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Educators discuss undocumented youths' challenges, resilience

Bay Area nonprofit's staff aims to empower students

Since 2006, San Francisco nonprofit Educators for Fair Consideration (E4FC) has focused on the well-being of undocumented young people in the Bay Area and across the nation, seeking to empower them in their pursuit of college, career and citizenship.

E4FC's programs are uniquely designed by and for undocumented young people and include leadership and career development, community outreach and education, scholarships, legal services, creative expression and advocacy, according to its founder and executive director, Katharine Gin.

E4FC's list of private scholarships and other college funding sources open to undocumented applicants is relied upon by students and promoted as a resource on community nonprofit and college websites across the nation; this list has been accessed more than 60,000 times in the past year alone, according to the E4FC website.

Four E4FC staff members -- Jose Arreola, Rodrigo Dorador, Denia Perez and Rocio Preciado -- agreed to sit down with the Weekly last year to discuss the challenges of growing up undocumented and the factors that contribute to resilience in coping with the difficulties inherent in that process. Their perspectives were informed by their own life experiences and also those of the youth they work with at E4FC.

All four E4FC staff members grew up undocumented and graduated from four-year universities. Three of the four currently have temporary legal status under President Barack Obama's executive action program known as DACA ("Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals") (See "Federal and state laws expand opportunities"); the fourth, Rocio, was granted legal status under a U-Visa, which covers victims of violent crimes who cooperate with law enforcement and eligible family members.

Arreola arrived in the U.S. at age 4, grew up in Mountain View and graduated from Santa Clara University on a full scholarship. In college, Arreola was an outspoken campus leader on issues of racism, inequality and oppression. He now is E4FC's training and community relations manager.

Dorador came to the U.S. in fourth grade and also graduated from Santa Clara University, also with the benefit of a full scholarship. Dorador has plans to pursue a doctorate in political philosophy and economics. Currently he is E4FC's outreach manager.

Perez arrived in the U.S. at 11 months and grew up in the Santa Rosa area. She attended California State University, San Francisco and graduated in 2012, the first in her family to obtain a college degree. In 2013, she became the first openly undocumented Board of Immigration Appeals accredited representative, authorized to represent clients before the Department of Homeland Security on immigration issues. Formerly E4FC's legal services coordinator, Perez is now in her first year of law school and plans to work as a lawyer with underserved populations.

Preciado came to the U.S. at age 9 and grew up in the Oakland area. With support from College Track, a nonprofit college-access organization (See "Organizations, resources supporting undocumented youth"), she attended and graduated from University of California, Santa Cruz and now serves as E4FC's outreach coordinator.

Gathered around the conference table at E4FC's offices, these four young people identified a variety of challenges inherent in growing up undocumented, ranging from the daily economic struggles to afford food to the larger issues of coping with entrenched cultural and institutional forces of discrimination, which often set undocumented youth up for failure. The pressures, they say, are chronic and can be overwhelming at times.

"There is the need to go through all these hoops just to be seen as the same, as a human being," Dorador said.

The group also talked about a common feeling of "hyper-vigilance" -- the need to avoid doing anything "wrong" -- which for some adolescents can be a very difficult expectation to live up to.

When it comes to model students, many people are quick to say, "Oh, he's one of ours, he belongs here," Dorador said. Just as quickly the community will reject and "pathologize" undocumented students who make mistakes or don't shine so brightly.

A struggling student may be asked, for example, "Why can't you be one of those good students?" Preciado said, as if that type of achievement were necessary to prove worth and eligibility for inclusion.

Dividing immigrants into "good" and "bad" categories is one result of an unforgiving immigration system, they say, and threatens healthy youth development.

The current immigration system also contributes to a crazy-quilt of mixed legal statuses within many families, in which some members are undocumented, others have green cards or DACA benefits, and still others are citizens. This often leads to confusing and negative feelings that affect family dynamics and can include jealousy, anxiety, guilt and/or pressures to prove worth even within the family, the E4FC staff said.

The parents of undocumented youth often have limited capacity to offer practical or emotional support, Dorador and others agreed, due to long work hours, stress about survival and lack of knowledge -- due to their own limited education -- about the hurdles their children face in pursuing a college education.

Undocumented teenagers often need to work outside of school to help with family finances, and parents don't always realize the added disadvantage and stress that a job can place on teens trying to compete in today's high schools. Isolated from both parents and peers in this way, many teens navigate difficult territory without adequate social support.

"My dad works all the time. I barely get to see him, and when I do, he's tired -- he just wants to watch TV," Dorador said of his own experience.

Immigrant fathers typically model an incredible work ethic as "providers," he said, but are not so comfortable talking about emotional issues.

As teens struggle with these challenges, they also feel the need to hide their status from the outside world, fearing discovery. There are few, if any, safe spaces to discuss or explore undocumented identity, something the E4FC staff agreed would greatly benefit undocumented youth. Secrecy also leads to difficulty in asking for help, something young men especially do not do easily.

"It's more normalized for women to ask for help," Preciado said. When people make it to college, "it's not necessarily that they worked harder but that they were able to ask for help."

Still, the fear of discovery prevents many, including young women, from reaching out.

The effects of these immigration-status-related challenges vary from individual to individual.

"There's a 360-degree range," Dorador said, from "substance abuse to not wanting to do well in school to dropping out, to deciding, 'Hey, I'm going to go for it; I'm going to excel and do the best I can.'"

Whatever the response, Dorador said, there's a large toll taken, even among those who eventually are successful in graduating from college. In his own case, he realized after college that "all my patterns of thought involve proving myself to someone." That's the price of achievement Dorador now deals with and seeks to transform.

Another common price paid, according to E4FC staff, is the burden of not feeling valued or validated. Given a legal system overtly hostile to students' interests, along with a political atmosphere filled with negative stereotypes of "illegal aliens" who are alleged to threaten the American economy and social fabric, the E4FC staff said, it's easy to see how young people become frustrated, want to give up and/or make poor decisions that, in a different system, they might otherwise approach differently.

Fear, anxiety, and anger are also common reactions, they said.

To cope with these challenges, the group also discussed ways youth build resilience. Perhaps the most important factor is a loving family, they agreed, and hopefully at least one family member with whom a youth can talk honestly about obstacles.

Outside the family, the E4FC staff described the importance of having multiple caring adults as mentors or role models actively supporting a youth's progress, including teachers, pastors, sports coaches, neighbors, tutors and after-school program staff.

As they enter adulthood, and may be interested in pursuing college options, undocumented youth need guidance in accessing resources to help them deal with the practical, social and emotional challenges of their immigration status. Those who are able to find and use available resources are more likely to persevere.

Healthy outlets for relieving stress are important to many.

"People find resilience and hope in a variety of different contexts ... whether it's writing, music or sports," Perez said. "When those things are missing, people are more susceptible and vulnerable to snap or lose it."

Faith is also a big part of what keeps many people going, Perez said.

"It's the hope that tomorrow's a new day and ... 'This is an obstacle that I know was not given to me unless the creator above knew I could handle it.'"

Arreola sees "resilience that is off the charts" demonstrated every day among immigrants of all ages who fight to survive against odds and prove worth. He attributes the inner strength he observes to a long line of ancestors who over the centuries have faced unrelenting forces of oppression and worse.

As he described: "I carry those people in my spirit, in my blood, and when I look at everything we have to face, the only rational explanation I have sometimes for how we're able to make it through, is that we have some deep profound survivor, warrior, unconditional love, blood and spirit as a community, and that's what gets us through.

"Because sometimes it's just damn-near impossible, damn-near impossible, and our folks still make it through every single day. So I have to believe that my ancestors are all there both in very spiritual ways but also in very concrete ways."

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Read more:

Growing up undocumented

College adviser to Dreamers: Leverage strengths, get creative

Undocumented immigrants: key statistics

Pursuing the rocky path to college

Organizations, resources supporting undocumented youth

Undocumented youth describe migration to U.S.

Federal and state laws expand opportunities for Dreamers

The Dreamer social movement

A safe haven to dream

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