Not From There: The Undocumented series part two

By Keith Hernandez

 Editor’s note: “Not From There” is a four-part series in which undocumented students at NIU shed light on their struggles, successes and fears in the wake of a presidential administration that has threatened to take away renewable protections that allow tens of thousands of undocumented students to avoid the possibility of deportation for two years and deny federal funding to sanctuary cities—cities that do not report arrests of undocumented immigrants to federal officials, depending on the severity of the crime. Part 2 follows Clara, name changed to protect its identity.

DeKALB — The difference between Clara and a natural-born United States citizen is three months in a legal sense.

Like other American millennials, she grew up watching “Arthur,” listening to Britney Spears and reading “Harry Potter.” She graduated high school in Chicago and went to NIU to improve her family’s economic mobility, she said.

“I never wanted to be without a home or without my own place,” Clara said. “I never wanted to live in poverty when I was older.”

But time was not on Clara’s side when she was born; neither was the law. Her place of birth provided a lifetime of challenges.

Her father left Mexico to pursue better job prospects in the United States, and her mother followed three months after Clara was born. Their journey was not a legal one, but it afforded her the opportunity to exit poverty by pursuing an education.

Clara is an undocumented student. She said she wished to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions against her family, who are not protected under Deferred Action for Early Childhood Arrivals as she is.

DACA allows certain undocumented immigrants who came to the United States at a young age to avoid deportation through prosecutorial discretion and gain work authorization, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration services website.

First of many challenges

Clara’s first conflict as an undocumented student was entering the public school system. Her parents were told by the Cook County elementary school they lived near she could not be enrolled because she did not have a birth certificate, she said.

Her father was not able to resolve the issue until a few years later when he found out about a Supreme Court ruling, Plyler v. Doe, that allows anyone to pursue a K-12 education regardless of immigration status and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which makes it illegal to give away information from students’ records to immigration officials.

Getting into the classroom was one problem; understanding what was being taught was another.

“I felt a sense of exclusion not being able to talk to other students in the class,” Clara said. “I remember being in the classroom not knowing what my teacher was saying, sitting kind of in the corner kind of, like, trying to entertain myself because I had no idea what was going on. Because of this behavior I was displaying, they thought I had a learning disability.”

A psychological evaluation ruled out the learning disability, so she was placed in a separate classroom with two students who themselves spoke different languages so the school could focus on teaching her English, Clara said.

A language program in which English literacy is the primary focus is what James Cohen, NIU assistant professor in literacy education, calls a “subtractive program.” Children who go through a program that is subtractive do not become literate in their native language, though they may still speak and understand it, which has an adverse effect on familial relationships, Cohen said.

“The parents are learning English very slowly; the kids are picking up English really fast, and they’re responding to the parents in English,” Cohen said. “Eventually there becomes a major miscommunication gap that kids don’t get the same closeness or connectivity oftentimes that the parents would like, and the kids often times get embarrassed because of the parents not speaking English.”

This gap adversely affects parental participation in school as well, said Billy Hueramo, Littlejohn Elementary School principal. Spanish speaking parents who rely on their children for translation do not always get complete pictures on their children’s performance because not all school officials are bilingual, Hueramo said.

After high school

It was because of DACA that Clara was able to go to NIU without fear of deportation. The university is where she said she found others like her and learned to use her voice to help undocumented immigrants.

“There were other students in my classes that were undocumented, so because I found out other people were, it gave me the opportunity to share my experience with them, and we kind of just talk amongst ourselves about how we wish had known about each other and our statuses when we were in high school,” Clara said. “Being a college student, knowing English and just having more knowledge, I feel like I owe it to everyone else to raise my voice and speak.”

Before the executive order was signed by former President Barack Obama in 2012 that instated DACA, there were no such protections for young adults who had remained in the United States after graduating high school.

Roberto Gonzales, associate professor in education at Harvard University, wrote in a 2011 article published in the American Sociological Review that the undocumented status among the more than 2 million young adults who were brought to the United States as children placed them in a state of “transitional limbo” while developing into adulthood.

“As family need requires them to make significant financial contributions and to assume considerable responsibility for their own care, they become less likely to linger in adolescence,” Gonzales wrote. “At the same time, legal restrictions keep them from participating in many adult activities, leaving them unable to complete important transitions.”

A little more than half of the participants aged 20 to 30 who Gonzales interviewed for his research were college students, and the other half were those who exited the school system during or after graduating from high school due to the lack of financial resources to pursue further education, among other reasons, he wrote.

While DACA allows undocumented students to remain in the United States, it does not ease the financial burden of a post-secondary education; however, a bill brought to the floor of the Illinois General Assembly in 2015 would allow undocumented students to receive federal financial aid.

The proposed legislation, Access to College and Career-Education for Statewide Success, would not increase funding for state scholarship programs, but give universities the authority to offer federal aid to students regardless of their immigrant status, according to the bill.

 Keith Hernandez is a staff writer. He can be reached at