Dreaming Big: UCI’s Rafael Vera on Undocumented Equality
by Linda Ha
Underneath the shade of hundreds of oak trees in UC Irvine’s Aldrich Park, Rafael Vera feels protected and momentarily escapes the fear of never seeing this familiar sight again. The possibility of deportation has permeated Vera’s mind with unsettling thoughts of “what-ifs” since the election of Donald Trump.
Last March, a rainbow coalition of over 100 students and staff from all walks of life gathered at the Student Outreach and Retention Center with a purpose. They were determined to have their voices heard as they marched for immigrants and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients.
DACA is an Obama-era program that protects undocumented immigrants brought into the states as children and gives them a work permit and relief from deportation for two years. These DACA students are called “Dreamers.”
It was March 6, the first day of Immigration Week, and Rafael Vera stood in a crowd of his fellow “Dreamers” and faculty members who have become his main support system. UCI Dreamers is an activist organization on campus dedicated to promoting equal rights for all.
“I would really want someone to have a conversation on campus and feel free to say ‘Yes, I’m undocumented,’ and not have the other person be like, ‘Oh, what does that mean?’” said Vera.
He held a sign that read, “United Against Hate #NoBanNoWall” and recognized this opportunity to raise awareness about the constant fear of being sent back to a country he does not know, and forced to leave behind the ones he loves. His voice spoke volumes as he began a chant that would echo through the crowd.
“The people! United! Will never be divided!”
Vera wore a blue shirt. That’s not so unusual, but what stood out were the words printed on the shirt demanding attention: “I am undocumented.” He led the demonstration around the perimeter of Aldrich Park while bystanders looked on and recorded this tiny piece of history on their iPhones. Then, the marchers linked hands, marking their shared solidarity for immigrants affected by Trump’s immigration plan. Each activist voiced the names of people they love. When it was Vera’s turn to share, he shouted, “my family and those who are living in the shadows.”
More messages of hope and inspiration could be seen and heard from UCI Dreamers Coordinator Ana Barragan, who constantly answers questions like, “What do I do if officials come to my house? Am I going to lose my financial aid?”
It was Barragan who first selected Vera to lead the march, because of his conviction to help underserved minority communities and to find creative ways to help those in need.
“Rafael initiated a grant proposal and has made it to the final round,” said Barragan. “His goal is to create a group of UCI mentors who reach out to undocumented students in high school and inform them about higher education. He’s always thinking about how he can empower his community members.”
Vera was brought to the U.S. from Michoacán, Mexico when he was one year old, and grew up as an American. He learned how to measure the temperature in Fahrenheit. He ate hot dogs every Independence Day. He cheered during the World Series. But what he craved most was the legal status to live, study and work in America without the fear of being deported.
For undocumented students like Vera, any news about immigration pops up as a notification on his smart phone 24/7. In fact, a few weeks ago, a Facebook friend posted a message about an ICE check-point just a mile away from his parents’ home. ICE is the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“Luckily I got informed about that checkpoint so I was able to tell my parents, but what if I wasn’t able to tell them? What if my dad would have driven by there?” said Vera who follows several Southern California Police Departments on social media platforms.
Following President Trump’s orders to round up undocumented immigrants, ICE has been conducting a series of raids across the nation that many immigrants say is causing panic and anxiety in their communities.
“You always have in the back of your mind that if you end up at the wrong place and at the wrong time, there can be major consequences,” said Vera.
Vera’s mother “Maria,” who declined to use her real name to protect her identity, says that the U.S. seemed like the ideal place to live.
“If you come, you’ll accomplish all of your goals and dreams,” said Maria. “We wanted that, but when we got here we were shocked. We realized that it wasn’t about dreams anymore, it was about survival. America still sees us the same way they did when we first got here.”
Vera’s parents wanted for him what all parents want for their child — a chance at a good life. His mother took any job, working tirelessly around the clock, just so Vera could enroll in college. Before the CA Dream Act, undocumented students did not qualify for financial aid and had to pay for tuition out-of-pocket.
“I didn’t apply to UCs because the tuition was double the amount of rent and like a third of my dad’s income,” said Vera.
He was eventually accepted into CSU Fullerton and attended for a year. That was until the financial strain became too difficult on the family. After DACA was implemented in 2012, Vera received financial aid and enrolled at Mt. SAC and later transferred to UC Irvine.
Living with fear has become second nature for Vera, but he imagines how his sociology degree could help him become a counselor for other undocumented immigrants and shine light on the possibilities of having a future in the U.S. He was recently hired at the SOAR Center and is now a UCI Dreamers Coordinator.
“I always thought that not being born in the U.S. makes me different and I was proud to tell people I was born in Mexico. I thought it was something cool about me. I never thought that staying in the shadows was for my own safety,” said Vera.