Fidel Quezada had never seen paved roads and sidewalks until he arrived in Richmond.
A spry 21-year-old with dark eyebrows, Quezada spent his early childhood in a small village in the western Mexican state of Jalisco. The only roads in Quezada’s hometown were dirt. When he turned six, Quezada’s family applied for tourist visas to enter the United States.
“I told the people in customs that we were just going to Disneyland,” Quezada said. “I guess you could say that I’ve been at Disneyland for over 15 years now.”
Quezada is one of about 2 million students in the United States who arrived in the country as children and never became naturalized citizens. College once remained out of reach for many of these students, who do not qualify for federal financial aid.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an immigration policy launched in 2012 through executive action by President Obama, allows undocumented youth to stay in the country. DACA recipients can legally work, attend college and fill out the standard financial-aid form.
Receiving DACA was a life-changer for Quezada, who studies computer engineering at San Francisco State University. He works as an IT professional in the morning, and commutes from Richmond to take classes in the evening, often sleeping for just five hours a night.
Besides DACA, Quezada also benefited from California legislation giving undocumented students access to financial aid and in-state tuition. Now, he seems determined to convince others that college isn’t as far out of reach as some imagine.
Quezada and three other undocumented students helped organize a screening of the documentary “Underwater Dreams” last week at the Richmond High School theater. The film chronicles the story of four undocumented male high school students from Phoenix who won a design competition for an underwater robot, beating a team of college students from MIT.
About 40 parents and students turned out for the event, given in Spanish with English interpreters, put on by the local organization Somos Latin@s and Educators for Fair Consideration (E4FC), which help undocumented students access higher education.
“One of the biggest things that holds undocumented students back is that high school counselors often don’t know how to guide them,” said Alejandra Sánchez, 27, a DACA-recipient who graduated from SF State.
She noted that AB 540, a state law that opened college doors to immigrants, “had been in effect for four years when I was in high school, but my counselor didn’t even know about it.”
Sánchez wants to change this. After the film screening, she and three other undocumented students, including Quezada, took the stage and answered questions from the audience about how young immigrants can access higher education.
The students said that most undocumented parents do not anticipate that their children will even go to college. Families from Mexico and Central America, by far the largest immigrant population in Richmond, generally have a level of education well below the national average. Many have not finished high school.
“Undocumented children often lack role models to inspire them to study,” said Rodrigo Dorador, 24, the outreach manager of E4FC who is undocumented himself. “Their parent’s aren’t familiar enough with this country’s education system to understand what opportunities are available to their children.”
Dorador and the other organizers hope that showing “Underwater Dreams” will inspire undocumented teenagers in Richmond to reach higher.
At last week’s film screening, Richmond students and their family members sat bathed in the pewter glow of the movie screen as they watched the team of Mexican students from “economically depressed” neighborhoods in Phoenix build an underwater robot held together by a frame of PVC pipes. Onscreen, the rickety juggernaut plunged into an aquamarine pool, crossing from one end to the other and successfully besting the hotshot students from MIT.
The team from Phoenix may have lacked academic firepower, but they more than made up for that in ingenuity. The secret to their success was tampons. The students ingeniously packed the hygiene product around their robot’s mechanical housing to plug leaks that caused it to sink underwater.
The film screening in Richmond served as a follow-up to a meeting that Rodrigo Dorador held with 150 “newcomer students,” or, recently arrived immigrant teenagers, at the high school last week. Dorador said that three students from that event showed up to the screening with their parents, so the entire family could talk about the college application process.
Despite these bright moments, Dorador believes that undocumented youth still face great challenges ahead. Although DACA helps young immigrants to study at the college level, it only aids students who arrived in the country before 2007. Advocates say the system will create a new generation of students who cannot go to college once younger undocumented students come of age.
“DACA is just a Band-Aid that doesn’t really solve the larger problems that immigrants face,” Dorador said.
Surprisingly, only one of the four students who beat the MIT robotics team graduated from college. He earned a mechanical engineering degree from Arizona State University, but, because DACA had not yet been established, could not legally work in the U.S. after graduation.
Instead the former robotics champion turned college graduate went back to Mexico and applied to reenter the United States legally. When he finally returned to Arizona, instead of searching for a high-paying engineering job, he joined the U.S. Army.
One of the film’s closing shots shows an image of the young Mexican-American man in combat fatigues standing before the rippled peaks of a Central Asian mountain range during a tour in Afghanistan.
The film then cuts back to his former teacher in Arizona.
“What an American,” he said.