Hailing from low-income and isolated backgrounds, many undocumented immigrants enter the United States idealizing the American Dream, but they instead are faced with prejudice and hardship. At least these are the sentiments of undocumented students such as Karla and Leonidas, both adopting pseudonyms to conceal their true identities, when they spoke with the Signal Tribune Saturday, May 12 at Long Beach City College (LBCC).
Collaborating with the group Long Beach Moving Forward, LBCC hosted a day-long event at its Pacific Coast Campus in an effort to educate and support the community regarding immigration, citizenship and higher-education opportunities for undocumented students and community members.
Serving as panelists at one of the event’s workshops that Saturday, Karla and Leonidas, students at Cal State Long Beach and Rio Hondo City College, respectively, spoke about their experiences as undocumented citizens.
Their motivation in participating was to be the “risk takers” and “mouth pieces” for undocumented students who are timid to speak up for themselves.
“It is kind of risky, to be honest, but, at the same time, we need to create some awareness,” Karla told the Signal Tribune. “I think, especially now with the sociopolitical climate and the way things are, that people are furthermore just afraid to come out of their shadows and share that, ‘Yeah, I’m a Dreamer.’ I think it’s important for us to […] let them know that they are not alone. It establishes that support system for those that feel like they don’t have a chance here or feel like they don’t belong here or feel like they don’t understand their experience.”
Karla and Leonidas both are Dreamers, the name given to those who receive help through the California Dream Act. The act allows students enrolled in eligible California colleges, universities and career-education programs to apply for state financial aid, according to CA.gov. This state resource is not to be confused with the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects eligible immigrant youth who arrived in the United States when they were children from deportation.
For a full list of resources discussed at the event, refer to the infographic in the beginning of the article.
Yadira Ortiz, assistant director for the Dream Success Center at Cal State Long Beach, shared information about her department during her workshop. The success center accepts students on a walk-in and appointment basis and provides answers about legal resources, financial aid, income verification, events and other information. She also said the center will take calls from students who are even off-campus.
“It’s really a place of centralized information, but it’s also a way for us to create bridges from us to resources and departments for the students,” Ortiz told the Signal Tribune.
Ortiz said students seeking counsel should always talk to more than one person to make sure the advice is accurate. She told of a student who quit his job last winter, per his counselor’s advice, because of the incorrect belief that DACA resources were already gone. The student never consulted a second or third source and never kept up with the constantly changing developments of DACA. As a result, he lost his job for no reason, she said.
“You want to go and talk to different people to see what they are saying,” she said. “If they’re not all giving you the same answer, there is something wrong there. It’s fact-checking, right? When you’re doing research, you want to fact-check all the information you are receiving. And, you have to understand, things are constantly changing. Laws are changing, the way you submit documentation is changing, […] so that can confuse, and that’s easy for a lot of people to misguide students with. It’s always very important to tell students that, when you’re applying to colleges, when you’re applying to universities and there’s something that you don’t know, ask, but ask somebody else again. Just to make sure.”
Karla said she identifies with the struggles of undocumented immigrants with her similar background. Seven-year-old Karla would often work with her mom, a house cleaner who owns a business. It’s her mother’s hard work that has led to her own personal success, Karla said.
“I knew, if I really wanted to do something, I actually needed to work and go for it twice as hard as other people,” she said. “In my mom’s work, I was really able to see how she not only wanted us to go to college, but also see her sacrifices through her hard work and her labor. That’s something that empowered me and motivated me to not give up in my dream of higher education, regardless of how many difficulties and disadvantages I was going to face along the way.”
Leonidas is empowered in a similar fashion. His role models come in the form of not only his mom, but his sisters.
“I have endured so many things personally, emotionally, psychologically– you name it,” he said. “And, because of them, I was able to persist. I do all those things with love in order for me to have a better life and for my sisters and my mom. […] Because of them and my experiences as an undocumented student, […] it made me realize the struggles many immigrants have and, because of them, I want to be their voice. I know that some of them are afraid.”
As a construction worker, Leonidas has also seen “exploitation at its highest” in his profession. He hopes to see an improvement in labor conditions for undocumented workers in the future.
Ortiz emphasized the importance of finding a support system. On school campuses, the networks can differ, but she said locating people or organizations in the same situation could provide new opportunities.
“Undocumented students in one campus are not like undocumented students in another campus,” she said. “So, it’s important that we don’t generalize their needs, either. There are some similarities, but some campuses are different about how a student is going to voice it. […] ‘How are we going to make campus better?’ That’s important for any student, regardless of their immigration background. Create something or make change happen that’s going to help others.”
Karla said a significant trait undocumented students should adopt is choosing people who will provide a sense of belonging and empathy about their current situation. Immigrants lifting each other up will lead to overall success, she said.
“Nothing is worse than sitting back and relaxing and waiting for something to come upon you in life,” Karla said. “I think the key thing is being informed. If you’re in this, you’ve already been doing triple the amount of work compared to everyone else, so continue to go out of your way to be informed, getting resources, identifying who is your support system and knowing that you are not alone. I think it’s important to find people who have similar backgrounds as you.”