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Beyond the DREAMers: Undocumented Students Tell Complex Stories

While Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) has been a game-changer for undocumented students, that’s not the whole story, stressed four young organizers involved in immigrant rights advocacy, who presented at EWA’s 69th annual National Seminar.

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Last month, The Washington Post ran a front-page profile about Edwin Ordoñez: a high school valedictorian who swam across the Rio Grande with his father at age 9. Now he has protection from deportation and is choosing between admissions and scholarship offers from Emory, Williams and Princeton.

While the Post’s story made an overlooked point—that only the colleges with the deepest pockets can come up with enough scholarship money to cover the level of need for students like Ordoñez—it largely conformed to the standard narrative about DREAMers (immigrants who meet the general requirements of the failed Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act): They’re hardworking, extremely talented young people, mostly from Mexico and Central America, for whom Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) has been a game-changer.

While DACA has been a game-changer for undocumented students, that’s not the whole story, stressed four young organizers involved in immigrant rights advocacy, who presented at EWA’s 69th annual National Seminar. The panelists called on reporters to deepen their coverage of the challenges these students face: a patchwork of state policies affecting college admissions and financial aid, limits on whom DACA protects and the unanswered question of how to make an adult life in a country ambivalent about their presence. Their own stories showed the diversity of background and life experience among undocumented students, and they made a passionate case for reporters to look more deeply at both the issues and the people involved.

“There’s not one singular narrative, geographically or otherwise. Our stories haven’t been told,” said Ainslya Charlton, a Trinity College student and leader with the UndocuBlack Network.

Nor is there a single path to becoming an undocumented immigrant. While lots of political attention focuses on immigrants illegally entering the U.S. from the south, large numbers of immigrants arrive legally from all over the world and become undocumented when their visas expire.

That’s what happened to Harvard sophomore Jin Park and his family. They arrived from South Korea when Park was 7 years old. He didn’t know until high school that his family’s application for permanent residency had been rejected, and they had all overstayed their visas. Under current immigration law, people in that situation who leave the U.S. are required to stay away for 10 years before they can reapply for a visa to return.

Park only discovered his undocumented status when he applied for an internship at a hospital and was told, “We don’t allow illegal aliens to participate.” When he applied to college, he asked two different people on the same day whether the school admitted undocumented students. The first person said yes; the second, no.

“You cannot get a straight answer from admissions teams about these things,” Charlton agreed. In her case, finding scholarships proved doubly difficult. First, undocumented students are ineligible for all federal aid and many private scholarships. On top of that, some of the private scholarships open to undocumented youth are earmarked for Hispanic students.

“It came to a point where I was like, ‘Maybe I’m not going to college,’” she said. Thanks to the Posse Foundation and institutional aid from Trinity, she was able to go and is graduating this month.

Charlton is originally from Jamaica and encouraged reporters to look more deeply into the experiences of undocumented black people. Although she has participated in the immigrant rights and Black Lives Matter movements, “It feels as though I’m on the margins of both,” she said.

Like Charlton, Erendira Calderon is graduating this May from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she is a member of the student group Fearless Undocumented Alliance. Her college journey has spanned two states and eight years.

Calderon and her family arrived in Illinois from Mexico City in 1998, and she attended public schools in the suburbs of Chicago. When she graduated from high school, her father’s kidneys failed, and the whole family moved to California to be with her married older sister. Both states have long-established tuition equity laws.

But in California, Calderon was permanently ineligible for in-state tuition because she had spent her high school years in Illinois. Like all the other state laws affecting tuition prices for undocumented immigrants, California’s provides in-state college tuition only to those undocumented students who attended and graduated from its own K-12 schools.

For six years, Calderon alternated between full-time college and full-time work to pay her community college tuition, and later, a year at Berkeley. Finally, a family friend co-signed a loan with her so she could finish her last two years in Illinois, where she is eligible for in-state tuition.

Now, Calderon worries about her future and the future of DACA. “Elections are coming up. We don’t know if DACA will still exist. We know it could be taken away” depending on who wins, she said. Without it, she would be unable to work legally.

Even as is, DACA is not a solution for all undocumented youth. Strict residency requirements, minor legal offenses and fears of increased risk of deportation keep many people from applying for it.

Hefty fees also play a role. It costs $465 to apply for DACA, and the same fee is charged to renew the protection every two years. “Look for people who have had DACA revoked, and ask why,” advised activist and Miami Dade College student Jose Machado.

“In the Asian community, less than half of DACA-eligible residents applied,” said Park. (For more on this topic, check out this brief from Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrant Refugees.) “In Flushing [New York], the information just isn’t present.” Many undocumented people are still hesitant to reveal their status publicly, even if it might help them find resources.

The panelists applauded journalists they had encountered who listened to their stories with sensitivity. Machado’s story was reported in 2014 by the session’s moderator, Christine Armario of The Associated Press, and he found the interview process cathartic. “After a few sessions with Christine, I cried,” he said, “It was hard to relive sometimes.”

But they were also keenly aware of the issues created when journalists thought they knew such students’ stories already, and the panelists found it frustrating.

“People are telling me my story before I get out my story,” Charlton said. She had the experience of sharing part of her story with a reporter, who didn’t ask her why she came to the U.S. and simply assumed it was due to economic hardship.

In reality, Charlton and her family came to take care of her grandparents, who were in failing health. “Try to stay away from filling in the blanks,” she advised. “Ask the person themselves about it.”

“Let the DREAMers tell their story the way they experienced it,” Park said  “There are so many fine-grained, detailed ways people experience undocumented status the media hasn’t explored and could go.”