Undocumented Exceptionalism

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Luis Gonzalez was born in 1997 in Nayarit, Mexico, to two 17-year-old, middle-class parents. They had to leave home for work to support their family, he said. He and his little brother were raised for eight years by their grandparents, while their parents worked in the United States and sent money back to the family.

In 2005, Gonzalez was 8 years old. He and his brother came to the U.S. “without inspection,” a term he said “we’re supposed to use.” The National Immigration Forum defines “entry without inspection” as unlawful entry into the United States without authorization by an immigration official. Gonzalez refused to disclose exactly how he crossed the border.

He and his brother joined their parents in southern Orange County, California.

“Richard Nixon is from Orange County, so you can imagine how conservative it must have been,” he said. “It’s very white and very affluent and my family definitely wasn’t.”

 

Today, Gonzalez is a sophomore at Georgetown University, one of the best schools in the country. He is also a celebrity on campus, a spokesperson for the undocumented and a regular opinion contributor to the school’s newsmagazine, The Georgetown Voice, and newspaper, The Hoya. Everybody who sees him smiles and waves. He smiles back and greets them by name.

 

Luis Gonzalez is on the fast track to immense success, but getting here has been a journey

 

Learning English was difficult for Gonzalez when he first began school in the United States. So much so that he said he would often cry in class, and his brother flunked kindergarten.

At first, Gonzalez’s only way to communicate at school was through the Spanish-to-English pocket dictionary purchased by his teacher.

The two would sit together. Gonzalez would speak slowly while his teacher looked up every word “or whatever she thought I was saying,” he said. The process was laborious and time-consuming.

“It was really frustrating for me as an 8-year-old, second grader, and so I did everything possible to communicate my frustration to my parents,” Gonzalez said.

To deal with this stress, the Gonzalez family moved to Santa Ana, California. The U.S. Census Bureau lists Santa Ana as 78.2 percent Hispanic or Latino in April 2010.

“My parents knew that we would have a support system in school so we would be able to better learn English and things like that,” Gonzalez said. “And they were right.”

School in Santa Ana was a new opportunity for him. He began third grade there with a bilingual teacher. He was also part of a pullout class, where he and other students would be taught “really basic English.”

“By the end of third grade, I had begun to develop a mastery of the English language,” Gonzalez said.

Things were not perfect in Santa Ana, however. Gonzalez’s parents separated, which “really took a toll for everyone.” Problems arose with other members of the family. But Gonzalez was motivated.

“That’s when I realized my responsibility — I was the oldest in the family — to really do well in school,” Gonzalez said.

The opportunity to do so came in middle school, when Gonzalez was reclassified in the California education system from “English learner” to “proficient in English.” He also received advanced scores on California’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) tests. At 14 years old, Gonzalez became eligible to enroll in honors courses.

This changed the game. A few years later, Gonzalez finished high school with a 4.7 GPA. His goal: gain acceptance to a top university so he could take care of his family.

In 2012, the Obama administration implemented the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. It made it possible for undocumented youth to hold employment and lawfully remain in the U.S.

“The program DACA enabled us to come out of the shadows,” Gonzalez said.

However, DACA grants nothing more than legal status at two-year increments. Undocumented students protected by DACA are still not eligible to receive federal financial aid, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In some states, like California, they may be able to qualify for in-state tuition and state financial aid, but it is still up to the institutions to decide whether they will accept and protect undocumented immigrants.

Those who support tighter immigration policy often argue that undocumented immigrants cost the U.S. money because they do not pay taxes. This is also why undocumented students cannot receive federal financial aid.

Gonzalez said that this is unfair. Unauthorized workers accounted for $12 billion paid in sales taxes and $13 billion paid in Social Security taxes in 2010, according to a 2013 Actuarial Note by the Social Security Administration.

Gonzalez applied to many schools. He began his college search by looking for schools that were openly friendly to undocumented students. One such school was Georgetown University, which he learned about from another undocumented student from Santa Ana.

“Our charge is to educate all students regardless of background: race, faith, religious affiliation, gender identification. We are a very inclusive community,” said Arelis Palacios, advisor to undocumented students at Georgetown University. “If someone is willing to put in the time and work to get here, then they deserve all the resources they need to be successful.”  

“I made sure that I poured my heart out into the Georgetown application,” Gonzalez said.

It worked. He was accepted to Georgetown with a full scholarship. The additional protection of DACA made him feel safe and his freshman year “smooth,” he said.

This calmness changed to anxious turmoil his sophomore year, when President Donald Trump was running for president, he said. On the campaign trail, Trump pledged to immediately rescind President Obama’s executive orders, which included DACA. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people,” Trump said of people immigrating from Mexico on June 16, 2015, according to Time Magazine.

A lot of Gonzalez’s friends knew that he was undocumented, so when Trump was elected, they were concerned for how he would be affected. So was he.

“I had the opportunity then, a couple of weeks later, to share my story with Senator Durbin,” Gonzalez said. “And so he actually shared my story on the Senate floor.”

Senator Richard Durbin is a Democrat from Illinois who has served as the Democratic Whip since 2005. He was one of the lawmakers who introduced the DREAM Act in 2001, which, if passed, would give undocumented youth such as Gonzalez the chance to attain citizenship.

“I didn’t really talk about my undocumented status,” said Gonzalez. “That’s when I had to. When I forced myself into it.”

The future remains uncertain for the undocumented. On February 17, 23-year-old Juan Manuel Montes was detained and deported in Calexico, California, despite his DACA status.

In the days since, President Trump told the Associated Press that he is “not after the dreamers, we are after the criminals.” He also said that people protected by DACA should “rest easy.” However, in response to this, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told George Stephanopoulos that he believes that “everyone who enters the country illegally is subject to being deported.”

The undocumented have unwittingly entered an uncertain time. They are living in limbo, and those who govern the country will continue to manage their status, with or without inspection.  

“A big part of my work right now is to share my story with as many people as I can so people know that these are real stories,” Gonzalez said. “These are real people, people that want to be in this country and love this country. We are not criminals. We are not terrorists.”

 

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