The past week has been an intense and exciting time for those who are pushing for change in the current immigration system. Individuals, like Leticia Palillero, are hoping that the DREAM Act will finally pass so that there is an easier route to pursuing higher education for undocumented students. After her parents moved to the U.S. in search of employment and better living conditions, Leticia’s grandparents became her primary caregivers. Throughout that time her mother and father would call her, travel to Mexico whenever possible, and send money for her care. When she was eleven years old, they sent for her and the family was reunited in America. She worked hard, excelled in her studies, and dreamed of the day she would attend university. She was aware, however, that her undocumented status made her ineligible to receive financial aid and would not allow her to even consider most four year schools. Leticia recalls one instance when she went to hand in her college application to the administration office at one institution. After the woman at the desk revised her paperwork she loudly asked her for her social security number. When she replied that she did not have one, the woman continued to yell for her social security number and soon all eyes were on Leticia. “Everyone looked at me like I did not belong. It made me sad but it also makes me work harder to achieve my goals. I wasn’t naïve. I knew it would be difficult to get into college, but my plan was always to continue my education and get a job.” When she was seventeen years old, she worked two jobs as a waitress in order to have the finances to pay for her studies at Camden County College. She also received private scholarships that helped pay for her books. During this time, she was approached by two priests from her parish of St. Joseph’s Pro-Cathedral in Camden, to work in a clerical position for the church. She gladly accepted. Currently, Leticia is able to work legally through the US Deferred Action program. As the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website states,
“On June 15, 2012, the Secretary of Homeland Security announced that certain people who came to the United States as children and meet several key guidelines may request consideration of deferred action for a period of two years, subject to renewal, and would then be eligible for work authorization. Deferred action is a discretionary determination to defer removal action of an individual as an act of prosecutorial discretion. Deferred action does not provide an individual with lawful status.”
This means that those who meet the guidelines are given a social security number but the card specifically states that it is for work purposes only. To be considered for deferred action, Leticia had to fill out many forms, turn in the proper documentation, and pay a costly fee of $465. Leticia now advises other students in the same situation. “Most students don’t know their status until they graduate high school because the goal for most kids is just to graduate. It’s worse for those who drop out and then want to get their GED but can’t because they don’t have a social security number to apply to for the test. Many people think we are here to steal jobs or to live off the government but how can we contribute more to society if we aren’t allowed an easier path to go to school? The message seems to be ‘come work in America, but don’t come and get an education.’ ”
With the rise of the communist regime in 1980’s Nicaragua, the country experienced a period of civil unrest and revolution. Anti Catholic sentiments made it an unsafe place to live for Catholics to practice their faith, go to school, or to find work to support their families. Also during this time, the government instituted forced military service for women. Eighteen-year-old Berta Machado was faced with a difficult decision: serve a government that stood against her beliefs or flee from persecution. Her parents chose to send her to Texas to live with family in order to give their daughter a better future. Berta left her native land not knowing it would be years before she would see her family again. “It makes me sad when people think we come to this country to take people’s jobs. We’re not here to take away anything, but to gain opportunities. We leave behind our most precious things: our families, friends, and our roots out of necessity.” She missed her loved ones terribly but she continued to build her life in America. She lived in Texas for some time, then in New York, and eventually settled in Camden, NJ. The first few years, Berta lived without any documentation. Then in 1993 she applied for her green card, which gave her ten years of residency in the country. Throughout the years, she worked various cleaning jobs in offices, schools, and hotels. Berta was grateful for the opportunity to work, but she desired more. She made the decision to pursue her education in the liberal arts program at La Salle University. She would go to work in the morning, after work cook and care for her children, and then attend evening classes. Her tireless efforts successfully secured her an associate’s degree. Now 47 years old, she continues to take courses to earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology through the University of Phoenix. Two years ago, Berta reached another milestone when she became a citizen. It was a lengthy and difficult process. Once the U.S. government approved her application, she traveled to Nicaragua for an interview with government officials there. Uncertain if they would approve the application in her homeland and allow her to re-enter the U.S., she risked it all and her efforts paid off. As the school secretary and coordinator of religious education at St. Joseph’s Pro-Cathedral in Camden, the support she received from her employer and the community was overwhelming. “I have never felt any discrimination at my job. I’m welcomed here. Sadly, I feel more discrimination from other Latinos who, after gaining their citizenship they use it as a way to make others feel inferior.” Berta supports and encourages those who are still undocumented. She tells them, “Don’t ever get tired of fighting. The last thing you should lose is hope because one day your dream will come true. For whatever reason, life brought us here and even though we have to pay a high price, being away from family and parents who want more for us, we should continue to contribute to this great nation. Don’t lose hope. Reform will happen.”
It is evident that family is an important part of Mario Arriola’s life. When asked to describe them, the twenty five year old smiles and says “ The best thing about my family is how open minded and loving they are. They welcome everyone with open arms.” Unfortunately, not everyone is as welcoming towards them. As undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., there are some that believe that they do not belong here. Mario arrived in this country when he was seven years old. His parents sent him from Tijuana, Mexico to Los Angeles, California where he stayed in a South Central safe house for two and a half months. Sometime later his brother joined him, then his mother, and eventually they were reunited with the rest of their family living in Camden, NJ. Although his family is very open about their illegal status, at such a young age he was unaware of the risk they were taking. The language barrier was a great challenge growing up. He studied and read as much as possible and by twelve years of age he was as fluent in English as he was in Spanish. “People don’t realize that I was born in Mexico. They don’t hear an accent when I talk so they think I was born here. Learning English gave me the confidence to get involved in my community and to get out of ignorance.” Dominating the language has given Mario great opportunities. As a Training Director at HopeWorks, a web design organization based in Camden, he mentors the youth enrolled in their training program. He is also a Camden County College graduate who is continuing his education at Rutgers University. This was not an easy task, but Mario knows the meaning of hard work. It’s something his family has taught him. “Some people think that we are here to steal people’s jobs and that we are willing to work for so cheap. What people don’t understand is that providing for our families is number one. Not only do we have to provide for our kids but also the elderly. We don’t complain. We put our hands to work.” Because of his status he could not apply for financial aid so he saved and sacrificed to provide the $9,000 he needed to pay for his studies. His goals are to keep working towards his master’s degree and to continue to mentor the youth of Camden. With the recent push in Washington for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, he filed the proper paperwork and documentation in order to qualify for the DREAM Act measure of Bill S.744, which would provide an easier route towards higher education and citizenship for undocumented youths. He has been approved and is waiting for updates on his case. Mario expressed hope for the future now that immigration reform is being discussed and debated throughout the nation, “It’s a start. Fear is normal, but if we don’t open our mouths we won’t be heard. We can complain, but if we don’t speak openly nothing will change. There are a lot of people speaking for us, it’s time we speak for ourselves.”
In the 2012 presidential election, President Barrack Obama’s campaign focused heavily on immigration reform. He supported a plan that would maintain family unity, decrease the number of unjust deportations, and crack down on unfair labor practices. His stance won over many of the over 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the nation. This past April a bill was introduced in the Senate that would drastically change their lives. Reform Bill S. 744 plans to offer immigrants who came to the country as children a five year plan to get permanent residence and then citizenship, reforms to immigration detention and the court system, flexibility for judges to consider individual cases, costly border protection and an employment verification system, and would require employment and income tests. New Jersey would definitely feel the impact if this bill were to be passed into law. As the state with the fifth highest percentage of undocumented immigrants in the country, 550, 000 individuals would be affected by the change. Many reside in the city of Camden. When I was growing up in Camden, many of my classmates were children whose parents migrated to New Jersey from another country. One of my closest friends growing up was a little girl named Dulce. I remember visiting her house on the weekends and playing together at recess. Then one day Dulce was absent from school. I found out later that her parents had been deported. She and her brother stayed with an aunt but were eventually sent back to Mexico. How could this happen to such good hardworking people? What had they done that was so bad that they needed to be sent away? I must admit that I am ignorant to the struggles of those who live in this country without citizenship. I cannot relate to the hardships my undocumented brothers and sisters face, but I am willing to learn more about it. In order to understand the issue, I hope to explore it through first hand accounts and interviews of those helping to bring awareness to the problems faced by the undocumented living here. Through their eyes, we will see what life is like in Camden.