American Dreamers: Undocumented Immigrants and the Current Political Climate

American Dreamers: Undocumented Immigrants and the Current Political Climate

Credit: Nicole Kim/Chronicle

Axel Rivera de León ’18 said he saw the terror in his mother’s face when Arizona State Patrol Agents demanded she show her identification. His mom was an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, and when the officers asked for their passports, she had nothing to show.

“They took us in a little room,” he said. “There was a desk and a fridge and a stall, and that’s where we had to stay. They said [to my mom], ‘If you don’t have someone pick you up soon, you’re going to be deported, and your son’s going to have to go with you.”

Although they were able to avoid deportation, Rivera de León said the experience was a turning point for his mom.

“She was almost deported, and I would’ve had to go with her even though I was born here,” he said. “Because I was a minor, they couldn’t have just left me. Luckily, we got picked up by my dad. After that, she was like, ‘I have to get my citizenship.’ ”

According to the Department of Homeland Security, there were 1,051,031 new legal immigrants to the U.S. during 2015. Due to limited statistics, it is difficult to estimate the number of illegal immigrants living in the United States. However, drawing from data from the Current Population Survey, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S.

For Rivera de León’s mom, immigration seemed to promise economic opportunities, he said.

“She’s from Guatemala, which is a third world country,” Rivera de León said. “There was a lot of crime, and her mom had thirteen children, so the financial situation was terrible. It’s a very ‘the American Dream, move to the U.S. for a better life’ type of thing.”

He was also personally affected by witnessing his mom go through the naturalization process, Rivera de León said.

“I was relatively involved in the [citizenship] process, just because I do help her a lot with her English because she’s still not amazing at it,” he said. “She was really proud of it too, and she made it kind of fun because she had a little CD with the questions. She would listen to it in the car, and she would practice a lot.”

Rivera de León said anti-immigrant sentiment, prevalent in current political discussions, is especially upsetting because it is grounded in inaccurate stereotypes of illegal immigrants.

“Even if [illegal immigrants] don’t, say, save the world or save the United States, they’re not always here as a negative presence,” he said. “Straight off the bat, my mom was like, ‘Okay, I want to learn English, and I want to get my citizenship,’ even though it almost took getting deported to get it. I think that illegal immigrants can get depicted as evil people, here to take jobs and to ruin the economy, when that’s really not true.”

Chad*, who immigrated legally to the U.S. from Europe, said he found the immigration process generally easy. Moreover, he said that with current policies illegal immigration is cheaper than undergoing taking the legal steps to become a citizen.

“As a legal immigrant who has gone through the process, I am not sympathetic towards illegal immigrants who don’t pay taxes and take advantage of the country’s social benefits,” he said.

Rivera de León’s mom got her citizenship in 2011 and cast her ballot for a U.S. president for the first time last year. Both his parents were disappointed by President-elect Donald Trump’s victory, he said.

Throughout his campaign, Trump promised to impose stricter regulations on immigration than restrictions under Obama. According to Trump’s campaign website, his “10-Point Plan to Put America First” includes the construction of a physical wall on the U.S southern border, funded by Mexico, and the immediate deportation of “criminal aliens.”

“[Trump’s rhetoric] is very dividing, and it makes illegal immigrants the enemy when they don’t have to be,” Rivera de León said. “People get very mad about immigrants taking jobs, but they’re taking jobs that people aren’t lining up to do. No one’s lining up to do janitorial work for less than the minimum wage or to take care of kids. I think people don’t realize the actual impact that illegal immigrants do have. All of a sudden, making immigration a much bigger problem than it actually is is kind of scary.

While Rivera de León finds some of Trump’s comments on immigration frightening, Davis Ford ’18 said the lack of information about people entering the U.S. is a greater issue

“If I myself was undocumented, I would be extremely scared if Trump was elected,” Ford said. “But here’s the point. The point is not individual. The point is the scale. We don’t know where they’re living. We don’t know who they are, and I think that’s scary as a citizen because there’s people who can commit crimes, and we don’t know their names.”

Moreover, he thinks that all people living in the U.S. should pay their fair share of taxes.
“They’re taking advantage of some of the systems that are being paid for by taxpayers and taxpayer money,” he said. “I don’t really have a problem with them living here. My issue is that people are living here, and we don’t know who they are, and they’re not paying taxes.”

The best solution, Ford said, would be to have policies that distinguish between newly arriving undocumented immigrants and those that have been living in the United States for a longer amount of time.

“One of the best things to do is have a limit,” he said. “If families have been here for a set number of years, let’s say, five or more years, I think, in that scenario, they shouldn’t be able to be deported. I think in scenarios when they’ve been living here for less than five years, they should be able to be deported because they haven’t really established a huge family life here yet. They’ve only been here for a certain amount of time, and I think they should be able to go back to the place they come from and then go through the process legally.”

While Ford said illegal immigration is a detrimental nationwide issue, Daniel Varela ’18 has experienced the implications of anti-immigrant sentiment on a more personal level.

When his grandmother was 14 years old, she crossed the U.S.-Mexican border to work as a migrant worker with her 11 siblings. At the end of every year, her family sent 90 percent of their profits back to her parents in Mexico. The four years that his grandmother spent as an undocumented immigrant were the most transformative, he said.

“During those four years of her adolescence, she knew that she couldn’t be caught [or] do bad things and had to present herself well,” Varela said. “Most of the time, it was hiding when the police were around. As a woman and a person of color, going through the hardships she faced while undocumented gave her strength.”

Similar to Rivera de León, Varela said he sees negative stereotyping of Hispanics in the current political climate.

“Latin America is perceived for solely its cartels and corrupt governments,” he said. “But not enough people realize that the people of Latin America aren’t bad. It’s the same as America, where there are a handful of people doing bad things, while the majority are good citizens. I feel like white people think we’re invading their space or something.”

However, Liam Douglass ’18 said the people of color he knows do not seem to be fearful of the immigration policies that Trump has promised to enact.

“I have friends of different races, religions, genders and sexualities, and none of them have been affected in any way,” he said. “That’s not to say there haven’t been incidents, but none of my friends have experienced them, and based off of what they have been saying, they do not seem to be that worried.”

Douglass said he does not expect Trump’s policies to be successful.

“I am in no way a Trump supporter, and I think he is a despicable man; however, I do not think it is fair to judge him as a president when he hasn’t spent a day in office,” he said.

Varela, in contrast, said Trump’s future presidency leaves him with a sense of disappointment in America.

“Hearing about Trump’s views makes me feel bad that I’m in America, the very country that my grandma thought would be her safe haven,” he said. “You don’t want someone who is against some Americans to represent America.”

Under the Obama administration, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy was taken into effect in 2012, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s website. This policy exempts illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. before the age of 16 from deportation for two years, subject to renewal. DACA also ensures eligibility for a work permit.

According to Director of Admission Elizabeth Gregory, the Harvard-Westlake application does not explicitly ask about the immigration status of an applicant’s parents. It does, however, ask for the student’s country or countries of citizenship.

Furthermore, since the 1982 Plyler v. Do Supreme Court case, students living in the U.S. have the right to a free primary and secondary education, regardless of immigration status.

There are no federal laws preventing the admission of undocumented students to colleges. However, students with undocumented parents may run into complications with receiving financial aid.

“I want to say it doesn’t hurt students if they’re undocumented unless they’re looking to apply for any need-based financial aid,” Upper School Dean Jamie Chan said. “Then to fill out the [Federal Application For Student Aid] and the [College Scholarship Service] Financial Aid Profile, you need to have a social security number or a green card or something like that.”

However, Upper School Deans Department Head Beth Slattery said the deans try to accommodate students without documentation in the college counseling process.

“Most of what we try to do is to help them navigate towards schools that have more flexible policies or have created policies around supporting those kids, but it hasn’t come up that often,” Slattery said.

Nonetheless, President Rick Commons said Harvard-Westlake strives to prioritize inclusion of students of all backgrounds and opinions.

“To the students who may feel that the emotions or the rhetoric of the presidential election was putting them in a place that they didn’t belong to, I want to say that we are not the community that we aspire to be without you,” Commons said in a letter to the school community following the presidential election. “We hope things will get better, not worse, for people who feel a sense of not belonging.”

Slattery also said that undocumented immigrants have a support network both within Harvard-Westlake and legally in the state of California.

“I don’t think [undocumented students] know how many allies they have, in California and at this school,” Slattery said. “The fact is that there are lots of people who are supportive of both those students and their family members. I think particularly students in California are fortunate because we have a state government that’s going to help protect those students, and they certainly go to a school that will protect them and their family members to the best of its abilities.”

As someone who belongs to several minority groups – Mexican-American, Guatemalan, black, and Native-American – Varela said opposition to immigration only hinders the American dream.

“Because I’m Native-American, I feel like the entire debate on immigration is pointless because everyone here is an immigrant one way or another,” Varela said. “Even Native-Americans came across the Siberian Ice Bridge. Native-Americans have been here the longest, but America is really no one’s land. I feel like we’re taking steps backward instead of forward.”

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