Jhoana, Mexico

I was born in Hidalgo, near Mexico City.  I lived there for about five years and then immigrated to the US.  I was raised by my single mom. I say single because my dad, even though he was a provider, was out of the picture most of the time.  Because of that I grew up mostly with my mom. My dad was in the military in Mexico for about three years of my life, and he would try to come home to do his dad duties, but he knew how little pay he would be earning compared to the military at any job that he could get. He knew that the economy was very bad, so he decided to immigrate to the US. He was here for two years in the beginning, working jobs that require a lot of manual labor  He came without papers. My uncle came first, soon my parents wanted to come, providing us a better life. The terminology is chain migration, one family member arrives then followed by other members. They decided that my dad would come and earn enough money to build our house in Mexico. Usually, someone needs a visa to enter legally. But, my parents lacked funding to access visas. My uncle came after the Bracero Program. He was going back and forth, and he even went to Alaska to work in oil manufacturing, this would be in the 1960s and 70s.

The economy in Mexico was bad, due to NAFTA, a trade agreement. Because the peso, the currency in Mexico, was very low compared to the US dollar. This is in the 80s and 90s. My dad had been going back and forth in his seasonal migrant work. For example, he went to my grandmother’s funeral, but then he came back to the US because he just didn’t see a life in Mexico. First he worked in Washington picking berries, vegetables, and other agricultural harvest. This work was heavy.

As a kid you don’t really understand. All you know is that you are going on a trip to be reunited with your family. That is how I knew that we were going to be with my dad, we were going to be an actual family. My mother was very hopeful. She told us that we were going to take a very long trip. We were just taking this trip, and that’s it.  I knew the consequences only after we arrived, as an undocumented family.

This is something we didn’t really talk about it. It was taboo. How we crossed wasn’t that difficult, but it was traumatic. I crossed in a car, the fastest and easiest way.  I was sitting in the back of a car. I had precise instructions. The lady instructed us to be quiet, don’t say anything, pretend like you are sleeping. So, that’s what we did, me and my brother slept. The lady, is referred to as a coyote, a smuggler. She basically did this for a living. We arrived at her house. She had a lot of tenants, a lot of people living there. What I remember most is the orange trees.  I knew we were somewhere hot. It was in California. We were there for about a week. My dad and my uncle came in a blue van and picked us up, at a different location, not the house.

I have talked to my parents about our past, in Mexico, but they can’t talk about how they crossed, because it’s unbearable sadness. I guess it’s reliving their sorrows. They have lost their family members one at a time, but can’t give them a last hug or visit them in their graves. They have said goodbye, but promised to be back. Their promise never came true. They get very nostalgic  What I know from my mother is that she did try to cross the border three times. It was very difficult. I haven’t really spoken with my dad about it. I think that in some cases it is a taboo. It is traumatizing, it’s stigmatizing. They don’t really want to talk about it. What I do remember is a few instances when we arrived in the state of Oregon. There would be helicopters and my mom would get triggered.  She would get worried. I believe we developed PTSD and now have developed chronic stress living in the shadows.

Initially I didn’t really get the sense of being undocumented. I was enrolled in school, I participated in extracurricular activities. I was generation 1.5. This means that even though I felt like a citizen, spoke the same language as my peers, had been part of society, I still lack my legal status.  My parents found ways to secure health care and housing for us. I was kind of living a double life if I think about it. When people would ask where I was from, I would say, “Soy de aqui.” Because if I said anything about not being born here I knew that there would be more questions and would stop the small talk right away.  As a child I was already trained to be part of the US, I was assimilating. I have heard this from other students as well. Their status was hidden.

My parents’ jobs  exposed them to a different lifestyle.  My dad worked in landscaping and my mother worked cleaning houses in the suburbs. They saw the different ways of living. They wanted the Amertican Dream, saved for a down payment to buy a house and that’s what they did.

We moved from a very concentrated lower-income migrant community to a middle-class neighborhood. I felt very intimidated. We were the only Latinos in that community and at my school I was often the only Latina in my classes. What this meant for me is that I was visible, not just in my status, but visible in my skin tone. I was often prone to racism. This caused a lot of frustration and anxiety and some shame. In middle school you are dealing with changes, but when it came down to it I think that I just didn’t see my community.

I didn’t see teachers of color. That was really hard for me.

That is when I really understood what it meant to be an undocumented person of color.  I saw the hardship. This was around 2008 when the economy was down and my parents had it even harder. I saw my brother start to think about getting a job and supporting the family.  He was trying to apply for jobs, but without a social security number, they told him you can’t. Both of us couldn’t get a driver’s license. Slowly I understood that we were in the same boat. There was stress and anxiety for sure.  During that time my mom was pregnant with my younger sister, and she stopped working. It brought stress. I think she suffered from postpartum depression because she was just always shut down. It affected our lives. We were now a mixed status family. Because of the economy when it was down, my parents started selling tamales. They started working extra jobs at night. My parents unfortunately had to work constantly from the time we arrived in the States, but even more when the recession hit. Due to over-work and low-paying jobs, my parents aged fast.

My daughters saved my life. I had my daughters when I was young. At seventeen I had my first daughter. My brother was also a parent.  What happened was that we started slowly but surely coming into our senses that our life needed to change. My brother got a job and he was working soon after high school to provide for his family. He had to drive to his workplace.  Where we lived there wasn’t really a bus stop so you had to drive. Not only that, you had to go on the freeway to get to his job. He was driving and he got pulled over. Back then Oregon banned undocumented individuals from accessing a driver’s license. And if you didn’t have a driver’s license you would get put into the local jail. It was a trigger for Immigration Customs Enforcement. If you didn’t provide some kind of social security number you would get held up for ICE to pick you up.

My brother was sent to Tacoma, Washington, the nearest ICE detention center to us.  As a family, we collectively got together and started getting money together. We started selling cars and stuff like that. We paid for his bond and he was released. He got some sort of work permit because once you are released you can be authorized to stay in the country to fight your case. It is very interesting because when we think about individuals who are in detention centers, they are sometimes, not always, released and given a pathway towards residency. Then you can go in front of an immigration judge and you can say that you have a family, that you are a good person, trying to raise your children. Basically you have to build a case as to why you deserve to stay in the US. The judge can give you a release order and then you can start filing your petition to become a resident. For his bond it was really low compared to other bonds.  It was ten thousand dollars. His attorney fees were around four thousand dollars. It costs a lot of money for sure. He is married to a US citizen and that automatically gives you some privileges. He also had a US citizen child. This was in 2011, and last year he got his residency. That was seven years in the making of changing his status!

I talk a lot about liberation.  I can’t really do this work without speaking about liberation and empowerment, as well as knowing the history of where we stand and where we come from.  I try to show this in the work that I do. Currently I hold DACA, which is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

When I think about the exposure that I give to my students, I really want them to be liberated, to know that there are some borders, but we have to defeat the borders in our mindset in order to move forward.

I was nineteen years old when DACA was introduced in 2012.  What happened was that I knew there were Dreamers, individuals like myself, that there were people out there fighting.  The Dream Act was first introduced in 2001, but it has never been passed. It would guarantee a pathway towards residency for the 1.5 generation.  I knew about the Dream Act. I did feel hopeful. Obama was thoughtful by signing DACA as an executive order, but I also have critiques. Under his supervision he did deport a lot of people.  I think about the power that he had. He could have done more, DACA is just a band-aid. It is just a two-year work permit. You have to apply every other year and you have to pay fees, of five hundred dollars and more.  For me it was a great beginning, but we need something better. DACA and the Dream Act are not the same thing. We need the Dream Act to pass. As a DREAMer, I also have to acknowledge the original Dreamers, our parents.

There are estimated eleven million undocumented people.  I can’t help but think, what is happening? What are the policies that are making this happen?  I think about the US as a powerful nation. I think about the history, as well, and how it has raised the platform for imperialism.  I have to think about the 11 million individuals holistically. A new policy would have to be formed. We can’t just say that we are going to provide Dreamers with a pathway to residency when the original Dreamers are our parents.

My parents have been here for many years. They are heavily involved in the community, pay taxes, contribute, work for low wages, pay their dues, and have their lives here.  Right now the issue of the drivers licenses is back on the ballot. My parents are outing themselves now. They are saying that we need this.

It has been a process for me to be out in public and identifying myself with my vulnerable identity of living in limbo. It didn’t take just one year for me to say that I was undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic. Sometimes I feel down, and I have to think about my safety, too.  Do I feel brave enough as well? I started claiming my identity back in 2014. This was to bring undocumented individuals across the Portland metro area together. We needed to build some structure and support for each other. I knew that sharing your story can transform people’s minds, lives and hearts. We emphasize the spectrum of allyship theory.  You can have a person who is anti-immigrant and you can move them to be an ally to an accomplice. Because of that I shared my story in front of the ICE detention center, which was very scary for sure. It was something that I needed to do. It was very liberating. Slowly but surely I started testifying before boards and other government agencies.

People don’t understand a lot of things.  There’s a certain part of history that is being told, to keep systems in place.  I think it has a lot to do with our educational system and our policies as well. A lot of people lack an awareness. For example, some people think that undocumented individuals don’t pay taxes, and are getting free health care, free food, housing, things like this. It is the opposite. We don’t get any of those benefits. You can’t get any of this assistance if you are undocumented, but we do pay taxes. We pay tons of taxes. In 2012 it was estimated that we paid around twelve billion dollars in taxes. We don’t see any of it back.

Another myth that I have heard is that you should just become a citizen, that it is easy.  Do it the right way. I can say that right now people who are seeking asylum are doing it the right way and yet they are being separated from their families and they are being held in detention centers.  Only some countries are given asylum and access to come legally. Some of the barriers to becoming a citizen, is the cost for sure, and the policies that are set in place. For example I am married to a US citizen, yet that automatically does not  change my status. Once my brother was released from the Detention Center, I knew that I didn’t really want that cycle to continue, so I tried applying for my residency, but I was denied. The reason why I was denied was because I didn’t want to leave the United States. Back then my daughters were younger, one year old and three years old. I said no, the chances of getting a ten-year ban was on the line.  After one year of being undocumented in the United States, you are automatically placed in this ten-year ban. Before the one year, you have five-year ban. So it is very difficult. Weighing my options was difficult.

Then in 2016 when Trump and his anti-immigrant administration was elected, some students decided to step out of the shadows.  Some students decided to do public testimony in front of the PCC board of directors. This is when we became a sanctuary institution.  I saw this big push and I did see allies and I did see a bigger change. I think that as a stance it makes students feel a little braver or safer to be here. It doesn’t really protect us unfortunately. If there is a federal agent with a judge’s warrant we will have to comply. Sanctuary is a bigger word than what we can actually offer, but I think it is an important step.

Soon after Trump’s election, he said that DACA would be terminated.  A couple of students and I went all the way to DC, and we did civil disobedience there. There is a big organization called United We Dream, they were the ones that supported us and flew all of us out there.  It was life-changing. We had big banners and sat in the Capitol Rotunda building and we didn’t move. We came back home and soon after we did another act of push to keep DACA. There have been five bills that have been introduced just this year in support of immigrants in the State of Oregon, and I would say it’s a compliment to the students that outed themselves.

I believe that sharing one’s story can change people.  I really think that individuals have a lot of power.

The Dreamers Center at Portland Community College was started by Liliana Luna.  She’s the one that brought in the idea. She has done a lot of advocacy and because of that she has built a great network and support.  Thanks to the advocacy of Liliana, a couple of students went to a conference in California on how to support undocumented individuals in 2015.  I was a student here at PCC at that time. There were about five of us that went. We saw the impact and we said, “Hey, we also need a DREAMers Center.”  I think it was the right time. We came back with the knowledge. We started a program called The Dream Project. It’s a cohort of students who are mentors and mentees, twenty individuals participated in the second cohort. They are all at different campuses of PCC. We started with a small grant and slowly grew the program. The Meyer grant helped a lot, that we were able to open up the Dreamers Center. We built it slowly but surely. The center was living in limbo, I suppose.  We now have some student activity fees to run the center. We also have ambassadors, part of the student leadership development program.

Right now we are running about a hundred thousand dollar center, with scholarships included. We need more support, though. We would love to have an immigration attorney here. We’d also love to have a co-coordinator, or else we burn out.  If we had an immigration attorney that would be great.

I think the benefits of being part of this mentor program is seeing that if someone can make it, than they can make it too.  It is a relatable experience and relationship. Because of that students feel more comfortable. I have seen students grow so much.  Just yesterday, some students created a podcast. That’s a huge step for students who had thought they would never say they were undocumented.  It has created an atmosphere that felt like, “Yeah, I can do it.”