Laura was born and raised in Mexico City until age four, when her family migrated to rural Washington state. As a result of her undocumented status, she has faced several legal and financial barriers in her pursuit of an education. In spite of these hurdles, Laura was able to complete college in her home state before moving to Chicago for a master’s degree in higher education administration. But many undocumented students don’t end up like Laura. For that reason, and many others, she has become a passionate advocate for undocumented students. Laura has turned her challenges and successes into a platform from which she hopes to motivate others to create change for the undocumented population. Now in D.C., Laura is a coordinator of the DREAM Educational Empowerment Program (DEEP) at United We Dream, where she helps to create networks of educators who are prepared to help their undocumented students succeed.
What has your family's experience been as undocumented immigrants? What inspired you to become involved as an advocate for yourself and so many other young people?
For these reasons and because of the barriers that I faced in my pursuit of higher education, I decided to dedicate my education, passion, and time to advocate for the millions of undocumented people hoping to also pursue an education. I want them to reach their academic and career goals, to attend a school where educators understand the barriers they are facing, and to no longer be the only undocumented student in a school that has no idea how to support them. I want to influence administrations and educators to publicly state that they believe in me, in us, in our personal success, and in the success of our nation.
I also want other young people to be able to continue to help their families and have more stability. After countless years of my parents’ sacrifices, I can now actually contribute financially and -- to some extent -- provide them a peace of mind. At the ages of 74 and 68, my parents can now enjoy growing old, something that seems so natural for many but is so unattainable and unrealistic for many undocumented families.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions that the general public has about the undocumented population and your advocacy movement? How can we work to correct those misconceptions?
One of the biggest misconceptions that the general public has about undocumented folks is that we deserve the injustices that we are facing because we didn’t get “in line.” Believe me, if there existed such a pathway to residency or citizenship, families would have begun that process years ago. Under the current system, the only way that I can get legal status is if I were to get married to a U.S. citizen or wait for laws like the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act or Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) to pass. I think it is also important to note that families that have applied for legal status are waiting in long lines because there is reportedly a backlog of cases. So can anyone really “wait in line”? No, not in my opinion and experience.
Approximately how many undocumented people are in the D.C. area and affected by our country's immigration laws?
Nationally the undocumented population is estimated to be from 11 to 11.5 million, and about 25,000 undocumented immigrants live in D.C. Immigration advocacy in D.C. is comprised of youth and national organization leaders. Leaders focus on meeting with representatives on Capitol Hill and attending events as a way to continue or introduce dialogue about the issues faced by immigrants. Many actions are led by youth from surrounding states such as Maryland and Virginia as well as national leaders.
What specific initiatives are you working on with United We Dream? What are your hopes and concerns for the future of this movement and immigration reform at large?
As the DEEP coordinator one of the main things that I am focusing on this year is launching DEEP centers. These centers build a network with local educators to increase undocumented immigrant success. Through these centers, our affiliates educate their community on the rights and laws that influence undocumented students (in-state tuition, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), access to scholarships and state aid, college application processes, and a general understanding of the college system and structure, etc.).
In the future I hope that our movement becomes more connected and works alongside other movements such as the educational rights movement and movements against poverty, capitalism, and racism. As an undocumented immigrant and low-income woman of color, I cannot fight for immigrant issues without addressing and acknowledging that some issues faced by immigrants are because of poverty and institutional racism. My well-being is not only tied to one aspect of myself but rather, it is the result of the interconnectedness of my community, larger global systems, and my life.
As for the future of immigration reform at large, my concern is that many individuals will be disappointed once immigration reform passes. Many do not understand that not all 11- 11.5 million undocumented folks will be able to benefit from it and that it will be a long, arduous process to citizenship because of fines, educational requirements, and other life circumstances. Moreover, many people may not understand why we will continue to fight for rights to health care and financial aid, among others. Immigration will always be an issue because people want to thrive and provide a better life for their families; if that is not possible in their home countries, they will migrate to where it is more possible.
Opponents of immigration reform might say that undocumented students should return to their home countries to go to school/college. Why don't they (especially if they're not able to get into college here)? Why is it important they continue their studies here?
When opponents of immigration reform say that I should go back to my home country to pursue higher education there, they are telling me to leave my family behind and disregard the sacrifices that my community, parents, and I have made over the years. They are expecting me to uproot myself and learn how to navigate the educational system in Mexico, a place that I have familial and cultural ties to but didn’t grow up in. When opponents of immigration reform tell my community and me that I can’t get into college, I tell them that I can -- and that we can --because there is no federal law that states that undocumented students cannot seek higher education. (We just aren’t often eligible for financial aid.) Undocumented children who wish to attend and pursue education here in the United States should have the right to access and success; we should have the right to stay with our families and continue to the communities that have invested in us and that we have grown up in.
Amanda Klein is a community school coordinator in Baltimore, and her Q&As with local education leaders are a regular Recess feature. Send her your suggestions for future interviews via email.