Allen Rene Fonteyn stood bravely in front of the flagpoles this past Tuesday, the second day of UC Irvine’s Immigration Awareness Week, to share his story of living as an undocumented student in America for what is now 14 years. Fonteyn, a fourth-year chemistry major, was the first student to come forward at Tuesday’s “Coming out of the Shadows” event, where several undocumented students at UCI and around Orange County had the opportunity to share mutual tribulations and unique experiences through storytelling.
Fonteyn’s passion for immigration reform and immigrant rights is unequivocal. Around campus, he proudly carries his laptop embellished with stickers that read “the dream is now,” “FREEDOM” and a photo of a young girl covering her mouth in horror as her mother gets taken away by authorities, reading “family unification, not separation, stop the deportations.”
On Tuesday, Fonteyn decided to publicly share his own strenuous path to making it as an undocumented student into UC Irvine. But before sharing his story, Fonteyn energized the audience by initiating a chant.
“When I say undocumented, you say unafraid!” Fonteyn cheered.
“UNAFRAID!” an equally passionate audience of fellow undocumented students shouted.
Fonteyn is one of 414 undergraduate students at UC Irvine who are known as DREAMers, individuals who are undocumented in the United States, but have the right to an education in California under law AB 540, also known as the DREAM Act. However, qualifying for the DREAM Act means the student must have attended at least three years of high school in California and must graduate from high school, attain a G.E.D. or pass the California High School Proficiency Exam.
Under this law, it seemed Fonteyn would not have a chance at a future in college. He was born in Mexico City to poor parents and had to begin work starting at four years old to help his family survive. This meant 12 hours a day, which meant that school was not even an option. The jobs were low-skill, low-pay and extremely taxing for a child so young.
“I worked for a farmers’ market where I had several menial jobs, such as carrying and selling produce,” Fonteyn said.
His labor was not limited to these tasks, however. Throughout his time in Mexico, he worked in tortilla factories, construction and anything else that would put food on the table for his family. A family that would soon suffer from great tragedy, as his father became too ill to work and passed away when Fonteyn was ten years old.
Shortly after his father’s death and mother’s abandonment, he and his sister traveled to the United States and lived in New York with distant family members. Lacking legal immigration status, Fonteyn continued to work anywhere that would hire him, including restaurants, dry cleaners and construction.
“The construction company didn’t pay me for a month,” explained Fonteyn. “They knew I was undocumented, so they knew that they could get away with it, and really, there was no use in me fighting it.”
After a few years in New York, Fonteyn and his sister reached out to a family friend back in Mexico, who lived in California. Making that call would change their lives forever.
Fonteyn, then 16, and his sister moved in with their friend Roger who lived in Pomonma. With a great deal of self-motivation and Roger’s assistance, Fonteyn enrolled into Mount San Antonio Community College, where he excelled in his classes. Because of his success, he was awarded with a multitude of scholarships and awards, including Mt. SAC Student of Distinction, which allowed him to transfer to a university.
But there was another issue at stake. Although Fonteyn had finished four years at community college, he still did not have the required three years of high school or diploma, which meant he didn’t qualify for the DREAM Act.
“I knew the only way to overcome this was with a lot of self-advocacy and support from others,” Fonteyn said.
When he applied to UCI in 2013, Fonteyn spoke extensively to Dr. Salinger, the Dean of Admissions at the time, and explained his work as a child laborer, his dreams of going to school, making a difference and fulfilling his ultimate goal — going to medical school to become a doctor.
UCI saw the potential and passion that Fonteyn possessed, seeing that his situation growing up was entirely out of his control. Eventually, Dr. Salinger ensured him a spot at the university.
While getting into Irvine was an immense milestone for Fonteyn and symbol of perseverance for the undocumented community, he immediately knew he wanted to work for the school when he arrived. However, to obtain a legal work permit he needed to reach DACA status, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which protects youth from being deported for two years.
Like the DREAM Act, DACA comes with its own set of rules, one of which is being able to provide evidence of arrival to the United States before your 16th birthday. While this held true for Fonteyn, he did not have the official documentation to prove it.
“This was really tricky for my sister and I,” said Fonteyn about obtaining DACA. “We had to contact a lawyer and it became a very complicated legal process.”
Again, his advocation and the help he sought out paid off. When he started school at UCI in 2013, he applied for DACA and by January 2014 received the benefits.
This opened up opportunities for Fonteyn that he never imagined possible. He was able to participate in research as a chemistry student in Chicago during the summer of 2014 through the Research Experience for Undergraduates program. He was also able to earn a job at UCI’s SOAR Center as the Student DREAMers Coordinator, a job that would allow him to harness his personal experience and help undocumented students. His advocacy for undocumented students started when he joined DREAMS at UCI, the safe haven and student lead resource organization for undocumented students — a place that has given him support and comfort during his time as an undergraduate.
“My success, professional and academic, is due to the fact that I found a community of DREAMers like myself in DREAMS at UCI and at the SOAR center,” shared Fonteyn. “However, there are still many things undocumented students NEED here at UCI. Two of the most pressing are to have the DREAMers Coordinator position permanent and a DREAMers Resource Center.”
The adversity Fonteyn experienced from the time he was extremely young has only expanded his aspirations for his future. Expected to graduate in June, Fonteyn will be part of the UC Consortium Program, a year-long program that assists minority students in preparing for medical school which he will begin applying to next summer.
Aside from his goals to become a doctor, Fonteyn plans on doing humanitarian work and on starting a nonprofit organization with his sister aiding women and children.
“I will never stop being an advocate for undocumented students, for basic human rights, for the end of our discrimination.”