For her eighth birthday, Serena — whose name has been changed at her request due to the controversial and precarious nature of her situation — wanted to go to Disneyland.
Her family had gone before, but as a self-proclaimed “daddy’s girl,” she asked her father if they could go.
He agreed, but said, “It’s gonna be a summer thing, your eighth birthday, and we’re gonna celebrate any other holiday we can think of because this is a huge thing.”
But rather than Disneyland, the family drove to Florida for Disney World instead. They stayed a week and enjoyed themselves as a family.
Because her parents worked so often, it was the first family trip they had in years. It was wonderful, Serena remembers, up until they came home.
When they got back, they found out their house had been broken into.
“They had just destroyed a lot of stuff and they had left bandanas, like blindfolds, and little wires for homemade handcuffs,” she recalls. “They were prepared for us to be home and to tie us up.”
It was a scary experience, Serena said, but she is no stranger to fear.
After all, as known journalist and activist Jose Antonio Vargas has said, living as an undocumented immigrant means living a different kind of reality. Here on Seattle Pacific University’s campus, there are about 20 other undocumented students, like Serena, who share this experience of an altered reality, of being fearful and uncertain.
As a student at SPU, some of her days consist of going to class, making time for herself, going to work and getting off late. Other days, she goes to work first, saves a few hours for herself before going to class and then going home.
When she does have free time, she loves visiting different places in the area and around the city, particularly on the hunt to find something to eat.
Serena first came to the U.S. when she was 3. Both her parents were undocumented when they first came to America. They had a child, Serena’s older brother, but then decided they did not want to stay in America and went back to Mexico.
“When you’re pregnant and you’re somebody that has already been in the U.S., your family advises you, ‘you’re gonna wanna go back. Just have your child over there,’” Serena explained.
Serena’s parents, however, were set on not coming back to the U.S., unless for tourism purposes. They had no plans to ever live in America again, so Serena was born in Mexico.
Two years later, they had her younger brother. Then, when she was 3 and her younger brother was 6 months, her parents decided they needed to go back, deciding that living in Mexico was not the life they wanted to provide for their children.
“There’s not a lot of opportunity,” Serena said. “It sounds cheesy and stereotypical, but it’s true. They didn’t feel they could provide an adequate life for my brothers and I there anymore, and they decided to come over [to America].”
Serena is not sure how their family crossed — her mom does not share that detail with her — but they entered through Arizona where her aunt lived.
They stayed with her aunt’s family for a while. Her mom sold things from home while her dad would work as a mechanic, in a bar, wherever he could get work at the time.
Then, when she was 5 or 6 years old, Serena’s family moved to New York, where an uncle lived. They were there for five years, during which time her dad and mom co-owned a business, which led to her dad being kidnapped.
By that time, her uncle had already left New York, so they were the only ones there family-wise. When they were able to get her dad back, the police let them leave the state.
Her mom was desperate to be near family again, so they moved to California, where they had family. Serena’s dad worked in the fields and in construction, but when there was no more work for him with his company, they moved to Washington and have been here for seven years.
“I’m Mexican, but I don’t know how to live in Mexico,” she said.
When she was young, her family lived by a park with a lake, where people would often skate.
Her family visited often to either picnic or simply sit and feed the ducks. It was a place they found any excuse to go to.
Though she has no specific visit in mind, visiting the park with her family is her favorite childhood memory.
But her childhood was not what some would consider normal.
For her, learning she was undocumented was never a conversation. It was something she and her younger brother were always aware of.
“We were cautioned on interactions and sometimes even advised by our parents not to speak Spanish or make our culture super known in certain areas,” she said.
Her parents were afraid of how some people might react or how they might treat them for “being different.” Because of this, they were always fully aware of their undocumented status.
Growing up, the fact that their older brother was a citizen while they were not also made this distinction clear. He could leave the country to visit family while everyone else could not.
Her mother has already been deported once when Serena was younger. Her father, on the other hand, is recently deported and is not currently with the family; it has been roughly two years since.
“So, right now, it’s kinda a one-household — my mom works, I work, my brother works, and we kinda pay the bills together. And we can do that because of DACA,” she said.
If it were not for DACA, Serena says that her mother would be working on her own.
“I think a lot of people, once you get legislation and all that involved, you forget that there’s real people with real lives behind this,” she said. “Just take a step back and stop dehumanizing them as a legislation.”
There are only a handful of people who know of her status. One person is from her high school while the rest are people she met at SPU.
“Finding friends I can be truly honest with from my very first year has been the best part,” she said.
This, however, does not mean she has gone without finding herself in uncomfortable situations.
Her freshman year, in the resident halls, during the presidential campaigns, politics became a big topic that people talked about.
“Everyone tried to make it an open space where people could be honest, but on occasion, that meant that people would say some pretty harsh stuff about immigration or would just share some conservative views that they didn’t realize highly related to me,” she explained.
Serena tried to continue the discussion to find out more about these people’s viewpoint, but she was cautious at the same time. She did not want people to know her status, especially because she was not under DACA at the time.
There are a lot of Dreamers and DACA recipients, she continued, but all they want to do is to legally work.
“Our goal is to legally provide for ourselves,” she emphasized.
This should not be an issue in her opinion, but she explains that there is a stigma around undocumented immigrants; there is a fear of them.
A lot of this fear, she believes, comes from not knowing, from being unaware, from the language the president uses. She encourages people to sit down, take a breath, and “really learn what DACA is.”
She lists out that the government gets their fingerprint, issues background checks, etc. There is a set of criteria that individuals must meet to receive DACA.
“I assure you, we’re facing a lot more danger just by existing in this country than you are by us wanting an education,” she continued.
Serena emphasizes that she simply wants to feel safe, to feel like she can go home to her family and not fear that somebody has been taken or that they will be sent back to a country they “no longer know how to survive in.”
“Nobody deserves to have their home swiped out from under them. I hope for DACA students to have a safety, to feel safe in their own homes and to have answers,” Serena said. “We’re human.”
For about a year and a half, she has been considering going into the military, but she does not want to feel like she is joining because of her status. She wants it to be because it is the right career choice for her.
She is also considering going to graduate school. For her, it is either going to graduate school or joining the military.
But her choices currently are intertwined with her fears. Many things, she said, depend on where things stand in the next few years.
“It’s hard to plan your future when tomorrow is so uncertain,” Serena said.
With this uncertain political climate, Multi-Ethnic Programs Graduate Intern Lauren Mendez has heard around campus that there are students who are looking for a broader avenue in promoting awareness in support of those affected by these circumstances.
What this looks like, she explained, is “providing information on our campus and being aware.”
“I think that looks like, ‘What is our programming say? What kind of message are we giving the university?’” she said.
One of the key ideas they have looked into at the Multi-Ethnic Programs office is how to best communicate and support students both on a personal level but also on an institutional level, Mendez continued.
So, a team comprised of student leaders, members of the Sociology Department and those in Multi-Ethnic Programs put together a documentary showing of “Documented” in Arnett Hall on Jan. 25 in hopes of providing a space to share both resources and knowledge.
One such resource is on the SPU library’s website. In the subject line, students can look up DACA and find both resources and information.
The documentary itself shares the story of Vargas, beginning one August morning in his childhood.
His mother woke him up, put him in a cab and sent him on his way to the Philippines’ Ninoy Aquino International Airport. There, he boarded an airplane for the first time.
He was sent to live with his grandparents, thousands of miles away from his mom, away from home. At the age of 12, he became an undocumented immigrant.
He grew accustomed to life in the San Francisco Bay Area, going to school, making friends. It was not until he was 16 that he learned that he was undocumented.
Vargas decided then that he could not give anyone any reason to doubt that he was an American.
But in 2011, appearing on television and writing in The New York Times Magazine, he came out, publicly revealing that he was an undocumented immigrant.
Not everyone is as vocal of their status as Vargas, however. There are leagues of people who prefer to keep their history and information private for various reasons.
Clara, whose name has been changed upon her request, is one such person.
She originally came to Seattle Pacific for the nursing program. She was not granted much financial because she could not apply for Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Colleges and universities each have their own policies about admitting undocumented students. However, while there are many colleges that admit these students, tuition is usually prohibitively expensive, with students needing to pay out-of-state or international tuition rates.
Furthermore, undocumented students do not qualify for federal student loans, work-study, or other financial assistance.
Because of this limited financial support, money was not a driving force in her decision to come to SPU. Instead, she was mainly intrigued by not only the nursing program but also by the school’s small size.
Now, however, as a member of the SPU family, she notes how much she likes the community, how passionate people are about social justice and how “much more accepting it is than other private institutions.”
There is always hope, she continued.
“That hope may be unknown,” she explained, “but there’s hope for equality and justice. So much is unknown. We just have to trust there’s hope.”
People come to America for a number of reasons such as humanitarian refuge, work, family reunification, etc. While there are individuals who cross the border illegally, about 40 percent of these immigrants entered the country legally on a visa and stayed past the expiration date, according to the American Psychology Association.
Clara is one such individual.
Her parents had been to the U.S. before. They did not plan on staying, but they realized that there were many more opportunities than in their home country, which Clara has requested to remain unnamed.
They arrived on a visitor visa — a nonimmigrant visa for persons who want to come to the U.S. temporarily for business, tourism, pleasure, etc. Clara’s visa was good for 10 years with a visitation period of six months at a time.
Those six months, however, came and went, as did the rest of the 10 years. Clara and her family never left and have since called America their home.
From California, Clara remembers her mom working at McDonald’s and her dad working in the restaurant business. Working blue-collar jobs, she said they “worked really hard just to survive.”
When she first heard of DACA in 2012, Clara was shocked that “there was something out there, something legal that would protect [her].”
She signed up right away, she said with a laugh. According to her, she was most likely a part of one of the first waves of youth to do so.
She described being granted temporary relief as surreal and that she is “really thankful.”
Once Donald Trump became president, however, she felt a sense of instability, afraid that everything will be taken away from her. There is plenty of fear, she explained, and every day is different.
Clara describes undocumented immigrants as being “always constantly aware of where they are, who they share information with. Everything can be taken away just because they don’t have a paper that says they are legal.”
Clara encourages people to contact representatives and ask them to protect the program. There are those who are very vocal of their status and are active activists, but there are others like Clara and Serena who are afraid to speak out not only for themselves but for the sake of their families as well.
“Even if you don’t have a friend,” Clara says, “simply being a voice helps. Many are afraid to speak out; many don’t have the same rights.”
According to the Migration Policy Institute, the United States immigrant population stood at more than 43.3 million in 2015; to put in perspective, that was roughly 13.5 percent of the total national population at the time.
There are undocumented parents of children who are U.S. citizens. Likewise, there are also undocumented children who live under the care of a family member with citizenship. The American Psychology Association estimates that there are 11.1 million undocumented immigrants living in America, with 1 million being children under 18 and 4.4 million under 30 years old.
“Why don’t they just become a citizen,” some people would say.
“You simply can’t,” Clara would answer.
Currently, there is no legal way, except to leave your family, home and everything you know. Navigating the U.S. immigration system to gain legal status can be difficult.
For undocumented parents, returning to their country of origin and leaving their children behind is an option, but it would potentially be a traumatic experience for all parties involved. It may take years before families can reunite, especially when one takes into account financial struggles and immigration regulations.
Professor of Sociology Kevin Neuhouser remembers in the Old Testament, God told the Israelites to remember that they were strangers and foreigners in Egypt. They were meant to remember this so that they would treat the strangers and foreigners among them well.
“You know, unless we’re Native Americans, we’re all immigrants and we’ve all come from someplace else, and we all want to make a home,” Neuhouser said. “I would hope that people would see that Dreamers are no different than everyone else.”
**Featured artwork by Mia Warstler