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Citizen of Nowhere: The story of one undocumented immigrant

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Since third grade, Jessica has dreamed of being a Rebel.
Photo: Leila Navidi

When Jessica* was selected as Student of the Year in eighth grade, she should have celebrated this goldest of gold stars. Instead, she slammed doors, bawled her eyes out and let her parents know she would hate them for the rest of her life. What they were doing to her wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. She’d been a model student, and now her middle school wanted to reward her by footing half the bill for a trip to Washington, D.C.—home to all the presidents whose birthdays and middle names she’d memorized. Her parents wouldn’t let her go. They said they had their reasons, none of which would suffice for a 13-year-old who really, really, really wanted to get on that plane.

It’s a scene that plays out in homes across America—the battle between a teenager with a desire and parents saddled with responsibility—but for Jessica this fight was more than that. It was the moment she realized she was not like her classmates, not like the 50 students going on this class trip without her.

It was the first time she fully grasped the words undocumented immigrant—and understood that they applied to her.

“Up until then I realized there was this issue with other people, but in my mind it wasn’t me,” says Jessica, now 22, whose parents kept her home afraid of what might happen if someone in airline security discovered her immigration status. “I knew we’d traveled here, but we couldn’t possibly be illegal or doing anything wrong. When you’re at that age, it’s like, ‘My mom and dad are awesome; they would never do anything bad.’”

Jessica is one of hundreds of thousands of undocumented residents whose immigration was their parents’ decision and not their own. She was 4 when her father used a work visa to relocate their family from Mexico to Los Angeles and then to Las Vegas a year later. Jessica remembers little to nothing about life in her birth country; her only memory of the journey is having a Barbie with her. Like many immigrants, her father had planned to stay temporarily. But plans change.

Jessica began kindergarten, learned how to speak English from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and considered Carol Seaver from Growing Pains her idol. She grew into a self-described nerd who loves the Star Wars series and watches Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory regularly. “I would never say that I raised myself,” Jessica says, “but there was a lot I couldn’t talk to my parents about. Yes, I speak Spanish and celebrate their holidays, but our cultures are totally different.” She is American in many ways—culturally, mentality, educationally—but not in the one way that matters. Legally.

They are called “dreamers” after the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a proposed piece of legislation 10 years in the making that would offer a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to this country as minors. It would require military service or attendance at a four-year institution of higher education.

“The thought process is, if you were a minor when you came into this country—15 or younger—then you are not entirely responsible for the action of coming here illegally,” explains John Tuman, a political-science professor at UNLV.

Data on the number of dreamers in the country is uncertain. Reports claim anywhere from 57,000 to 68,000 graduate from high school each year, but it’s impossible to know for certain.

What is known: the hurdles faced by these untold numbers, especially within the world of employment and education. Many immigrant parents push their children to excel academically, believing the American Dream is achieved through education. And many, like Jessica, do succeed, at least until they graduate from high school. But as their classmates fill out applications and enroll in four-year colleges, undocumented students are left stranded, unable to go to college because having no Social Security number means receiving no financial aid. Misinformation—about colleges requiring Social Security numbers to attend and reporting those who don’t provide a number to immigration—is widespread.

For Jessica, who attended public magnet school A-TECH, higher education was always a goal. In third grade, she won an essay competition and attended an awards ceremony at UNLV’s Ham Hall. Since then, she’s dreamed of being a Rebel. Her senior year of high school, she watched as her peers applied to more prestigious universities and filled out FASFA forms.

Ashamed of her status, she lied to her friends and teachers. When peers got their driver’s licenses, she told them she was too afraid to learn how to drive. She pretended R-rated movies just didn’t interest her. On her 18th birthday, her friends got tickets to Chippendales—she said her mother refused to let her go, then suffered through the Facebook photos that appeared when they took somebody else in her place.

It was the lowest point in her life. “I felt like a liar. I was lying to everyone about everything. At that age, you already feel like the girl next to you is prettier or better than you. This just made everything so much worse.”

Her struggle really started to take a toll during her final year of high school. Teachers chalked it up to senioritis, but Jessica knew that wasn’t it. She simply didn’t see the point of excelling when all roads seemingly led to a dead end. It’s a point many DREAM proponents make, including Francisco Morales. He’s a Rancho High School graduate who now works with Making the DREAM Come True, a coalition that helps various Hispanic and Latino student groups from Valley high schools band together to lobby as one unit.

He poses the question: “If upon graduating high school you know you won’t be able to get a decent job, or you can’t go to college because you won’t be able to get aid, what incentive do you have? None. These kids know that high school is only an attendance degree and that higher education is the path to success. So they don’t bother.”

Morales believes high school dropout rates would decrease significantly if students knew their education could be a path to citizenship and success. Though the DREAM Act isn’t specifically a Hispanic cause—plenty of immigrants from Asian and African countries fail to leave when their visas expire—the Hispanic population is definitely set to benefit the most locally. Of the 300,000-plus students enrolled in the Clark County School District, almost 42 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino. What percentage is undocumented is unknown, but Morales believes the vast majority likely know someone who would be affected, and therefore care about the issue.

Jessica, who graduated three years before the act was reintroduced and began receiving mainstream media attention, knew nobody else in her position. Not even her younger brother, who was born in America, could relate.

Riddled with shame but still wanting to make her parents proud, Jessica made what she thought would be a major life decision. Her parents had sacrificed everything they knew in order to move to the United States and provide her with a better life, so she would do the same. She decided she would give up everything she knew in Las Vegas and go to college in Mexico.

She was rejected.

Turns out, the girl who’d spent nearly her entire life in Southern Nevada didn’t speak or write Spanish well enough to attend a Mexican university. The news was devastating.

“I don’t belong anywhere,” Jessica says. “I don’t have anywhere to go.”

This year, the DREAM Act came closer to passing than at any point in its 10-year history. The House of Representatives approved the act on December 8, but 10 days later it failed to pass a procedural vote in the Senate by five votes, stalling the process indefinitely.

The dream is far from over, however. Still determined to see it pass in their lifetime, activists are already regrouping and figuring out how best to move forward from here. Ricardo Cornejo, a UNLV senior who has helped lobby for the DREAM Act’s passage, believes the next step might be to work with local university administrators to help raise more local support. He says he would love to see President Neal Smatresk make a public statement in support of the act.

“We’ve come across a lot of students from Texas and Arizona who came to Nevada to attend school because they can here,” Cornejo says of UNLV, which doesn’t require a Social Security number for admission. “We are getting their tuition dollars and support. We should acknowledge them.”

While no administration-level show of support has been made, some services for undocumented students already exist. The Diversity and Inclusion Office helps students find alternative, nongovernment sources of money for education.

“These kids graduated from Nevada high schools,” says Jose Melendrez, the office’s assistant vice president, who has worked extensively on DREAM Act-related issues. “Yes, they’re living under the radar, but there are still resources available. They do not need to drop out because of their circumstances.

“Our job as a university is not to enforce immigration law,” he adds. “Our job is to educate.”

After graduating from high school in 2006, Jessica began attending the College of Southern Nevada. She confided in her academic adviser, who wasn’t quite sure what to do with her. “She mentioned the DREAM Act to me, but said it would only apply if I was in school when it passed, so I should change my major every semester,” Jessica explains. She followed the advice, switching—interior design, business, management, architecture—every semester for two years.

Jessica also joined the Hispanic Student Union, where she met another academic adviser, who immediately asked her why she hadn’t yet transferred to a four-year college. “I told him that I kept changing my major, couldn’t decide what to do, that I wasn’t ready ... Basically I made excuses, like I always did.

"He took me into his office and asked again. He said, ‘You need to tell me.’ He kept saying it, and I just started crying. He already knew why, of course. He just wanted me to say it.”

Jessica broke down. She admitted her undocumented status. It was one of the first times she’d told anyone, and his reaction changed everything. “He said, ‘Look. That was easy. Now what do you want to be?’ He told me, ‘You’re not the only one out there with this situation.’ He put me on track to graduate. He got me involved in politics.”

That year Jessica and the Hispanic Student Union met Harry Reid at a rally. “I went up to him and said, ‘I need the DREAM Act.’ He said, ‘Okay.’ It was a big moment for me, to say that and realize that he wasn’t going to arrest me. I feel like that’s the moment I started to come into my own.”

Jessica still loves to pull up the blurry cell-phone picture she took of the senator that day. She’s scheduled to graduate in May with dual associate degrees in political science and general studies. Her goal is still to become a Rebel, pursue a bachelor’s in political science and eventually help young immigrants like her.

The sad truth, however, is that even if she finds the resources and graduates, her options beyond that are still limited. Cornejo and Melendrez have heard one heartbreaking story after another, about students who’ve managed to get their degrees but still wind up working at Del Taco because white-collar jobs require legitimate paperwork.

“We have some of the best and brightest students graduating,” Melendrez says. “Right now there’s no way for them to adjust their status, yet we’ll give visas to anyone who can fix a computer. Something’s wrong here.”

Until it can be made right, Jessica will live in limbo. “I am going to be an eternal child,” she says. “I can’t work. I can’t get my own place. I can’t drive. I can’t get a credit card. I was raised to believe I should be independent. I watched these shows that stressed the importance of being your own person. I remember my teachers saying, ‘You don’t want to be flipping burgers your entire life.’ And I don’t want to, but ...”

* Name has been changed to protect her identity.
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