wanting to go [to college],” Rebecca said. “I was going to go to college. No matter where I was going to be at. I think education is important. Going to college means you have a higher chance of success in life.”

Making change

Both have seen multiple transitions — and will continue to — not least of all, that between high school and college. Daniela has already seen that transition and, for the most part, helped herself through it.

“I know some people have told me that their [high school] counselors tell them, ‘College is not for you. You don’t belong in higher education,’” Daniela said. “And so for me it was kind of, OK, if no one was going to help me, I had to help myself.”

After her experience as a mentor for Education Without Borders, a UW organization founded in 2010, Daniela continued to look for ways to educate undocumented high-school students about the admittance and funding process.

“I feel like it’s my job to help the community, of course to study, too, but also to help the community,” Daniela said. “More particularly the undocumented students, but I’m also not gonna turn my back on anybody that’s not undocumented. We’re fighting for equality and fairness so I myself feel like it’s fair to be fair.”

When she reached the UW, Daniela knew she wanted to change things. Daniela formed a group called Beyond HB 1079 and led the organization of a conference in March of this year, which Rebecca attended. With workshops for parents, students, and educators, the conference aimed to spread awareness about all issues surrounding being an undocumented college student.

“I didn’t know students that were in college, I didn’t know if I could go to college,” Daniela said. “So it was mostly my effort, and I want to change that. I want to change the way students apply to college, the way students get financial aid or get scholarships. … There’s talents there that are being wasted, and there’s knowledge there that these students are graduating valedictorians and still not being able to attend higher education institutions because they don’t have financial aid.”

As she has been for many other students — undocumented or otherwise — Daniela is a resource for Rebecca as she prepares to begin her first year at the UW.

Last year, Rebecca formed a group at her high school called Latino Students United, to help the Latino community academically, personally and socially. Daniela has gone to every meeting this year in order to speak with and support the students. In her role as a mentor and someone who shares a similar experience, Daniela said, most of all, she encourages Rebecca and all the students she has met not to give up.

“No matter what your situation is, you’re going to have low times, times when you’re happy,” Daniela said. “Times when you’re sad. Times when you think you can’t go on. But you can’t give up, because in the end, the education you’re going to get in college … it’s going to be good. Nobody can take education away from you, right? And that’s what I try to encourage them with. No matter what happens, you’re gaining knowledge, you’re being useful to society, and you’re going to become something of yourself with education and with … knowledge. You’re going to become something.”

Reach Features Editor Lauren Kronebusch at features@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @LLKronebusch

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