Growing up undocumented

Local youth speak of the challenges they've faced

Editor's note: Pseudonyms are being used by three of the undocumented youth interviewed for this story, at their request for privacy. Those using a pseudonym are clearly identified in the article.


Like many undocumented youth who grow up in East Palo Alto and neighboring communities, Paula remembers the moment she discovered she had no Social Security number and felt the force of that blow.

A top student at East Palo Alto Academy, Paula (not her real name) had plans to pursue college -- plans that had been nourished and encouraged by the adults in her life, at home and at school. Her future appeared bright as long as she worked hard and did well.

But when Paula tried to register in her junior year for the SAT, the form asked for a Social Security number, which she assumed she had until her parents told her otherwise.

They also told her that she would not be able to get one, due to her undocumented status.

"But I need it to go to college!" she protested.

"It was an emotional moment, full of frustration," she said.

Her mother told her "to make the best of it." Her father sat silent, his eyes welling with tears.

"I had seen my parents work so hard and sacrifice so much. They had emphasized education as the way to a better life, a better job, better opportunities," she said. "But they had no experience to be able to understand the challenges of this."

Before this moment, Paula had not "connected the dots" about the limitations of her immigration status. But without a Social Security number, the many barriers started coming into focus, she said.

In the years that followed, Paula learned a lot more about the challenges posed by her status, and what it took to navigate them, as she traveled a long, often-lonely and obstacle-filled road to obtain her bachelor's degree from the University of California, Berkeley.

Paula is glad now to have reached that pinnacle of success and enjoys her current work in education, enabled by President Barack Obama's 2012 executive action program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) that permits her, for now, to work legally without fear of deportation. (See story "Federal and state laws expand opportunities.")

But even so, the tough experiences Paula has endured, combined with anti-immigrant sentiment pervading media and politics today, stoke her chronic stress and fears about an uncertain future, not only for her but for her family, friends and young students with whom she now works.

"It's like playing a game that I could win or lose," Paula said. "Right now I'm on the winning side (with a college degree and DACA), but that could change anytime. It sucks. What good is a college degree if I'm not legal to work? A flip of the (political) coin, and it's over."

A different set of rules

What Paula and other undocumented youth learn, typically as teenagers, is that their lives are subject to a different, harsher set of rules than their classmates, and in many instances, their younger siblings born here.

These rules -- enacted by Congress as part of the nation's immigration laws -- create numerous significant obstacles for these young people in pursuing higher education, legal work and protection from deportation, as well as other barriers to full participation in American society.

"Undocumented" refers to the fact that these youth entered the U.S. without legal documentation or, having entered with lawful visas, overstayed without permission. No practical means exists for them to alter their unlawful status -- no path to permanent legal status, much less citizenship, is offered to them within the current immigration system with very few exceptions, such as for certain victims of violent crime and their family members.

While DACA and recent California legislative changes have brought many of these youth a measure of increased legitimacy and practical benefits, these legal reforms remain under attack politically -- and could be revoked depending on who is elected president or to Congress, or what a court may decide. Also, according to most undocumented youth and their allies, recent reforms, while of great benefit to many, are not nearly enough to level the legal playing field.

"The youth community feels this unfairness deeply," said Irving Rodriguez, a Stanford University senior who grew up undocumented, from age 8, in Chicago. "It's a result of politics, but it's also about racism and social xenophobia."

The wounds inflicted by stereotyping and discrimination are often what hurt youth most, according to Irving and other local undocumented young people interviewed by the Weekly. (See story "A safe haven to dream.")

While some youth, like Irving and Paula, manage to achieve at high levels despite challenges arising from their immigration status, many more do not thrive under this system and become marginalized in schools and the economy as a result, according to experts.

"I saw many talented young people giving up, sidelined, because of hurdles created by immigration status," said Mary Hofstedt, who has worked with undocumented youth in East Palo Alto and Redwood City for Stanford University's John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities.

Not only is this unfair, many experts say, but it is a loss of human capital that could otherwise benefit the communities in which these youth have grown up and been educated.

Regardless of how well they do, undocumented youth share a common yearning: They want to belong where they grew up. They say they do not understand why a different set of rules has been designed for them that make their lives infinitely more difficult or why, in their words, they are denied legitimacy, equality, a voice, a vote. Even the most resilient say they feel the strain of the extra burdens and expectations placed on them.

"I would love to be a citizen. I grew up here, my whole life. I feel more American than Mexican and have done my best to be a good citizen my whole life," said Edanet, who arrived in East Palo Alto at age 7 and is now attending the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Her perspective was common among undocumented youth interviewed by the Weekly and is reflected in national studies.

"Our data reveal a deep vein of longing for citizenship as a marker of belonging to the only country they truly know," the authors of a recent UCLA study about undocumented college students concluded.

"At some point, they are ours. We raised them; they were shaped here. They don't belong someplace else," U.C. Irvine immigration law professor Jennifer Chacon, now visiting at the Stanford Law School, told the Weekly.

In recent years, these young people have become known as "Dreamers," deriving their name originally from a bill in Congress known as the Dream Act ("Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act"), which was never enacted but would have granted legal status and a path to citizenship to many of these youth. The label has since been embraced by undocumented youth nationwide as identifying them not by the limits of their status but by the dreams they have for their futures.

Meanwhile, these undocumented youth struggle to find their place as emerging adults in a country that remains deeply ambivalent about whether they belong and what conditions to attach to their presence here. While some do better than others, few escape the high toll the current immigration system exacts from them. (See story "Educators discuss undocumented youths' challenges, resilience.")

Through personal stories told to the Weekly, local Dreamers provide a window into this legally liminal and emotionally challenging reality -- including how their immigration status impacts their identities, daily lives and aspirations and how support from sympathetic peers and adults, schools and community can do much to promote their healthy development, even in the face of extraordinary adversities.

Difficult beginnings

Local Dreamers often begin their personal stories with descriptions of migration to this country, including tales of painful family separations, physical hardships and other deprivations. Some youth were old enough at the time of migration to have firsthand memories; others recount the familiar stories they have heard others tell since childhood.

The circumstances of their "crossings" vary -- from arduous treks across the desert, to scary situations in which children are entrusted to the care of strangers paid to escort them across the border, to less dramatic arrivals by plane on a visa that is then overstayed. (See story "Undocumented youth describe migration to U.S.")

Family migration often occurs in stages, with one or both parents migrating first, resulting in prolonged family separations and added strains, according to local accounts and national studies.

For many, these early trials and traumas provide the initial frame for formation of strong beliefs in the promise of a future secured by hard work and perseverance against odds. Overcoming obstacles, many undocumented youth say, is a large part of who they are, and the seeds for this are often planted in the soil of migration, teeming as it often is with extraordinary risk and sacrifice.

Once in this country, young Dreamers face additional challenges as they begin school, learn a new language, make new friends and adjust to life in a new place, with their parents often working harder than ever to make ends meet in low-paid, physically demanding jobs.

Paula recalled arriving in East Palo Alto with her mother at age 8. Paula's father, who had been in the country for several months already, was working two jobs: roofer by day, janitor by night. Paula's mother found a job cleaning offices at night and cared for her children and home by day.

Relentless work schedules, stretched finances and constant fears of deportation were significant sources of stress for the entire family, Paula recalled.

Paula had a difficult time starting her new elementary school, given her limited English and bullying classmates. A teacher noticed her struggling and offered to help her learn English, coming in early and staying after school to tutor her. With that extra help, Paula's English improved, and she began to thrive academically.

"This teacher really saved me," Paula said.

According to national studies, schools can play a critical role in supporting young Dreamers' integration into American society. During K-12 years, undocumented youth are granted equal rights to public education under a 1982 Supreme Court decision, along with the protection of student privacy laws that prohibit schools from disclosing information to immigration authorities.

Undocumented children thus are left free to absorb -- alongside their native-born classmates -- American culture, values and expectations for the future. Over time, they become more and more closely identified with Americans, according to experts who study this population. While this K-12 "bubble" of legal insulation has its upsides -- helping to keep immigration issues at bay during early years of education and social integration -- it also contributes to setting older kids up for a fall.

"(These) young people (are left) grossly unprepared for what awaits them in adulthood," Harvard University sociologist and education professor Roberto Gonzales wrote in an article for the American Sociological Review. The inherent contradictions and confusion in trying to progress from their more protected childhood world to a harsher adult reality "make for a turbulent transition," Gonzales and other experts say.

A rude awakening

The tougher times typically begin when Dreamers start engaging in adolescent rites of passage -- like getting a driver's license, a part-time job or applying to college -- and the different and more difficult rules begin to materialize in concrete ways.

For some the discovery of their status is a total surprise; for others it's more of a gradual coming to awareness of what it means to be undocumented.

Like Paula and many others, what triggered Diana's shocking realization about her undocumented status as a junior at Gunn High School was the need for a Social Security card.

Diana (not her real name) was born in Mexico and arrived in Palo Alto at age 7. She attended Barron Park Elementary and Terman Middle schools before Gunn and now is enrolled at a nearby state university. Until her junior year, she always assumed she had the same legal rights as her classmates; her immigration status had never been mentioned by anyone (not even her family) and hadn't affected her daily life.

While she struggled as a teen with outsider feelings due to her ethnicity and low-income status, she never imagined her presence in the U.S. might not be lawful.

Like the rest of her classmates, Diana couldn't wait to get a driver's license. A Gunn friend, already licensed, offered to drive her to the DMV to apply. Diana showed her friend the paperwork she had collected, including her Social Security card. As soon as her friend saw the card, she burst out laughing.

"She mocked the card as 'fake' and called me 'illegal,'" Diana said. The friend pulled out her own card to compare; the differences were clear. Diana said this experience was "deeply humiliating" and caused her to become socially fearful, often calling in sick during her remaining days at Gunn.

Diana was also confused because her mother had given her the card so she could apply for an after-school restaurant job.

"I couldn't understand why my mother had given me a fake card," she said. The idea disturbed her, but she didn't feel she could discuss it with her mother.

As the truth began to dawn on her, Diana felt growing concern about her future. Clearly she was not going to get a driver's license. But what about college? How would she be legal to work? What if she were deported? What about her parents and siblings? For months, she wrestled, alone, with these questions.

Not everyone is caught off guard. Rossmeri arrived in East Palo Alto when she was 5 and recalls her uncle being deported when she was in fifth grade, accompanied by much family upset. Her mother took that opportunity to explain to Rossmeri about her immigration status and what it meant.

"My mom reassured me that I'm still a good person, that there's nothing to be ashamed of, but that we still can't tell anyone," Rossmeri said.

As Rossmeri watched her undocumented classmates go through the trials of discovery later in high school, she was grateful she had been told earlier and had been able to adjust to the idea before practical troubles began.

Adults who work with these youth describe a difficult position for parents in knowing when and how to discuss immigration status within the family. Many parents want to protect their children for as long as possible from bad news that might be scary, upsetting or confusing. Some hope immigration reform will occur before their child is grown, mooting the issue.

Still, at some point, one way or another, young people learn the truth about where they stand. East Palo Alto Academy social worker Maria Jose Flockhart said she talks to many students who are sad and frustrated when they realize the extent to which the legal system blocks their way, asking questions like "why me?" It's very tough, Flockhart said.

"There's a lot of growing that happens in terms of having to understand that this is your reality, and how to cope with it in a healthy way," she said. "It's definitely hard ... and many times I find myself becoming very emotional ... because I know how frustrating it is for them."

Adjusting to the new reality

Once discovered, undocumented young people must come to terms with their stigmatized, constricting immigration status. According to national studies and Weekly interviews, their reactions cover a range of emotions, and how they adapt evolves over time.

Almost all youth respond, at least initially, with some version of overwhelm, deflation or discouragement, as described by Paula, Diana and other local youth who spoke with the Weekly.

At the same time, some youth manage, like Paula and Diana, to recover their footing; instead of foundering, they find ways to intensify their commitment to high goals and refuse to give up in the face of obstacles.

Paula initially had doubts about whether college would be worth it. But with her parents' encouragement and the support of others at school and in the community, Paula began to frame her situation as a choice: She could finish high school and take a job that paid $8.50 per hour, or she could strive for a college education, learn and grow as a person, and hope for the best after that. The latter option held more appeal, despite the effort and uncertainty involved. She went for it.

Strong drives to succeed also can find root in the urge to defy expectations. As one Sequoia High School junior told the Weekly, "At first I was sad (about being undocumented), but then it all just makes me want to prove people wrong. It makes me want to strive and work harder so that I can show that I'm not a statistic, that I can succeed and that even though I'm undocumented, it can't hold me back."

Recent Palo Alto High School graduate and former Latinos Unidos Club president Bianca Aboytes, herself a citizen, described different responses she had observed: "Personally, I have seen both sides of reactions to the burdens of undocumented status. Some teens get mad, which can be good for them in finding their power." But others struggle, she said, because of family issues or just plain discouragement.

Nearly all Dreamers interviewed by the Weekly, including high-achieving ones, expressed tremendous empathy for those among them who struggle with motivation. They recognize the barriers all Dreamers face to succeeding academically and resisting the urge to cope with stress in unhealthy ways -- such as drinking, dropping out or delinquent behavior. They know that not everyone -- including possibly their siblings, cousins, friends and neighbors -- has the capacity or good fortune to pull it off, especially during adolescence, which is already loaded with developmental challenges.

Several local Dreamers also referenced the deep irony of a society that saddles its youth with these burdens and then turns to celebrate those who manage, against odds, to navigate the obstacles successfully. They believe it is unfair to expect them to "do everything right" as a condition of proving worth for inclusion.

"The odds are stacked against you, and then you're asked to be a model citizen -- or face deportation. You're asking a 17-year-old to deal with all these complicated issues. How fair is that?" Irving asked.

He recalled several undocumented friends who made youthful mistakes, with school or the law, and paid high prices, including deportation -- the type of high-stakes consequences inconceivable for anyone born here.

Flockhart and other adult allies of youth struggling with these issues urge compassion.

"I think it's important to make sure that people can empathize with those kids that don't make it. ... I think there are a lot of people, not everyone, but a lot who are very judgmental, and they don't understand really the circumstances behind each of these human beings. It's just really tough to overcome the barriers," Flockhart said.

Samuel (not his real name), now in his early 20s, has lived in Palo Alto since age 5 and hit a motivational wall his senior year at Gunn. Though he always planned on college, his grades suffered as he juggled multiple part-time jobs, amounting to 30-40 hours per week, to help with family finances. Approaching senior year, before the launch of DACA, it struck him that even if he found a way to pay for college and obtained a degree, he still would not be legal to work. The question haunted him: What was the point of all this effort?

"I envied my little brother being born here. He has it so easy," he said.

Finding critical help on the path to college

College-going Dreamers are quick to urge undocumented high school students to keep striving despite the difficulties associated with their status.

"It's hard to be motivated with so many obstacles, but you can do it. You are capable of more than people expect," Edanet, now at UCLA, tells others.

Edanet also emphasizes the importance of seeking help early on from trusted adults: It's key to maintaining motivation and making it to college. She tells her younger siblings this constantly, she said. (See story "Organizations, resources supporting undocumented youth.")

For Gunn students, one such trusted adult was Monica Espinoza, a school counselor who left last fall to work at Mountain View High School. Espinoza helped launch Gunn's "College Pathways" program in 2008 to provide college support to low-income, first-generation students, starting their freshman year. Several recent undocumented Gunn graduates spoke of the critical role Espinoza played in their lives: urging them on during low periods, pairing them with adult mentors in the community and providing nuts-and-bolts help during the college-application process.

Espinoza reported that, in 2015, all four undocumented seniors participating in Gunn's College Pathways program were headed to four-year universities with full funding in place, combining state grants and private scholarships. This is a far cry from a few years ago, before DACA and the California Dream Act went into effect, when undocumented seniors faced even more significant barriers to college financing.

In counseling undocumented students at Gunn, Espinoza said she didn't set college goals for them any differently than for other students but did prepare them for the fact that they may need to work around obstacles and/or take a different path than others to get to the same destination. Their status may make it harder to accomplish goals, she said, but they can do it, especially given recently expanded opportunities.

"Still, it doesn't really sink in until junior or senior year, and that's when a lot of fear comes out: fear about getting in, paying for it, filling out government forms, exposing themselves to a government agency. It is scary," Espinoza said.

To face and overcome these fears, Espinoza agreed that adult support is critical. (See story "College adviser to Dreamers.")

The experiences of local Dreamers at other schools also attest to the importance of adult support.

At East Palo Alto Academy, Paula began to think seriously about college when she was invited to participate, as a high school freshman, in an intensive Summer Math and Science Honors program (SMASH) for low-income students of color held on the campus of UC Berkeley during three consecutive summers. SMASH's enthusiastic support of Paula's academic promise fueled her academic success and motivation to pursue college.

Paula also found academic and social support through East Palo Alto nonprofit Foundation for a College Education (FCE), during high school, college and beyond.

"FCE was my backbone all the way through, even now," she said.

For Magali, who grew up undocumented from age 9 in Redwood City, it was middle school teachers who first pointed her educational path toward college. They recommended her for the nonprofit College Track program in East Palo Alto.

"Before that college was unimaginable," she said. Because her parents had only a grade school education, "There was a big mystery to college, beyond our reach."

"College Track became my breakthrough to everything else," said Magali, who attended Sequoia and recently graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC).

The program provided her with computer access, tutoring and an adviser who kept her on track academically and encouraged her extracurricular activities. She joined Sequoia's nascent Dream Club and also enrolled in AVID ("Advancement Via Individual Determination") at Sequoia, a college-prep class supporting underrepresented minorities nationwide.

"I was lucky and privileged to have a good number of people guiding me," Magali said. "There are many kids who don't have that kind of support, who have to work to support their families, who are losing hope, who get stuck and are not making it out."

Other Dreamers have turned to high school teachers. Angelica, now 25 and a UCSC graduate, grew up in East Palo Alto from when she was 12. When she entered Sequoia, she had hopes of college and a professional career. But her parents told her this was not possible and encouraged her instead to get married after high school.

"They thought I should not aim high in order to avoid pain and failure due to our immigration and economic status," she said.

Unwilling to give up her college dream, Angelica applied to a local college-access program but was not accepted.

"I was very discouraged after that," she said. Still she persisted and began to search within the school for other sources of support.

She eventually found Jane Slater, her English teacher, who became her main adult ally supporting her college goals.

"My resolve would go up and down, but Slater would talk me into sticking with it," Angelica said.

Javier, also a Sequoia graduate and now a San Jose State University senior, only began considering college his junior year, when an English teacher, Stacey Wenzel, encouraged him to go for it.

"She saw the potential in me," he said. "She told me: 'You can go to college and be somebody.'"

She helped him get into an AVID class and encouraged him to join the recently formed Dream Club.

"The Dream Club is where I found my sacred place, a place where I belonged, with other undocumented students and allies," he said. Club members had "big dreams," he said, which inspired him to dream big too.

"No one can take your education from you," Javier now tells younger students in presentations throughout the Bay Area as a volunteer outreach ambassador for the nonprofit Educators for Fair Consideration. But, without an education, Javier tells them, there is almost no chance of improving your life's circumstances, whatever the future might hold.

"When I was a senior in high school, there was no DACA, no California Dream Act, no nothing. But I still had hope that things might change. It turned out the changes came, and I was ready," Javier tells his young audiences.

"I see many students who are discouraged," he said. "But once they hear what I have to say, they perk up."

A new test of mettle

As a high school senior, Angelica was excited to be accepted to several four-year colleges but soon realized she couldn't afford any of them. Though she had money from two private scholarships and savings from her part-time jobs cleaning houses and working in a restaurant, it was not nearly enough.

For Angelica and other Dreamers, many traditional college funding sources are off-limits (including all federal aid, some state aid and many scholarships). Available private scholarships can be competitive, favoring top students and leaving students who must work to help their family at a disadvantage.

Angelica was disappointed at her situation -- especially as compared to her citizen classmates who were planning to go to four-year colleges with federal aid and other assistance inaccessible to her -- but remained determined to reach her goals. She adapted her plans to enroll in more affordable community college instead.

Once again Angelica's mettle was tested, a common experience for Dreamers entering college. Even as they have achieved the dream of college admission, many find themselves with yet a new set of hurdles, from financial to academic to emotional. They learn, as Angelica did, that succeeding in this environment requires grit, flexibility and willingness to seek help. Occasional good fortune is also a plus. (See story "Pursuing the rocky path to college.")

At Foothill College for three years, Angelica took a full academic load while juggling 30 to 40 hours of work per week. It was a stressful time, with much uncertainty about the future. Her grades were not great, given her workload, but she hoped they would be good enough; it turned out they were.

In 2011, Angelica was admitted to UCSC as a junior majoring in sociology. She had saved enough money to cover one quarter's tuition, about $5,000. She also had a car, which she had to drive without a license so she could return home on weekends to continue cleaning houses to cover living expenses. Her parents contributed $200 per month. She had no scholarships, as they were very difficult to obtain as a transfer student.

At the end of fall quarter, she was out of money. Her plan was to stop out winter quarter to earn spring quarter tuition; it was her only choice and one that undocumented students often must make.

But instead the holiday break brought a letter with good news. Part I of the California Dream Act had just passed, granting her eligibility for an award, which she received, from UCSC's privately funded scholarships, enough to cover the next quarter's tuition. In addition, in February, she was granted an Educational Opportunities Program (EOP) award, which required community-service hours in exchange for spring tuition aid.

With these supports, Angelica completed her junior year uninterrupted. During the summer, she moved back home to work full-time with her mom and aunt cleaning houses.

More welcome news arrived senior year. Angelica was awarded a Chancellor's Internship, allowing her to continue her EOP work in exchange for $2,733 tuition credit per quarter for the academic year. Angelica had also applied for a number of private scholarships, receiving one for $8,000. This scholarship, along with the EOP work, weekend house-cleaning and summer savings, enabled Angelica to graduate on time in June 2013.

Paula, too, faced difficulties finding college funding, but as a top East Palo Alto Academy student she eventually was awarded, just after high school graduation, a private scholarship covering four years at UC Berkeley, where she had been admitted earlier that spring.

Paula described the process of applying to private scholarships as "very scary," mainly because she had to disclose her undocumented status to complete strangers, both on the applications and during interviews. She didn't know if she could trust them, but she felt she had no choice: "This was the only chance I had to fund my college education," she said.

"I would come out of the interviews crying and shaking, afraid someone from ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) would be there in the parking lot waiting for me," she said.

Even with a full scholarship, Paula still had to return home weekends to work at a grocery store, using false identification in those pre-DACA days, to help with extra school and family expenses. She also stopped out of college more than once to work full-time for the same reasons. But for Paula, even with constant work demands, the struggle to get through college, six years in all, was as much emotional as it was financial.

Attending Berkeley, Paula had trouble fitting in. She noticed ICE agents walking around campus, feared discovery of her status and shied away from socializing. She didn't know any other undocumented students.

"I felt like I was the only one," she said.

She struggled with motivation and fought depression, questioning the point of it all.

"What if I can't put my college education to use? Even if I get my degree, then what? Who is going to hire me?" she recalled in a Weekly interview.

Many Dreamers experience similar difficulties. According to a recent UCLA study, "Undocumented college students report disproportionately high levels of stress, anxiety and fear due to their undocumented status."

The UCLA report also noted frequent feelings of shame, uncertainty and perceived discrimination, as well as feelings of isolation on campus due to fear of disclosure, fears of deportation and lack of community.

Paula's lowest point came during sophomore year, when she was rear-ended while driving in Mountain View. Police arrived and asked for identification. She had no driver's license, only a Berkeley student ID. For someone who is undocumented, this is the kind of police encounter that can easily spiral into an economic and legal disaster -- the type of situation Paula and others who are undocumented greatly fear.

Paula was handcuffed and booked on misdemeanor charges related to driving without a license. Police took mug shots, fingerprinted her and administered an alcohol test, which was negative. She was the only one at the accident scene arrested, even though not allegedly at fault. The officer treated her disrespectfully, she said, accusing her of being "illegal." She was terrified he would call ICE.

To her relief, ICE didn't come. Instead her brother arrived and arranged her release. But even then, she was horrified to learn that the family's car had been impounded for a month and would incur about $3,000 in fees. The timing was terrible as Paula's father had just lost his job. Paula also was fined $1,246, a sum she later convinced a judge to reduce to $420.

The accident and its aftermath became a lasting trauma.

"I relive it constantly; I see the whole thing in my mind over and over," she said. Her experience drove home what thin ice she was on due to her status.

After her arrest, Paula said, "I didn't want to be at college anymore. I was so tired of school and didn't know how to get motivated."

She saw her classmates enjoying privileges she knew she would never have, like studying abroad and preparing for professional careers, and the contrasts stung.

She stuck it out, though -- dragging herself through her classes -- only because she couldn't bear to tell her parents that she didn't want to go to school any longer. Eventually she graduated.

"They will never understand how hard it is, the difficulties, socially and academically," she said.

Paula now is glad she persevered but not without feeling that it shouldn't have been so difficult.

Magali and others agree. College is "not the time of our lives," Magali said. "The pressure is always there, to prove to myself, my family and my scholarship funders that I'm doing well. It's a lot of work. There is no room to mess up."

Magali also describes the high expectations, common within the undocumented community, for college graduates to help their families financially, and act as role models for younger siblings and cousins to follow.

"Everybody is looking at you," Magali said.

As a student mentor working at EOP, Magali saw many Dreamers struggling with these pressures.

"I saw them break down. They feel like a failure. 'How will I tell my parents?' they ask. They think something is wrong with them."

Empowering students to advocate for themselves in seeking resources is a large part of EOP's mission, Magali said, and can make a world of difference in boosting motivation, self-confidence and helping Dreamers find strength in community with others who are facing similar struggles.

Choosing to speak out

Feeding the isolation many Dreamers feel, and the toll it takes, is the fear of discovery.

Undocumented status traditionally has been kept secret as the most effective way to avoid risks of added stigma, discrimination and especially deportation. Sensing that anti-immigrant sentiment exists -- below the surface, if not above -- many local Dreamers do not share their secret with others, except for family and a trusted adult at school or in their college-access program.

Several Dreamers and their allies expressed specific fears, especially in Palo Alto, that disclosure of their status to classmates could lead to ICE being called.

Yet, the costs of silence are also high, and depending on circumstances, require constant re-calculation of trade-offs, which is stressful and wearing on undocumented youth, experts say.

Carrying this large secret also impacts a youth's sense of agency and worth. As one Dreamer put it: "You go from having a secret to being a secret." Hearing slurs, remaining silent and ashamed, is difficult socially and emotionally, according to local Dreamers and national experts. Many find this affects their ability to trust adults or peers at school and can inhibit close friendships with classmates.

For these reasons, a growing number of Dreamers -- especially college students like Irving at Stanford, political activists, and Sequoia's student Dream Club members -- are making the decision to "come out" on social media and before public audiences, large and small.

In so doing, many Dreamers report discovering new pride in their identities and power in speaking the truth. When Irving posted his undocumented status on Facebook freshman year, he said: "It felt good -- oh yeah. It helped me come to terms with who I am. A big part of my life has been overcoming obstacles."

Once out, Irving (one of a handful of Dreamers at Stanford) became involved in "The Dream Is Now" campaign for immigration reform, founded by Laurene Powell Jobs. His classmates were initially shocked when they learned he was undocumented but began to see, he said, "how an abstract notion translated into a personal story" with a human face.

"It was a light-bulb moment for many," he said. "It's important for people to connect with the real person" and not just the label.

In a recent article about Dreamer activists in California, University of San Francisco education professor Genevieve Negron-Gonzales wrote, "Every participant in this study identified 'coming out' as undocumented as one of the most important decisions of their lives because of pragmatic reasons but also because of the power of shared collective identity."

Personal stories also can be powerful politics, Dreamers have discovered, inspiring increased favorable media attention and building grassroots support for recent policy reforms like DACA and the California Dream Act. (See story "The Dreamer social movement.")

Negron-Gonzales concluded: "These 'coming out' campaigns (from YouTube videos to local news outlet appearances to testifying before Congress) have not only increased the visibility of the plight and struggles of a talented group of young people condemned to a marginal existence" but have served to re-frame the legal situation faced by Dreamers as a civil-rights issue.

Also, she said, these Dreamer advocates "are shifting the terrain of vulnerability, casting silence as the dangerous choice," an observation shared by other experts nationwide.

The local experience of Sequoia's Dream Club illustrates how this shift can happen. With Latinos making up nearly 60 percent of Sequoia's student population, Dream Club adviser Slater said that school and district administrators are "very publicly supportive" of the Dream Club's activities to raise awareness and scholarship funds. It is common to see posters in Sequoia's classrooms and hallways with messages like "United We Dream" and "Undocumented, Unafraid and Unapologetic" as well as other ways of showing support for Latino students generally.

Fueled by this support, the Dream Club "keeps a pretty public face," Slater said. Dream Club students tell their personal stories at conferences, local churches and school fundraisers and create videos, poems and visual art to get their message across. Personal story-telling has been one of the biggest keys to the club's fundraising and to increased community awareness and education about immigration issues, Slater said. As a result, "there has been less and less fear" over time.

One reason for less fear is that Dream Club members have learned in concrete ways how disclosure can expand rather than contract opportunities. Slater offered this example: A Dream Club student was telling her story on KQED radio a few years ago when a Sequoia alumnus heard the broadcast, called the school and offered to sponsor the student's Berkeley tuition for four years. The alumnus has since sponsored other Sequoia graduates' educations as well.

"That (first) student (graduated from Berkeley) and is now in grad school," Slater said. "It was another lesson in how you just have to be public. The more you get out there, who knows what can happen. ... There are many people who want to be supportive."

Andres Connell, executive director of East Palo Alto nonprofit Nuestra Casa, sounded a cautionary note, however: "(Telling your story) can be a very powerful thing in the right environment, or it can be very counter-productive in the wrong environment. I think in theory I'm for it, but what are the social and environmental factors ... that will then determine whether or not that concept will be fruitful for you and your family? ... I just don't think there's one model that fits all communities."

For every young person who can "own their position and not be afraid," he asked: "How many more are on the other side?"

Irving agrees that formidable barriers still exist for many Dreamers to feel and be safe in publicly disclosing their status.

"It's hard to picture the annual Dream Club conference occurring in most other places. It requires inspired and fearless youth. The power of numbers is key."

Regardless of numbers, a supportive environment, especially at school, can and should be achieved, many believe. According to Negron-Gonzales, local educators and the U.S. Department of Education, schools everywhere should be proactively demonstrating support on campus for immigrant youth, normalizing classroom conversation about immigration issues and promoting feelings of safety and inclusion for all students, including the undocumented. In Palo Alto, inclusion of Dreamer issues as part of "Not in Our Schools" week was suggested by several local Dreamers and educators.

Local educators also noted the importance of professional teacher development and training in helping to foster more supportive school environments by increasing teacher and administrator knowledge and sensitivity around immigration issues.

Rising hopes, uncertain future

Since DACA's implementation over the past three years, hundreds of thousands of eligible Dreamers have benefited from a transformed legal landscape. (See story "Undocumented immigrants: key statistics.")

Angelica is one who has lived through this pivotal change. With her DACA application wending its way through the federal bureaucracy at the time of her college graduation, she had new hope for her future but still lacked a Social Security number, work authorization, driver's license and protection from deportation. Fortunately for Angelica, it was only a few months later that her DACA papers arrived and she could seek legal employment, get her driver's license and feel safe from deportation for the first time in her life.

Paula received her DACA approval mid-way through college.

"It was such a relief to get DACA -- unbelievable to have a driver's license and Social Security number and not fear getting pulled over," Paula said. The new legal status also gave her a much-needed boost in making a final push toward graduation.

Even with its welcome benefits, DACA's significant limits still trouble many youth. The biggest concern is that many Dreamers -- often including the siblings, cousins, friends and neighbors of DACA recipients -- are not eligible for a variety of reasons that often seem arbitrary or unfairly harsh, such as the applicant is too old, dropped out of school or has a minor criminal record. Still more are left out because they can't afford DACA's $465 fee or are afraid to register with the government.

Paula's older brother, for example, narrowly missed DACA's age cutoff; she feels the unfairness and worries for him. Paula also has friends eligible for DACA but who are afraid to apply for it, not wanting the information used down the road to deport them if DACA is revoked.

Another local DACA beneficiary told the Weekly she feels terrible that her older sister, who dropped out of high school to work to help the family send her younger siblings to college, does not qualify for DACA.

Many Dreamers also object to parents being left out of the equation. Dreamers interviewed by the Weekly consistently expressed unbridled appreciation for the extraordinary sacrifices their parents have made so they could pursue their education and a better life. These now-grown children, many with DACA, don't feel right about being treated as somehow more "deserving" than their parents.

Many worry constantly that their parents will be deported.

"Every time my dad goes to work, I'm afraid," one Sequoia senior with DACA approval said.

This dilemma, where the child is protected but the parent is not, applies as well to the many U.S.-born children with undocumented parents (an estimated 4.5 million young citizens, according to national estimates).

One recent Sequoia graduate, born at Stanford Hospital, spoke of the fear that infects his family.

"My (undocumented) mom is the one who is really scared, all the time," he said.

Sequoia graduate Luis, who came to the U.S. at age 7, describes the difficult legal space he occupies within his family: "My younger brother and sister were born here. They are Americans, but I feel just as American as they are."

And while he now has DACA and attends the University of the Pacific on a full scholarship, his parents still cannot work legally and are at risk for deportation and separation from their three children.

"That's a risk that should not be there," Luis said.

For these reasons, Dreamers and their allies have strongly advocated -- in the absence of Congressional action on immigration reform -- for expansion of DACA. Obama responded in November 2014 with new executive actions that would extend DACA-like coverage to other undocumented populations, including eligible parents of citizen children, potentially affecting an estimated 5.5 million immigrants. However, federal courts in a lawsuit brought by politically conservative states, led by Texas, enjoined implementation of these measures. (See story "Federal and state laws expand opportunities.")

Last month the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal of this case with its decision expected in June. One way or the other, the result will not only impact the lives of millions but may also influence the politics of the upcoming national elections and/or later actions by a new Congress and/or president in ways that are difficult to predict, according to news reports.

In the meantime, Dreamers often describe getting a college degree as one of the most impactful acts within their power to advance the cause of immigration reform.

As educated young people seeking professional jobs -- and with more and more willing to say out loud, "I am undocumented" -- many college-going Dreamers hope to move the political needle by changing public perceptions about undocumented immigrants and motivating younger Dreamers to follow in their footsteps.

Angelica exemplifies this: For the past two-plus years, she has worked at Sequoia, encouraging students to make college plans and modeling her own experience as inspiration. During this time, she also has formulated her own plans to go to law school to become an immigrant-rights lawyer; as part of this plan, last month she left her job at Sequoia to study full-time for the LSAT. Through her ongoing volunteer work with Sequoia's Dream Club, Angelica is still an active presence in her former students' lives, as she continues to motivate them to reach for high goals.

Paula also has been working as a para-educator at a nearby high school and hopes to pursue a graduate degree in educational policy, possibly at Stanford, if she can find financial support. She, too, speaks of the positive influence she has on her younger nieces and nephews, as well as the teens she now works with, to set their sights on college.

What sustains Angelica, Diana, Irving, Javier, Luis, Magali, Paula and many other local Dreamers as they move forward with all the uncertainties through college and beyond is an abiding faith, reinforced by supportive allies including their parents, in the concept that opportunities for a more promising future will follow if they can summon the resilience to persevere whatever comes.

Still, Dreamers' highest hope remains federal immigration reform creating permanent legal residency and a path to citizenship for them and their families, and with it, a chance for them to live, for the first time, on solid ground, with equal rights and official recognition that they belong here, with their families, in the place that is their home.

WATCH: On this week's half-hour webcast, "Behind the Headlines," Stanford University student Irving Rodriguez, who grew up in Chicago as an undocumented immigrant, joins Weekly Editor in Chief Jocelyn Dong and reporter Elena Kadvany to talk about growing up undocumented.

Read more stories in this package:

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

Educators discuss undocumented youths' challenges, resilience

A safe haven to dream


Read a collection of these and other stories on our Storify page:

Growing up undocumented


Related content:

Fates of undocumented 'Dreamers' hang in balance

Immigration legislation and policy primer

Undocumented East Palo Altan aims to give others a leg up

Local nonprofit aids in Central American immigrant crisis

'Undocumented' but inspiring: Jose Antonio Vargas speaks on future of immigration policy in America

Freelance writer and attorney Terri Lobdell is married to Weekly Publisher Bill Johnson. She can be emailed at

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382 people like this
Posted by Unbelievable Propoganda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 12, 2016 at 9:16 am

This article is completely biased and one-sided. The author fails to provide any balance to the reasons why anybody would oppose unlimited illegal immigration. Of course, it uses children to cloak the issues in emotion and reinforces the position that the only reasons to object must be racism and xenophobia rather than the cost to our society and loss of respect for the rule of law.

[Portion removed.]

343 people like this
Posted by Not P C
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 12, 2016 at 10:02 am

This article is completely one-sided and biased. Not everyone in Palo Alto supports illegal immigrants and the benefits that they now enjoy. It is pretty obvious our politicians who tried to set up a legal system for immigration 20 years ago were outsmarted by lobbyists and Big Business that used cheap labor for greater profits. You may wonder who has to pay the price......all the children of US middle class families that can't make enough money, not good jobs, financial insecurity,can't afford to send their kids to college. [Portion removed.]

363 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 12, 2016 at 10:10 am

My spouse and I are living here and raising children here legally. We are not US citizens but we have done all that is necessary and proper to live here. We did not come to sponge off the US. We did not come to escape from our own country. We came for professional career reasons.

It is not easy to come here legally, but it seems it is very easy to come here illegally. Why should those who come here illegally get more than what we get who did it by legal channels. We had to get immigration lawyers, do medicals, prove job, and other things, all of which cost us time and money.

It is wrong that those who choose to do things illegally are expecting more respect than those of us who are doing the right thing.

343 people like this
Posted by Nayeli P.
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 12, 2016 at 11:00 am

Nayeli P. is a registered user.

Illegal immigration is a crime. It should remain a crime. It cheapens what so many other immigrants (like myself) have worked so hard for.

314 people like this
Posted by Jon Parsons
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 12, 2016 at 11:30 am

Jon Parsons is a registered user.

Wait a minute ... you mean there are consequences, albeit only angst it seems, for sneaking into a foreign country and living there illegally? Starting today, let's all do only whatever validates our own little slice of reality.

41 people like this
Posted by PV Resident
a resident of Portola Valley
on Feb 12, 2016 at 11:32 am

PV Resident is a registered user.

Although all four of the above opinions are completely valid, it's also completely valid -- and very interesting -- to read about some of the personal hardships and coping mechanisms that our current immigration laws and policies have spawned. Articles like this contribute to the conversation about how to fix the problems.

315 people like this
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 12, 2016 at 4:42 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

[Portion removed.] I have discussed this with a sibling - in - law who is from Canada and wants to have citizenship in the U.S.A. The sibling and the in-law have spent over 5 thousand dollars just to get a green card so this sibling-in -law can work in this country legally!
A highly educated sibling that never sponged off the taxpayers!
So these people have angst about their future? [Portion removed.]
There is a long line of people wanting to become U.S. citizens and you cut in front of that line [portion removed.]
We have had two amnesties before and both promised that there would be no more amnesties!
[Portion removed.]

42 people like this
Posted by MiMi
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 12, 2016 at 4:55 pm

MiMi is a registered user.

I am stunned at the hatred and hostile comments posted here.
The young people represented all came when very young. They have worked hard, and will likely contribute significantly if given a chance. Why should they be punished for having been brought here when young? Can you imagine being deported back to a country you have not seen since you were 5 or 6 years old? "They want to belong where they grew up."
The attitudes expressed so far do NOT reflect the Palo Alto I grew up in, and raised my children in. I am a 65 year old who has lived here since 1958. It saddens me to see what has happened to my community. The small mindedness, the exclusivity. I am a professional, but would not be able to afford moving here today. Nonetheless, I honor these young people who are working hard to achieve a better life in the country and culture they have grown up in.
We need immigration reform, but I believe in the Dreamers.
I will sign my true name to this post.

30 people like this
Posted by GraceBrown
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 12, 2016 at 7:00 pm

GraceBrown is a registered user.

Many dreamers come through my classroom at Paly. Those of us who are paying attention go the extra mile (s) for these young people. See, that's the thing - in a public school classroom, children are not held accountable for the "sins of the father." All involved have learned how to speak in code - knowing that our kiddos face insane barriers, we tend to function as something of an underground railroad.

Who ever said teaching was for the lazy, incompetent, sucking-at-the-public-teat slacker? Oh, that's right, the PAUSD BOE and the privileged 1% er's that that they represent.

Thank goodness for Ms. Lobdell's reporting - Grace

346 people like this
Posted by Don Honda
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 12, 2016 at 7:34 pm

Don Honda is a registered user.

Illegal is Illegal is Illegal. This does not involve any Racism, Xenophobia, Nativism, Hatred, etc. and so on. These "Dreamers" can only blame their parents who brought them here, knowing that it is illegal and the hardships that it would create. The problem lies in the belief that another amnesty will happen. Also, Obama and Gov. Brown has made it more difficult for "Dreamers" because they are giving them false hope for political gain. Obama has insisted many times before he realized that he can use this wedge issue for political coin, that he could not do legally what he attempts to do now. Then when anyone opposes his actions, he calls them heartless, etc.

Most US Citizens want an end to Illegal Immigration. Most US Citizens do not want to give any further incentives for Illegal Aliens to stay. Illegal Aliens are getting social services that US Citizens and Legal Immigrants cannot get.

You are being used as a political pawn. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you can decide to take the free education you got here and go back with your family to your home country. There you can make a difference and make life better for your family and fellow countrymen. Otherwise, you are responsible for subjecting yourself to frustration, disappointment, and being treated as a second-class person by your own "legal" relatives, US Citizens, and Legal Immigrants. Sorry. That's the truth.

311 people like this
Posted by Don Honda
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 13, 2016 at 8:08 am

Don Honda is a registered user.

After all this, can US Citizens just expect a slap in the face for a thank you?

Reuben Navarette states it well in this article:

Web Link

Ruben Navarrette: One Dreamer’s missed lesson in good character

320 people like this
Posted by It Never Ends
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 13, 2016 at 10:05 am

It Never Ends is a registered user.

According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency, for the last fiscal quarter between Oct. 1st, 2015 and January 31st, 2016 at least 20,455 unaccompanied minors (age 0-17) were apprehended on our southwest border.

That number is up 102% from the same period last year and does not include children detained with their families or ones that made it through undetected. Who knows how many actually arrive but many estimates assume between 80,000 to 100,000 per year.

Our current immigration policy encourages this tragedy. With new laws in California, illegal immigrant children are entitled to health care, schooling, in state tuition for our universities and drivers licenses. Sanctuary cities also typically do not prosecute immigration infractions even for criminals nor notify immigration agencies. The DREAM act if passed would not only grant them legal status but also eventual full voting citizenship.

At this scale, illegal immigration undermines our sovereignty, our rule of law and has enormously strained our economic system. It is also a major factor in the hallowing of our middle class, growing wealth inequality, higher taxes and insufficient resources for social services.

Despite the obvious costs and risks of an open border, any opposition no matter how small or rational or objective is quickly labeled as racist, xenophobic or uncaring. That attitude which is blatantly represented in this article only serves to alienate the existing citizenry and slow down real immigration reform.

266 people like this
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 16, 2016 at 4:22 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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