Editor’s Note: The following is a contribution from a reader. Julie Gilgoff is a freelance journalist who works with California chapters of the American Immigration Lawyer’s Association (AILA) to document the need for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. AILA is a national association of over 11,000 attorneys and law professors who practice and teach immigration law.
Gilgoff has written articles for New York Newsday, the Georgetown Journal on Law and Poverty, and has her first book about the McCarthy era coming out later this year. She has lived in the East Bay since moving to California in 2009.
By Julie Gilgoff
Arizona’s conservative immigration law, which is scheduled to go into effect this July, has spurred a slew of protests around the country, including a statement of opposition by the city of Richmond, which voted to impose a moratorium on conducting public business in that state. It has also inspired similar legislation proposals in states that believe that local law enforcers have the responsibility to report illegal immigrants to federal officials.
In the midst of this debate, and the larger question of how the United States should deal with the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants living within its borders, it is easy to overlook the stories of individuals who are stuck within the quagmire of ineffective immigration policy.
Many undocumented immigrants were brought to the U.S. by their parents as minors. They have attended school in the U.S., speak English fluently, and yet are still treated as foreigners without rights.
Critics of illegal immigration often demand that the undocumented “get in line” to obtain lawful status. But for many immigrants, including those who are college-educated, financially supporting U.S. citizens, and/or have been living in the U.S. for 20 years or more, there is no “line” for them. There is no lawful way for them to remain in the U.S.
Or if there is, the wait may be several decades, despite having a spouse or child who is a U.S. citizen. This is why advocates of comprehensive immigration reform say that systemic changes are so urgently needed.
The following interviews have been conducted with immigrants represented by lawyers belonging to the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). Many of these lawyers have seen their clients needlessly suffer, and are therefore in favor of Comprehensive Immigration Reform. The names of some of those profiled have been changed in order to preserve their anonymity.
Angelica came to the U.S. when she was 5-years-old. She didn’t realize that she was “illegal” until she reached her senior year in high school. At this time, her classmates were preparing to go on a trip for spring break; they were also taking drivers education, but Angelica was unable to participate in either.
Angelica benefited from the AB 540 law passed in California, which gave undocumented immigrants who have attended at least three years of high school (or obtained a GED), in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. Angelica says that qualifying for in-state tuition was instrumental in going to college, especially because she couldn’t apply for government loans.
The AB 540 law is now in jeopardy of being overturned. Angelica comments, “It’s not like we’re even legally allowed to work to pay for our tuition.” “People like me were brought here by our parents when we were kids. We didn’t ask to be taken to another country where we wouldn’t be able to get a higher education, work, drive and do so many other things. I can’t go back to Mexico. My Spanish isn’t even very good. I don’t know what I would do over there. My birth certificate identifies me as being Mexican, but I feel American.” Angelica doesn’t share her story with many people and few of her friends know her legal status.
At the end of high school, Angelica began interning at an organization that promoted affordable housing. The company offered Angelica a job with benefits when she was close to graduating. But instead of explaining why she didn’t have a social security number to the company, Angelica left her internship suddenly without explanation. She didn’t want them to find out her secret and burn bridges with the organization that she respected so much. She would like to approach them again and apply for a job if and when her papers come through.
Angelica has applied for a visa through her brother who married a U.S. citizen, but there is a huge backlog. “The people who have applied in 1993 are the ones who are getting their green cards now,” Angelica says. “They are almost 20 years behind. That’s something I always wonder about. Why is the system so behind? They target Mexico and the Philippines so that the Visas that they give out to these countries run out very quickly.”
“I know that if the DREAM Act were passed, I wouldn’t be able to qualify for it anymore. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve graduated college and they’ll concentrate on high school-age kids who want to go to college. I support that 100 percent. One of my close friend’s daughters is in that situation. I want for her not to have to go through everything that I’ve been through.”
The DREAM Act (The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act) is a proposed legislation that would offer a pathway to citizenship to those who fit certain qualifications including being brought to the US as minors, completing high school or having been accepted into college or an institute of higher learning, and having a clean criminal record.
Many immigrant youth have mobilized around this issue, including a woman named Brenda, who was brought to the US when she was six years old. She among thousands others just marched in Washington, DC on May 1, 2010, to protest Arizona’s new law and demand that the DREAM Act be passed.
Brenda remembers hearing about the DREAM Act when it was introduced in 2001. She was a freshman in high school at the time. She wrote up some letters, had teachers sign them in support, and sent them to the White House. “I figured that the bill was going to go through in 2001, but it didn’t.”
“In 2005, there was talk of the bill being voted on again – with no luck. I graduated from college in May of 2009, when the DREAM Act was being considered again, but it still wasn’t passed. At this time, I knew I needed to take serious action. ‘Enough is enough,’ I said to myself. ‘I’m tired of not being courageous enough to get out there to fight for what is right.’”
Brenda began emailing and blogging and found a supportive community who also believed in mobilizing around the passage of the DREAM Act. She got together with young activists to watch Democratic Congressman of Illinois, Luis Gutierrez, make recommendations for Comprehensive Immigration Reform in December of 2009, and felt inspired to become a youth leader. That month, she participated in a march to a detention center where they were protesting the mistreatment of immigrants. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials had apparently tried to cover up immigrant deaths that had taken place in detention centers. Brenda was also active in trying to get the Instate Tuition Act passed in her state.
Brenda has come a long way since her junior year of college, when she was unsure whether she would be able to go to college. She had been in the Girl Scouts, was active in her church, and it didn’t make sense to her that she should be treated differently than her classmates. She wasn’t sure if she could apply to college if she didn’t have a social security number. Eventually she decided to leave that section of the application blank and mail them in.
She was allowed into a Catholic University, and studied education in order to become a teacher. She worked part time to fund her education, but she is unable to obtain her teacher certification and get a job at a school because of her legal status. Her only option seems to be waitressing off-the-books, or to going back to Mexico where she is unsure what she would do or where she would go.
Similarly to Brenda, Arcimidis is a young Mexican with a college education who is now unable to find a job in his field of study. He came to the US when he was 3 years old. His mom was born into a poor family in rural Mexico. His father was abusive alcoholic.
Arcimidis attended kindergarten through college in the Bay Area. He studied at UC Berkeley with the help of community scholarships. He said that when teachers and the principal of his high school heard that he got into UC Berkeley, they began a fund for his tuition. He got his Bachelor’s degree in Ethnic Studies.
Arcimidis specializes in documentary-making about the environment, culture and how communities of color are affected by racism. He recently completed a media internship and when he was offered a paid-position, he was unable to accept because he didn’t have a social security number.
“It’s been a hard decision if I should keep doing unpaid internships,” he said, “or work off the books. But I decided that I have to stick to the Berkeley path. I think about what would happen if I got deported. I think about my mom, and don’t want to put her through that.”
Arcimidis says that he thinks that illegal immigrants need education about what their different options are. “If I would have known more about the legal process, I would have had my mother file on my behalf when I was 15, and maybe I wouldn’t be in the situation that I’m in now. It would have been easier if we filed when I was still a minor. The wait time is much less when you’re under 21.” Arcimidis believes that hope lies in increasing awareness for other immigrants rather than waiting for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.
Marisabel is an immigrant who came to the US from Guatemala when she was 9 years old. Although she now has legal status, she and her family are in danger of being deported. Marisabel’s mother was granted asylum in the US because part of the family had been politically persecuted in Guatemala. Through her mother’s asylum case, the family was able to maintain legal status and obtain their work permits.
Unfortunately, Marisabel’s grandmother in Guatemala became ill and her mother had to leave the US to care for her. Marisabel’s mom ended up missing a court date related to her asylum case and the US government therefore declared a “no show.” She would have been deported if she weren’t already in Guatemala. Now she’s not allowed back in the US for 10 years.
Marisabel visited an immigration lawyer who told her that relying on her mother’s asylum case to maintain legal status was no longer a viable option. Since Marisabel had been in the US for over 10 years, she was able to petition for a visa on her own. The case was approved but later appealed by the Department of Homeland Security. They claimed that Marisabel didn’t have enough proof that her family would experience hardship if they had to return to Guatemala.
Marisabel has three children. “My oldest son has a learning disability. He’s in second grade and he’s not reading and writing on grade level. My other 6 year old son has sleep apnea. He does not write very well and has trouble remembering his letters and numbers. My youngest son has a speech delay. They each have Individual Education Plans at school. Their teachers and tutors can testify that they’re learning delayed and are receiving extra help. They are each US Citizens. They hardly even speak Spanish and wouldn’t be able to understand what their teachers were saying if we had to move back to Guatemala because of my legal status. They would be set back in their education even more.”
The process of challenging the Department of Homeland Security’s appeal may take roughly a year. Marisabel just renewed her work permit, so at least she could maintain her legal status during that time. But she said the situation is extremely stressful. “You don’t know what’s going on, what they’ll decide, or if you’ll be allowed to stay here. A lot of people don’t understand, they think that you should just ‘send the immigrants back’, but it’s not that easy. You grow up here and you think that this is your country. Some adults who choose to come illegally to the US just want to earn money and then going back to their families in their countries of origin. But I came here as a kid and if I went back I don’t even know where I would go.”
“My lawyer says that a lot of things can happen in the year that we’re waiting for a resolution and hopefully the immigration laws will change for the best. We’ve been paying taxes just like US citizens and I think we should be allowed to stay.”