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Dreams Deferred

A real-life look into the path to citizenship


(page 2 of 4)

Diana Valdivia
Carolina ValdiviaDiana Valdivia (top) and Carolina Valdivia (bottom)

Today, they recall dozens of scenes from being undocumented, from realizing they were undocumented.

Diana turns 16, then Carolina follows. Their friends get drivers’ licenses. They don’t.

Carolina is in high school, heading to a quinceañera in Temecula with the family of a boy she’s just started dating. She knows they’ll pass a Border Patrol checkpoint en route, so she confesses her status in the car. Her boyfriend hadn’t known. His father is incensed. A week later, they break up. (Because the boyfriend’s mother didn’t want him dating, not because of her status, she says.)

Diana, the first in her family to go to college, watches as her friends apply to Berkeley, Santa Barbara, Irvine. She gets accepted at Cal State Fullerton. She’s excited. Then reality sets in. She doesn’t have a license to drive there and back home, or even a car. She chooses Cal State San Marcos, close to Escondido, instead.

A year later, Carolina is accepted at UC Santa Cruz, travels there on an organized bus trip, tours the campus, and is convinced she’d love to attend. But she doesn’t have a car, either. Or an ID to travel by air. Or the ability to get a job legally. She can’t get a school loan unless a U.S. citizen co-signs it. She chooses Cal State San Marcos, too.

Carolina finds a retail job to pay for school. She works there a month before they summon her to the office and say her name and Social Security number don’t match. If you ever have the ability to come work, we’d love to have you, they tell her. She goes home in tears.

Fast-forward to Carolina’s second year of undergrad. She is one of four people chosen to travel to Washington, D.C., to give a presentation on the DREAM Act, the failed federal legislation.

But paperwork needs to be completed, and it asks for her Social Security number and identification, which she doesn’t have. So she can’t go.

The fear, the frustration of not having papers surfaces again and again.

Carolina, driving to work one day during her junior year, gets a few blocks from her house when another car runs a stoplight and slams into her. She blacks out. As she’s regaining consciousness, neighbors come running. Smoke is pouring out of the car. Guys help pry open the door, shouting for her to get out.

And all Carolina can think is that she needs a phone to call home, to find out what to do. The cops are coming, and she isn’t here legally, living in a city that coordinates checkpoints with federal authorities to find people like her. She remembers thinking, amid her panic: Are they going to take me?

The police arrive and ask if she has a license. No, she says. They ask if she needs to go to the hospital. No, she says. She doesn’t have health insurance and imagines how expensive an ER trip would be. She isn’t arrested, though, winding up instead with a misdemeanor and a fine.

These scenes punctuate their time in college and grad school. Dodging police checkpoints. Worrying when a cop was nearby. So much so that Carolina and Diana both began feeling trapped. The U.S.–Mexico border, the line that once blurred two countries, became a dividing line—between life here, and the life and family they left behind. They were fearful to even go near it.

“It’s totally different now,” Carolina says. “We know where the border is, exactly how far it goes, exactly what it means physically and emotionally. The border doesn’t blend in. It’s very present. It symbolizes what we can’t have.”

“Mexico is right there,” Diana says. “But it’s not.”

With Border Patrol checkpoints on every major interstate, they carved out a niche between San Diego and Escondido, knowing where they could and couldn’t go, borders within the border. The older they got, the more they began identifying with lyrics written by Los Tigres Del Norte, a popular Mexican-American band, particularly the song “La Jaula de Oro”—the Golden Cage.

What’s money good for, if I live like a prisoner in this great nation.

When I’m reminded of this, I cry. Although this cage is made of gold, it’s still a prison.

That’s slowly changing, as laws improve for undocumented immigrants like Carolina and Diana. By their second year of grad school, California had made it legal for them to receive state financial aid. And though the federal government hasn’t created a path to citizenship, it did create the temporary deportation deferral program that allows them to work legally.

And though they didn’t get them at 16, Carolina (then 23) and Diana (then 24) finally received drivers’ licenses last December.


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