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Her Story: I’m an Illegal Immigrant at an Ivy League School


In my earliest memories, I am spinning. My eyes are glued to a sea of stormy skies and beneath my feet the packed earth smells of the coming rain. I am in Mexico. I am surrounded by laughter, and I bathe happily in the warmth of my family’s bubbling Spanish speech. I am home.

Then, life goes on fast-forward. My father had been in the United States for the first eight years of my life, visiting only a couple times per year, before deciding it was time that our family should be reunited. I remember my mother asking me if I wanted to go the U.S. I remember, more importantly, only thinking how exciting it would be to have a family that was always together. Months later, our suitcases were packed, and we passed the border as my little sister and I napped in the backseat of a car. We entered illegally into the United States, though then, as now, I did not understand how a human being could be illegal. All I knew was that I would have my mother and my father in this wondrous place talked about in longing whispers back home. Oh, but no, I had to remind myself, this was my home now.

do you speak english illegal immigration

Nothing was harder than being submerged unaware into a sea of cold English syllables. In the days before coming to the U.S., my mother had proudly shown me my Mexican report card. I had perfect grades. It was then with incredible confusion that I saw my English scores in the United States sink dismally low. But I learned, because I had to. I learned English at what I’m told was a remarkable pace. I became a little prodigy, and I proved to myself and to my mother that I was still smart and that I could not only float but swim in this foreign American culture. I was in all the advanced classes offered at my school. Simply because of the rural South’s lack of diversity, all of my friends were white, and for years I struggled to balance being a normal "American" girl with the silent demands from my family that I remain Mexican. But I felt American.

It was so easy to pretend for years that everything was normal. I was in high school, and I had a boyfriend. I won academic awards, and I was thought to be a good artist in my community and in school competitions. None of my friends or teachers knew I was undocumented, and I led a very sheltered life, never actually feeling the sting of prejudice that I know many people in my position have dealt with. I did not have a driver’s license, but I never needed one. After all, my friends and family were always around to take me wherever I needed to be. I was, outside of this particular circumstance, very happy. High school was a great experience for me... until I had to begin applying to college. Then, during my senior year, I learned the best and most heartbreaking news of my life: I had gotten into an Ivy League school.

I must make it very clear—I am not a victim. I have an incredible mother, an incredible family, and incredible friends. And yet, my senior year of high school was tiring. Tiring would soon become a very familiar word. It was expected that I would go on to college. After all, I was voted most likely to succeed. But when it became clear to my counselor that I was “illegal,” however, everything changed. In order to attend most universities in the United States, you must either be a citizen or permanent resident or come to study on a student visa. My counselor did not know what to do for me and told me, “It’s your job to find out how to get into college in your position, and your job to tell me, so that I can help others.” I felt, for the first time, helpless. It turns out I’m not very good at being helpless, so I did everything in my power to look for information. I found out that someone in my position could theoretically go to college in the U.S. as an international student. I spent entire nights poring over schools and means by which to get into particular colleges. My family makes a modest living, so I had to find a way to pay for college as well. The Ivy League, I found, was unique. All they looked for was hard work and the potential to do well. Once accepted, students are offered sufficient financial aid to finish school. I needed to get in, and so I got to work.

I took my SATs and SATIIs, and I started applying. I prayed harder than I have ever prayed, but as the months passed, looking at my mother’s apologetic face as tears streamed down in frustration became harder. It wasn’t her fault, and it wasn’t my fault, but I hadn’t made the choice to come to a country that didn’t want me. And I felt unwanted, and I felt alienated. And I cried. Alone and hidden, I would hold onto my chest, because it felt like it was caving in. I come from a place in Mexico where no one actually goes to college, especially not girls. Even as a child, it was one of my biggest fears. So, here I was, my fear coming true, and I could do nothing but try to re-learn how to breathe when panic would overtake me at the thought of working menial jobs or being sent altogether back to a place across the border that I no longer knew. As Latinas, we don’t inconvenience people with our emotions, with our tears. We are taught to be strong. I cried alone, and I waited until I received the impossible email that changed my life.

student visa

“Congratulations!” That one word sent my mother, my older sister, and me into a mess of hugs and tears. I had been admitted into an Ivy League school, and in turn my tuition was covered. The institution knew I was undocumented but did not ask that I get a student visa to protect me. We had filed for permanent residency after I had applied and the promise that I would eventually be here legally was enough for them. From then it was a hustle and bustle to get everything ready for me to go in the fall. I couldn’t fly because I did not have a legal driver’s license, so my father drove me to get to school. I returned home for breaks via bus, but it was all worth it... until an Immigration Customs Enforcement officer stepped onto the bus and asked if I was a United States citizen. It was completely random and nothing less than terrifying.

I speak perfect English, and they are not allowed to ask for documentation if you say you are a citizen. So, I lied, and they moved on. I was left in my seat, staring at my reflection on the window. My heart was beating faster than it had ever beat, and it was with detached surprise that I thought how remarkably normal I looked. When I got home, I broke down in my mother’s arms. This happened twice over a period of two years. Finally, we decided the gamble was too much. I would not go back home. I had to finish college, and we couldn’t risk shattering my dreams.

I have not seen my family for a few years. I have felt smaller and more helpless than I could have ever imagined. I have been angry and confused. I have broken down at odd moments, because I could simply not do anything else. With time, I learned to accept and to live one moment at a time. Not long ago, I had occasion to break down once more... in happiness. In 2012, President Obama changed everything for people like me. With his executive decision to grant individuals in my position the ability to work legally in the United States, I am one step closer to being the normal "American" girl I have always perceived myself to be.

Let this be clear: this is a story about happiness.

I will be the first in my family to graduate from college, and I will be the first Ivy League graduate from my town. Many people will not understand my story, and many American citizens will be angry that I am here. I know that I will not receive empathy from everyone. But I will say this: I am not an expert or a teacher, but I am a person—a person who is, more than anything else, just like anyone reading this. I offer my story in hopes that it touches some of you, and that it makes others like me feel as if they are not alone.

I remain a firm believer that people cannot be illegal.

In my happiest memories, I am spinning. I am spinning around my mother in our home; I am spinning with my niece in my arms. I am spinning with my friends, giggling as we sit by the river and contemplate our futures. In my happiest memories, I am here, and I am home.


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