A real-life look into the path to citizenship
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A young generation of undocumented persons, who once crossed the U.S.–Mexico border because their parents did, are speaking out about their illegal status creating perpetual obstacles—in one case, the ability to earn a Ph.D.
The official letter printed on the nice paper should’ve only meant good news for Carolina Valdivia.
After months of waiting, the door to her doctoral degree in sociology had swung wide open. One of the country’s most prestigious schools, The University of Chicago, said yes to Carolina. The offer was incredible. A full ride: tuition and a stipend.
And yet those familiar, nagging questions resurfaced. How could Carolina save enough before leaving to afford flights back home to Escondido? How could she help support her family if she was studying full-time, half a continent away?
And what about the all-caps warning on her Social Security card, the implied expiration date?
VALID FOR WORK ONLY WITH DHS AUTHORIZATION.
Twelve years after crossing the border, the invisible walls of life in the United States couldn’t have been more real.
Carolina Valdivia is an undocumented immigrant. So is her older sister, Diana. Carolina is 24 and chic, all dresses and lavender toenails and big sunglasses. Diana is 25 and leans hipster: dark-rimmed glasses, fedora, jeans.
They don’t have green cards, but they do have curriculum vitae. Both earned bachelor’s degrees from California State University San Marcos and master’s degrees from San Diego State University. Both want to earn Ph.D.s and become professors.
They want to plan their futures, but they have two-year deportation deferrals that expire next year and no defined route to citizenship. They expect to be able to renew the deportation deferrals, but that process is as yet undefined.
Carolina and Diana are Dreamers, named after the failed federal DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), which would’ve created a path to citizenship for them and the capproximately 2 million young people living in the United States today whose families came to this country without legal authorization. They are children who weren’t given a choice. Their parents crossed, so they did, too.
They’re in the vocal generation of undocumented immigrants that’s emerged from the shadows, using their own success stories as an advocacy tool. The movement is led by prominent figures like Pulitzer Prize winner Jose Antonio Vargas, who’ve helped redefine the undocumented label. They’re part of the first generation of undocumented immigrants using social media to create political pressure, says Tom K. Wong, an assistant professor at UC San Diego who specializes in immigration policy and knows Carolina and Diana.
“Social media has made coming out more of an accepted, and, in some cases, expected type of action and social protest among undocumented youth,” Wong says. “Coming out doesn’t have the same negative consequences as it has in the past. [Social media] isn’t something undocumented immigrants had in the past. They weren’t connected in a way that they found allies easily and in a way that their individual plights and circumstances could raise to the level of national attention.”
In the immigration reform debate, both parties generally support citizenship for people like Carolina and Diana. But Congress hasn’t yet created a path for them.
Carolina and Diana came here carrying toys and clothes and nothing more. It was October 2001. Tourist visas that had been a ticket for back-to-school shopping trips between their home in Mexicali and El Centro suddenly became something more.
Carolina was 12. Diana was 13. Enough time has passed that the memory is a fragmented collage. Say goodbye to your friends, their parents told them.
These are the things that now, so many years later, they still remember: Doubting their parents’ promise. Not wanting to leave. Crying. Driving Interstate 8, successfully passing a Border Patrol checkpoint. Arriving in a bare Escondido apartment and sleeping for weeks on a floor with blankets but no beds. Coming to a foreign place that didn’t seem so foreign.
They crossed after September 11, 2001, after the terrorist attacks that refueled the country’s vitriolic border security debate. But when they arrived, Carolina and Diana didn’t feel like undocumented immigrants.
They were just middle schoolers who spoke as much English as they’d learned singing along with Avril Lavigne and the Backstreet Boys, living in another Southern California city filled with kids just like them.
They would grow into the label, but not yet.
As children, the United States had never been far away. They’d lived in border cities, Mexicali and Ciudad Juarez, affluent enough to be able to afford shopping trips north of the border. They’d traveled to see an uncle in Los Angeles.
Visiting was a privilege. But this country wasn’t an idea, an object of envy, a gold-paved cliché. It was where Wal-Mart and Target were. Where Michael Jordan played for the Bulls, their father’s favorite NBA team. Where they could feast on Mrs. Fields cookies, where Carolina could eat at her favorite spot, a fast-food restaurant she adored so much she wanted to be renamed Carolina Wendy Valdivia.
“The two countries almost blended at the border for me,” Carolina says. “A lot of things were different, but there were similarities I hung on to. It was normalized: It’s fine if you just show your visa, go through, and come back that day. I didn’t think anything about being in a foreign state.”
Carolina and Diana didn’t feel different, even when they started school in Escondido. They took classes together, surrounded by other English learners. They only had to survive phys ed classes with everyone else.
They didn’t feel strange.
They didn’t yet know why they should.