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A glimpse at the life of an immigrant student

Jessica in Pilsen

Jessica came to the U.S. from Mexico with her family when she was two years old. She doesn’t have the legal documents to live here – she’s an unauthorized immigrant. A good student who graduated at the top of her class, she said “college was never really a question.” A college counselor at her high school helped her find scholarships she was eligible for, but there weren’t many. Unauthorized students can't apply for most federal or state aid. Still, she was able to apply for more than 20 scholarships.

The 18-year-old was accepted at Cornell University, an Ivy League school. However, she couldn’t go because of a procedural error. Going to a school so far from her Chicago home would have been dangerous, she said, “I can’t leave my family here. What if I get caught on the way there?”

She is now a freshman at DePaul University, but said she doesn’t know how to pay for her second year. With her friend Joselin, she organizes college counseling sessions for students at her old high school. Financing their education is the biggest challenge for unauthorized students, researchers say. “These students are not given options,” Jessica said. “To work, they would have to work illegally. And to go to school, it’s just kind of not possible for them. How are they gonna pay for it?”

It’s a Mexican tradition to erect altars for the dead on the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen included an altar for the DREAM Act, a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for some young unauthorized immigrants. in its fall 2009 exhibit. “These dreams do die,” said Jessica, who was amazed that the museum made this altar. “That was just so powerful,” she said. “It shows that they know what we’re going through.”

Jessica often talks to people about the legal limbo she finds herself in. In her public speaking class, she told classmates that two times the student population of DePaul graduates each year without chances for a future (Researchers put the number of unauthorized students who finish a U.S. high school each year at about 65,000). She also attends public conferences on immigration issues, such as this one at DePaul University in October 2009. “I’ve been doing this (speaking publicly) for a while and I’m pretty comfortable doing it,” she said, adding that she carefully considers whether it’s safe for her to say her full name.

In fall 2009, friends and advocates staged a campaign to halt the deportation of Rigoberto Padilla, a 22-year old student. Here, Jessica attends a rally at the Chicago city council in his support. During the campaign, Padilla and some of his friends founded the Immigrant Youth Justice League to connect young immigrants across Chicago. Jessica is a member of the youth group.

Jessica pours paint to create banners for a demonstration on March 10. The league of young immigrants organized the rally, where seven of them publicly announced their status. On the banner, they painted the words “Undocumented and Unafraid.”

Without legal action such as the DREAM Act, Jessica’s situation remains fragile. “My dream is still up there,” she said. “I’m just guarding it and trying to make it a reality, but there’s just so many bars that keep coming… This is to be the land of opportunity, but what happens to it?”

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3 Comments
  1. International Dreamers permalink

    Sabemos que todo es posible! tu puedes Jessica y todos nosotros tambien…
    Gracias por apoyarnos :’)

    Departe de International Dreames

  2. Tanya Cabrera permalink

    Jessica is one in a million who fight the good fight on the daily. It is truly up to us to recognize these students aspirations and make college and life here a reality for them. Make no mistake, they are here to stay, brown, yellow, black and white. I am tired of Immigration Reform being on the back burner, it’s an issue that I support on all fronts because of students like her. Jessica, along with others provide hope to the rest of the students here. Adelante Mija!

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