Students who are undocumented immigrants advocate for a better future
The transition period from youth to adulthood is a turbulent time. You are faced with an onslaught of responsibility and defining decisions while discovering how to live independently. There is an urgency to build your own identity as more than an appendage of your nuclear family. But the future holds many possibilities, not to mention the personal struggles and emotional stress.
Now imagine going through this life stage with the added strain of being an undocumented immigrant. That is the reality for approximately 1.5 million young adults, according to a 2008 Pew Research Study.
Motivation to succeed can have dire consequences on youth when government policy restricts their potential. One victim of such backlash is Joaquin Luna, an 18-year-old from Mission, Texas who committed suicide on Nov. 25. Luna was a promising graduating senior with a supportive family who hoped to become an engineer. He watched his classmates plan for college, but realized he would not have the opportunity to go because state schools do not offer financial aid for undocumented immigrants.
Local news stations reported that in the suicide letters left to his family, Luna wrote his hard work was wasted and settling for what he viewed as an inferior path of unskilled employment was not an option. He references the failure of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act to pass in Congress as the reason he resorted to taking his own life.
The DREAM Act serves a select group of undocumented immigrants who came to America as children when it was clearly not their decision to enter the country illegally. The Act would allow them to gain citizenship by completing at least two years of college or two years of military service.
The bill has public approval and bipartisan support in the Congress, yet has failed to pass after being voted on in ten separate legislative sessions since its proposal in 2001.
In 2007 there was a high school senior in Florida named Juan Escalante facing frustration and concerns over his future similar to Luna. He had big plans, yet could not see how college fit into his future.
Escalante was born in Caracas, Venezuela. He came to the U.S. on a visa at age 11 but there was an error in the paperwork, leaving his family without documentation. This is a mistake Escalante has tried to correct many times without success.
Once learning more about the DREAM Act, Escalante joined with students facing similar circumstances and formed DREAMActivist.org to promote the bill.
Escalante has since made it to college and is set to graduate in a few weeks from Florida State University with degrees in political science and international relations. He is very active in the movement for reform of immigration policy, organizing protests around the country, doing outreach to undocumented youth and educating the media.
The conversations fostered on the website’s discussion forums and chat rooms allow youth to ask simple questions they are afraid to ask, such as if they can get a driver’s license. The anonymity of online communication provides some comfort to draw people out of seclusion. Escalante himself has abandoned anonymity, but this was a difficult step.
“You’re told by your parents you don’t share [your undocumented status] with anybody,” Escalante said. “You grow up by yourself fearing that if somebody finds out, they’re going to call immigration and you’re going to be taken away. So you don’t say anything.”
Through outreach, Escalante said the DREAM Activists are able to support visitors to the website saying, “Hey, you may be undocumented but here are the things you can do in the meantime to make sure tomorrow is a better day.”
When developing the organization, the founders decided their mission could not be solely political. Simply talking to others in the same situation and providing support for each other is a big step toward improving the well-being of their audience. However, Escalante said he wished they could provide more mental health service, noting sadly that Luna was not the first to take his own life.
Escalante said his efforts in recent years have shifted away from the DREAM Act as activists reshape the movement to fit the current political landscape. By tallying up the votes the bill would likely receive if reintroduced this session of Congress, the DREAM Activists predict it would not pass. There have been more deportations under the current administration than ever before in our history. Those in power are not in the position to recognize the flaws in the current system or look for creative solutions.
Escalante continues to identify as a DREAM Activist because he views the bill as “a long-term investment not only to aid students, but to recognize the flaws in our immigration policy and border system … It’s a key to a door that leads to a bigger conversation.”
To open a bigger conversation, we may first need to recognize the struggles our peers face on a daily basis. Students who are undocumented immigrants face mental health issues as a consequence of hiding their identity, living in fear of deportation and being cut-off from the opportunities open to their peers.
Regardless of Escalante’s experiences, his ideal employment would be working for the U.S. government, because, he said, “I believe a lot in the values of this country.”
Moriah Petty is a sophomore TV-R major who would like to see everyone have a chance to succeed. Email her at mpetty1[at]ithaca[dot]edu.