The life and times of two students born in Mexico, but raised in the U.S.
By Azalia Sprecher
Jocelyne Oliveros and Daniela Lopez are both active members of Bryn Mawr College. Like any college student, they can usually be found in the library, hanging out with friends, or rushing to their next class. But there is an invisible trait that both young women carry with them: they are both undocumented, DACA recipients.
According to the Pew Research Center, there are about 690,000 unauthorized immigrants who are enrolled in the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program, which was established by the Obama administration in 2012.
Although DACA allows students like Oliveros and Lopez to attend college, be employed, and travel, it does not guarantee their future nor provide a path towards citizenship. Although Bryn Mawr College is aware of the students who are undocumented, the administration does not reveal students’ information unless a subpoena is presented, nor does it use government programs like E-verify to check students’ employment eligibility.
Undocumented students come from all racial, economic, and religious backgrounds. Although they don’t hold U.S. citizenship, many do not remember their birth countries. Students like Oliveros and Lopez are constantly wondering if they’ll get to live out their dreams in the only homeland they know.
Jocelyne Oliveros opened the door to reveal a bright room full of wall art. As she gave a tour of her room in Rockefeller Hall, she paused at the replica of a Diego Rivera painting that hangs over the fireplace.
“I love Diego Rivera’s paintings. The original of this painting is housed at the Detroit Institute of the Arts. When I was there on a school trip recently, I wanted to see it, but I ended up riding the trolley all day. I passed by the museum, but that’s as close as I got to the real painting,” Oliveros jokingly said.
The replica Rivera painting is one of the many markers of Oliveros’ Mexican heritage. There are flags, artisan mugs, and small Day of the Dead skulls adorning her room. Although she honors her roots, there are no stereotypical “Mexican characteristics” that define Oliveros’ appearance. Her light complexion, rosy cheeks, golden-brown hair, and flawless English make her hometown of New Rochelle, New York, a more believable origin than her birth town of Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico.
Oliveros arrived in the U.S. when she was 18 months old with her sister and mother. The young family travelled by plane with tourist visas to meet Oliveros’ father, who had been working between Mexico and the U.S. since the age of 16. Oliveros, now a 22-year-old Economics major at Bryn Mawr College, has not been back to Mexico since.
Being undocumented affected many parts of Oliveros life. She didn’t enjoy milestones such as getting her driver’s permit with her classmates. For college, Oliveros was not sure if she should apply as an international or domestic student. Oliveros also separated herself from other Latino students to fit in with the white students, in an effort to distance herself from her undocumented status.
“I was able to navigate certain spaces like most of the white kids. I was the only Latina in the advanced classes, and I began to think that the other Latino kids were just lazy,” she said. “I got a harsh wakeup call when I got to Bryn Mawr and saw that everyone else was just as smart as me and did not have the same kids to compare myself with. I thought I could use education to get away from my undocumented status, but I realized that my education doesn’t matter in the eyes of the law.”
Oliveros says that her experience at Bryn Mawr has made her more aware of her status and about how much more she needed to learn about undocumented students.
“People don’t realize that being undocumented is a very real thing that exists around them,” she said. “For people at Bryn Mawr, it’s easy to distance themselves from the issue of undocumented students because they don’t know anyone who is affected by immigration laws. People would care if they could put a face to the term ‘undocumented people.’”
Oliveros believes that if Bryn Mawr were more open to talking about undocumented students, the student body would be more aware that being undocumented affects their friends.
“There is a certain face that goes with being undocumented, and it’s import to let the student body know that it can be anyone of their friends,” Oliveros said. “The stereotypes make us look for a specific person, and when they don’t fit the stereotype we automatically think that this issue doesn’t affect this person.”
Oliveros believes that the only way people will become engaged is if they know someone who is undocumented.
“The issue of undocumented migration is so arbitrary. When we talk about race and gender rights we have a face we can connect the cause to, but because this is also a very quiet matter that many people are private about, it is harder to put a face and emotion to the cause. Not having a face for the cause puts it on the backburner because there is no sense of immediate danger.”
Bryn Mawr has not always been a comfortable space for Oliveros. During residential life training her sophomore year, Oliveros overheard a student talk about the status of illegal immigrants as a political stance that she rather not comment on.
“I think about the issue of undocumented people in terms of other human rights issues that at one point were political stances. You could probably make the same argument about gay rights, but if anyone [at Bryn Mawr] were to say that someone’s sexuality is a political opinion, people would be upset. People here don’t realize that being undocumented is also an identity that shouldn’t be politicized. I never considered my humanity a political opinion.”
The last time a ruling on DACA happened, the Bryn Mawr President’s office sent out an email saying deans would check in with students they knew were undocumented, but Oliveros never received a call or email.
Oliveros comes from a working-class family: her father paints houses and her mother is a housekeeper. She herself has worked in Bryn Mawr’s dining hall and as a teaching assistant for the Economics department. Oliveros was excited at the prospect of a livable wage and health benefits when she was hired by a consulting firm in her hometown, but the uncertainty of the DACA program overshadowed her accomplishment.
“When I heard that DACA was being debated in congress, I had just been offered a job. My current DACA permit expires in February 2019. I knew that if DACA wasn’t upheld, I wouldn’t be able to reapply for the program, which meant I would lose my job. It worried me a lot last semester.”
Oliveros doesn’t have faith in the government changing her situation and thinks the battle for migrants’ rights will be a long one. She does have hope in student run organizations like United We Dream, but does not expect anything to happen soon. Congress has yet to come to a decision about the future of DACA. For now, it will continue to provide temporary security for child arrivals who are students, active military members, and Millennials who are now in the work force, including Oliveros, who begins her new job in July.
Daniela Lopez, a small, bright eyed junior at Bryn Mawr, played with her long, black hair while soaking up sunrays in the college’s cloisters. While enjoying the spring weather, the philosophy major and avid Chinatown visitor described a defining moment in her life.
“While visiting New York City, I walked through the National Museum of the American Indian,” said Lopez. “The pictures on the wall told the history of Native Americans. As I walked through the exhibit I thought ‘Hey, they kind of look like me!’”
The irony of this discovery did not escape her. Lopez does not have documents to prove she is from the land that is now the U.S, even though she claims her Mexican ancestors have been here for generations.
“We live on stolen land but I still have to prove I belong here. I’m native to America, but it baffles me when people tell me to go back where I came from. I am from here!”
Despite this revelation, Lopez has felt like an outsider for a while. Born in Mexico City, Mexico, Lopez arrived by plane to the U.S. when she was four years old. She still remembers her grandma’s house and the short months she spent in Mexican preschool, but she has not returned since. Lopez was raise in Houston, Texas, in a working-class family that struggled to make ends meet. Lopez attended school in River Oaks, one of Houston’s wealthiest neighborhoods. She found it difficult to adapt and says she was at a disadvantage in multiple ways.
“Your parents are supposed to impart certain knowledge of American culture, but my parents couldn’t give me that. When I was in second grade, a classmate told me she was happy we were friends, but she couldn’t tell her parents about me because they didn’t like Hispanics.”
Lopez says she was an outsider in high school and tried her best to adapt to the environment she was in by teaching herself American culture.
“I wasn’t confident in my intelligence, and I felt uncomfortable in intellectual spaces. I always felt inadequate, especially around my white debate teammates since they were very focused on knowing everything.”
Lopez says she pretended to be something she was not because she wanted to fit in. Even though she spoke Spanish at home, Lopez did not speak Spanish at school until her junior year. She was divided and did not confront her undocumented status until she wrote her personal statement for college applications.
“As I was writing my personal statement, I broke down crying. I realized how angry I was at my parents and how frustrated I was at my own situation.”
In college, Lopez said she continued to feel like an outsider, even though she received an excellent high school education, speaks perfect English, and grew up with mostly white friends.
“By looking at me you wouldn’t think I’m undocumented,” Lopez said thoughtfully. “But I quickly realized that you can look like, talk like, and act like everyone else at Bryn Mawr but still feel like an outsider in your own home.”
At Bryn Mawr, her social struggles continued. Lopez has encountered professors who have family members who are Border Patrol officers. Some of the professors have made insensitive comments without realizing there could be undocumented students in the class.
“It’s closer to home than most people think. It could be the person you see in class or in the dining hall who is undocumented. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not real,” Lopez said. “People on campus make assumptions about your choices, such as going abroad or being able to vote. It’s a normal thing for everyone, but not for me, and it can be exhausting to explain myself.”
Like dozens of her peers, Lopez was eager to study abroad her junior year. As a DACA recipient, Lopez was eligible to apply for Advanced Parole, which would allow her to leave the country with the permission of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, but there was no guarantee of reentry into the U.S.
“It’s kind of like wearing a promise ring,” says Lopez playfully. “It’s a loose commitment, and they can go back on their promise at any time.”
Unlike her peers, Lopez was concerned about the problems her status could pose if she decided to leave the country. Although she was determined to study abroad, she had to make the difficult choice of staying in the U.S. to ensure her safety.
“I thought I’d be able to apply for [Advance Parole], but then Trump was elected. I wasn’t going to leave the country then! That was hard on me, and not because I couldn’t go abroad, but because it was another reminder of how I was different.”
The hostile environment towards undocumented people is everywhere in Philadelphia.
“Philly is home to one of the most aggressive ICE offices, and it has arrested the most migrants who don’t have criminal records.”
Ironically, the Office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is located right outside of Chinatown, Lopez’s favorite Philadelphia destination. As a regular visitor, Lopez frequents the SEPTA regional rail line. It has unfortunately become an uncomfortable place for her.
“I was returning from Chinatown with some friends when a white man approached me out of nowhere and said, ‘Excuse me, pretty lady, are you a citizen of this country? Because if you aren’t, I’ll have to report you to ICE.’ I was the only Latina amongst my friends and he didn’t ask anyone else. I was in shock. I had no idea what to say.”
Lopez says the man waited for a response until her friends told the man to walk away. Her friends notified the SEPTA conductor, who told the man to leave the young women alone, but no other action was taken. Lopez and her friends got off the train a few stops before the Bryn Mawr station so the man couldn’t see where they lived.
Despite the challenges, Lopez says she has found a support system. Her dean and mentors have provided emotional and academic support. Professor Montes of the sociology department, a former undocumented migrant, inspired Lopez to share her story. In the fall, Lopez will lead workshops in Philadelphia high schools and colleges to teach students and school administrators how to provide support and protection for undocumented students.
Jocelyne Oliveros and Daniela Lopez are just two of the thousands of students across the country who have been living on college campuses with this invisible identity.
Everything they know is in the United States, but they are unsure if they will be forced out of the only home they know.