By Jessica Resendez
For Guillermo Paez, trying to navigate the college system is like “living in the shadows.” Without a resource center and only one Dreamer student coordinator, Ana Barragan, to counsel and guide over 500 undocumented students, students like Paez are often left to fend for themselves as they navigate their way through college.
Earlier this month, Paez joined a room full of undocumented students along with Chancellor Parham and other faculty members to discuss how the lack of resources at UCI is a problem.
“I spent my first two years of my undergrad navigating the system without the proper guidance as an undocumented student. I was sent from person to person trying to figure out what was wrong with me as an individual.”
The room began to flutter with sounds of fingers snapping from his peers — as if they were intending to say, “I’m right here with you.”
As a freshman, Paez was referred to a counselor on campus that convinced Paez that he would be someone Paez could trust and rely on for guidance — even giving Paez his personal cell phone number to reach out to him. Then one day Paez got a text message from this person asking him to send a photo of himself without his shirt on. Shocked, Paez never replied to the text and fell into a deep feeling of isolation and depression.
Around 2014, Barragan was hired as the new Dreamers student coordinator to help the undocumented community while providing workshops and information to anyone willing to learn about undocumented resources and counsel. Though her position is contracted for about two years at a time, Parham made it a “commitment” to renew her contract with funds coming from UC President Janet Napolitano’s $2.5 million dollar loan for coordinator positions.
Fairly new at UCI, Barragan’s office is always buzzing with undocumented students. Some days there can be up to four or five students cozying up next to one another as they try to vie for what’s left of the space in her tiny office. When Paez learned about Barragan’s role in helping undocumented students like him, he decided to go check it out. Growing up undocumented herself, Barragan was finally someone Paez could trust.
“It was not until I met our newly hired undocumented student coordinator, who not only understood the struggle and the pain of what it means to be an undocumented student, but she also provided me with the academic, the social, and the emotional support to remain a student here at this university.”
When first-year criminology major, Mila Rodriguez (who chose to go by a pseudonym) came to UCI, she dreamed of studying abroad, living on campus and actively engaging in internships. The truth is, since she is not a recipient of Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) she is not able to do most of those things.
In order to qualify for DACA, an undocumented person has to have been in the United States prior to the year 2007 and under the age of 16 at the time of immigration. Rodriguez arrived in 2008, just one year short of qualifying as a “DACA-mented” student.
As a “DACA-mented” student, Rodriguez would have been able to work legally in the U.S and obtain a driver’s license to travel to and from school and home. Being DACA-mented, a status she would have to renew every two years, also would have protected Rodriguez from deportation.
However, being deported is the last thing on Rodriguez’s mind. Being undocumented and without DACA, there’s a chance that she may not be able to use her degree to obtain the job she wants – at least, not in the U.S. Especially without being able to apply for internships throughout college, Rodriguez is at a disadvantage compared to other students in her field. It’s a feeling of “lost hope” for Rodriguez.
“What’s the point of college?” wonders Rodriguez.
Being undocumented and without DACA, life after college means that she won’t be able to legally apply for jobs without the risk of deportation. Especially without the experience of internships, Rodriguez’s dream to obtain a degree and get a good-paying job after college is put on hold.
As far as her dream to travel and study abroad, being undocumented means that this is not a possibility. Risking deportation and never being allowed back into the U.S again, Rodriguez has saved this dream as just that — a dream.
“I’m just a normal student,” said Rodriguez. “I don’t want [people’s] pity. I want their acknowledgment.”
As a DACA recipient, first-year Ligia Montenegro describes her experience as being “bittersweet.” Unlike Rodriguez, Montenegro has the privilege to work, participate in internships, and drive a car.
Similar to Rodiguez, Montenegro is still unable to travel freely or study abroad. The tricky logistics of DACA do not fully protect her from deportation when it comes to traveling abroad. In order to do that, Montenegro must apply for something called Advance Parole – a name that implies criminal suspicion.
Before attending UCI, Montenegro spent countless hours researching different ways to afford all the costs – constantly asking questions and looking for answers in order to reach her goal. She learned that the Dream Act was a separate entity from DACA and could cover most of her student fees. She was surprised to learn that a lot of undocumented students didn’t even know about it.
“A lot of students and people get confused because they don’t know the difference. So they think that because they don’t qualify for one, they don’t qualify for the other,” said Montenegro.
Along with the multitude of paperwork to fill out, the Dream Act can be described as the FAFSA for undocumented students. Since undocumented students are not able to apply for FAFSA, the Dream Act helps pay for most college fees, however it doesn’t cover everything. Many undocumented students and their families still have to pay out of pocket.
As a person who has had to work since the age of 11, Montenegro has worked hard for what she’s accomplished today. Her capabilities to keep up with the rigorous amount of paperwork involved with being undocumented and financially stable to succeed in college, has been more than impressive.
“Instead of being one step ahead, I had to take ten steps,” explained Montenegro. “I’ve accomplished a lot — take a look at my resume and compare it to a non-undocumented citizen.”
Diana Soto Vazquez took a deep breath before sharing her story. As she paused to find the right words to express herself, she glanced toward the floor and with her head in her hands looked up to say: “My parents are the strongest people that I know.”
When Soto Vasquez was only one, her mother strapped her to the back of her body and joined her father as they both crossed over from Mexico into the United States as undocumented citizens. Wanting a better life for Diana, they came across with the intentions that one day she would be able to go to a university of her choice and create a better life for herself.
With the threatening thought that at any moment her parents might disappear through deportation logistics, Soto Vazquez lives in a constant state of anxiousness. In the back of her mind the “what if?” scenario that her family discusses behind closed doors, creates a sense of panic as she wonders how she would be able to support herself and her younger sister if her parents were no longer around.
Not only that, if her parents were sent back to Mexico, Soto Vazquez wouldn’t be able visit them.
“I mean I could, but I wouldn’t be able to come back,” said Soto Vazquez.
But through that fear and anxiety, Soto Vazquez has a strong opinion for those who claim that all undocumented citizens are criminals or illegal.
“Wanting a better life for your children is not a crime,” said Soto Vazquez.
From an outsider’s perspective, the feeling of wanting to cheer her up or stop her from expressing her emotions seemed reflexive, but just listening and acknowledging her pain was all that needed to be done.
“We are people too. We have feelings too,” said Soto Vazquez. “Treating us like we’re illegal is dehumanizing.”