Dreams Deported: Immigrant Youth and Families Resist Deportation
Dreams Deported tells the powerful, heart-wrenching stories of immigrant youth and their families who endure needless suffering at the hands of our government. This book illustrates the urgency of building a broad-based movement for basic human rights for all, a movement rooted in the recognition that every human being is worthy of care, compassion, and concern, no matter who you are, where you come from, or what you may have done. The time is long overdue to end not only mass incarceration but also mass deportation in America.
—Dr. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Dreams Deported is a powerful book that lifts the stories of the undocumented immigrants who are facing the injustice of deportation. In the national debate on immigration, rarely are the voices of undocumented immigrants heard. Dreams Deported captures the stories of not only the deported but also the courageous immigrant youth and their families who are organizing for justice and human dignity.
—Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network
This publication was produced by the students in a course I taught through the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education in the 2013–2014 academic year. Teaching the class and working with the students was a remarkable experience. It was also a powerful personal journey and completed a circle that began many years ago.
Understanding the injustices undocumented immigrants face is something that I lived with for many years. I first learned I was undocumented while I was in high school. Although I had the grades and test scores to attend a four-year university, I was unable to afford it. Because of my immigration status, I was ineligible for federal financial aid or student loans. Instead, I attended Santa Monica City College as an AB 540 student (see Olivérez 2009, 7). After graduating from community college with an AA degree, I was able to transfer to UCLA.
I chose UCLA because it was close to home but mostly because I found a new home in the undocumented student organization IDEAS (Improving Dreams, Equality, Access and Success). I had the opportunity to attend an IDEAS banquet before I started at UCLA. The IDEAS students I met at the banquet were my heros. They proved that undocumented students like me could go to college and could succeed. I realized that this was the community I wanted to join. During that time, I was still trying to come to terms with my undocumented identity, as it had only been a year since I found out about my status. When I first learned about my undocumented status, I felt lonely and isolated. After the IDEAS banquet, I felt empowered.
I worked all summer and applied for various private scholarships to help pay for my first quarter at UCLA. I had only saved enough money for one quarter, but it was enough for me to get excited about attending UCLA. Eager to get started, I began browsing through the UCLA course web site.
One class caught my eye: Immigrant Rights, Labor, and Higher Education. My friends in IDEAS had mentioned this course as well. The focus of the course was on undocumented students in higher education. My first reaction was, “A class on my experience?”
The course instructors were Kent Wong and Victor Narro, two faculty members from the UCLA Labor Center. This was the first class in the country to focus on the experiences of undocumented students. The class had a different theme each week, integrated the latest research on immigration, and included an internship component that encouraged community engagement. For my internship, I worked with IDEAS to integrate what we were learning in class with practical outreach and education activities on campus. The students were able to learn about immigration history and policy while supporting the activities of IDEAS.
Of all my classes during my first quarter at UCLA, I enjoyed Kent and Victor’s class the most. I felt empowered and like I belonged at UCLA. The course also provided an opportunity for me to give back, as it helped educate the UCLA community on the issues that mattered most to me.
In June 2009, I graduated from UCLA with a major in sociology and a minor in education. My dream of graduating from college became a reality with the support of my family, friends, and my IDEAS family. Graduation day marked a huge accomplishment in my life, but it was also a bittersweet day because I had to address my future plans. As an undocumented immigrant, I couldn’t use the degree I had worked so hard for because I could not legally work. The federal DREAM Act, which would have provided undocumented students with a pathway to citizenship, was still being debated in Congress, and there was no progress on comprehensive immigration reform.
Through IDEAS, I met undocumented students who were attending graduate and professional schools, like Tam Tran at Brown University and Cinthya Felix at Columbia. Tam and Cinthya were both UCLA alumni and were well known among immigrant students nationally. They were pioneers, outspoken activists, and among the first undocumented students to attend graduate school. They gave hope to many of us who did not know what to do after college, and they paved the way for other undocumented students to pursue advanced degrees.
Since college was the only place I felt I had some freedom, I began the application process for a master’s degree in education, in spite of the many barriers that still existed. I chose education for different reasons. First, I knew that in California, we were privileged to have AB 540, since most states did not have in-state tuition for undocumented students. During my graduate work, I wanted to learn more about the barriers to accessing higher education that many undocumented students encounter. Mostly, I wanted to contribute to the growing body of research about undocumented students. I believed there was a need for more scholars who could provide a firsthand undocumented perspective. Second, educators have always played an important role in my life. In some cases, they motivated me to stay in school when I wanted to give up. I dreamed of becoming a professor so I could motivate students myself one day.
I applied to colleges outside California even though I was concerned about how undocumented immigrants would be treated in other states. I wanted to see if I could get into these prestigious universities and if they would provide scholarships. To my surprise, I was accepted by many schools, including Harvard, Columbia, and Brown. But then I had to worry about funding my education. During the process of inquiring about financial aid, I learned that I had to educate many of the college admissions and financial aid representatives about undocumented students. Through many emails and phone calls, I would repeatedly explain, “Yes, I have lived in the United States my entire life; no, I do not have legal residency; and no, I am not an international student.” For many of the campus representatives, this was the first time they had ever heard about undocumented students, and they did not know what to do. After extensive communications with the university staff, ultimately the answer was the same: “We would like to help, but we can’t.”
I narrowed my choices to two schools: UCLA or Harvard. At either university, I would have to pay for my education. After a lot of thought, I decided on UCLA. It seemed to be a better fit in terms of my academic work, but I also chose it because of my undocumented status. If I had gone to Harvard, I would have had to pay not only for tuition but also for travel, living expenses, and other costs that are associated with living away from home. I just didn’t have the money. That decision-making process inf luenced my dissertation research on undocumented students’ educational trajectories.
Just before starting the master’s program at UCLA, I received more bad news. I had been awarded a private scholarship that would cover my tuition, but when the UCLA administration learned of my immigration status, they informed me that I was ineligible for the scholarship, and the money was withdrawn. In spite of this setback, I was determined to continue my education and began a new phase of my life as a master’s student at UCLA. Although I was on the same campus, it felt like a different world. The amount of reading and writing was enormous, especially since I had to continue to work to support myself. And unlike the undergraduate program where I frequently had classes with friends from IDEAS, I was the only undocumented student in the entire graduate program.
During spring quarter 2010, Kent Wong asked me to be the teaching assistant for the Immigrant Rights, Labor, and Higher Education course, the same class I had taken during my first quarter at UCLA. Although I was excited to work on the class, my status continued to affect my access to opportunities enjoyed by my peers. Unlike other teaching assistants, I was ineligible for tuition remission because of my undocumented status.
We had sixty students enrolled in the class. I worked with a group of students to organize a campus forum to educate the UCLA community, including faculty and staff, about the issue of undocumented students. We planned the whole event, including creating the program, conducting outreach and mobilization, and managing logistics. Then right before the event took place, we heard the tragic news that our friends Tam Tran and Cinthya Felix had been killed in a car accident by a drunk driver. We were devastated.
Instead of a campus forum, the class prepared a memorial service at UCLA in honor of Tam and Cinthya. More than five hundred people attended, including Tam’s and Cinthya’s families and dozens of IDEAS alumni who returned to UCLA to honor their friends. All of the IDEAS alumni and current members gathered together on stage, embraced one another, and shared tears as we mourned the passing of our friends.
In fall 2010, the Immigrant Rights, Labor, and Higher Education class began work on a publication to honor the lives of Tam and Cinthya. The students in the class also began to collect stories from around the country chronicling the courageous acts of undocumented immigrant youth fighting for their rights. In 2012, the book Undocumented and Unafraid: Tam Tran, Cinthya Felix, and the Immigrant Rights Movement was published.
When I graduated from UCLA with a master’s degree in education, I faced a dilemma once again. The federal DREAM Act had failed, and there had been no progress on immigration reform. Even with a master’s degree, I still had no legal status and no opportunity to accept work where I could use my degrees.
My ultimate goal was to become a professor, so I knew I needed to obtain a PhD. I also knew that I wanted to contribute to the literature on undocumented students in higher education and that this would be the topic of my dissertation.
Although I was admitted to the UCLA PhD program in education, UCLA was unable to provide any financial aid because of my undocumented status. However, I was also admitted to Claremont Graduate University, a private university that provided me with a generous scholarship and faculty support. During my PhD program, I finally received permanent resident status and was granted work authorization. I had been waiting for this more than twenty-five years and thought it would never happen. When it did, my life changed.
When I visited the UCLA Labor Center, I met with Kent Wong, shared the news about my work permit, and told him that I wanted to teach. He asked if I wanted to teach the Immigrant Rights, Labor, and Higher Education class at UCLA, the same class I had taken my first quarter at UCLA, the same class I had served as the teaching assistant for when I was in graduate school, and the same class that had organized the memorial for Tam and Cinthya. It made sense in every way for me to teach this course. I was getting my PhD in education, my dissertation was focused on undocumented students in higher education and for the first time, a former undocumented student would teach a course on undocumented students.
In the fall of 2013, I cotaught the class with Angela Chuan-Ru Chen and Ana K. Soltero López. The students participated in three main projects. Ana Soltero’s team collected stories on the impact of deportations on our communities. Students interviewed undocumented youth who had faced the threat of deportation or who had family members who had faced deportation. These stories formed the foundation for this book. The students conducted preliminary interviews and presented final projects at the end of the class. During the winter and spring quarters of 2014, I taught the continuing courses with the students to develop this publication. Students conducted research, arranged and transcribed additional interviews, edited articles, and gathered photos and artwork. Kent Wong and I edited the stories to produce the third book in a series on immigrant youth published by the UCLA Labor Center.
I am proud of our students at UCLA who are carrying on the legacy of Tam Tran and Cinthya Felix and of IDEAS. I am grateful that I have been able to pursue my dream to teach and to conduct research on undocumented immigrant students. Finally, I hope that this publication will contribute to the advancement of the undocumented immigrant rights movement.
Olivérez, Paz M., et al. 2009. “The College and Financial Aid Guide for: AB540 Undocumented Immigrant
Students.” The AB 540 College Access Network, Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, University
of Southern California. http://www.usc.edu/dept/chepa/pdf/AB%20540%20final.pdf.