By: Yolitxe Zepeda
“Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Looking around the cell the grim faces of several women stared back at me. Throat parched I wondered if water would be available for me. My jacket was warm against the desert cold that penetrated the prison walls. On the small bed positioned against the wall sat a woman who was rubbing her arms aggressively. She was wearing nothing but a short skirt and a red top that showed her tanned stomach. She had been in the cell when we had arrived and had only greeted with a smirk. I did not have the courage to sit next to her. My legs were close to giving out under me. I could still feel the sand in my sneakers that only two days ago had been brand new. The desert had not been kind to them. Beside me sat a woman late in her fifties head tilted back on the cold bars. Her shawl was her only condolence. She had been praying on and off the last hour. She prayed for her lost child and for herself but above all she whispered prayers. “Padre nuestro, que estás en el cielo. Santificado sea tu nombre. Venga tu reino… ” She’d whispered only briefly falling under the spell of silence.
Looking down at the grey cement floor I couldn’t help but give in and sit beside the praying woman. Her face was kind and wrinkled. She reminded of my grandmother who I had left behind not so long. “Let them stay” she had begged my father before our departure. How I would have liked to stay with her. We were very poor in Mexico. My parents made many attempts to create a business in school supplies but for one reason or another it never worked out and we would have to move elsewhere. By the time we departed for the United States we had lived in five different towns leaving a trail of debts on the way. The debts had been so high we had to sell everything and move in with an aunt. The debts though only continued to increase. The only way pay it off was leave.
The guard that had brought us was opening the cell next door bringing the remaining catch of the night. The prison was quiet. The group I had been with had only been about ten people and as the night had progressed more and more had been corralled. My father and brother had been taken to another section of the prison when we had arrived and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t hear the distinct cries of my two-year old brother. How fortunate to be his age when all he wanted was to sleep and eat. Throughout the whole day he had barely made a peep for he had been comfortably cuddled in my father’s arms.
“Mija, no te preocupes pronto saldremos,” whispered the woman opposite me, patting me softly on my shoulder. Don’t worry; soon we’ll be out. She had been walking alongside with us all day and like me she had not sat down. I had seen her handing giving water and chatting gingerly alongside her husband.
She had done this before. She was what my father called a coyote. Assisting her husband on trips. My mother had paid them $5,000 US dollars for each of us to ensure our safety across the border. My father had ensured her he had hired the right people for the job. It was not an easy job but they did it effortlessly. I was probably not the first child the coyote had seen in this very same prison. It was not about how long it took to cross the border it was about getting to the destination and for us the destination was New York. My mother was in New York. She had come six months prior with a visa. It had been easy to acquire one for her because she had claimed she was a single woman going on vacation. Paying for it meant being indebted to her parents but my parents fell it was well worth it. My father at the time was unable to do it because he had a long record in the United States. He had never done any real hard time but had been warned that if he caught crossing the border he would spend up to ten years in jail. Before we were caught he and several men in our group had rubbed a rock on their fingers to damage their prints. I had hoped it had worked and we wouldn’t be send back without him.
I cozying up to the woman beside me lulled by her constant prayers. A couple of hours later when the sun had risen a guard with a strange accent awoke me. We were all herded into a van and taken back into the nearest town in Mexico where our trip would begin again. We were allowed to sleep a couple more hours at a hotel but by the afternoon we were on our way back to the border. The second trip crossing the desert was as much of a blur as the first. Only small images remain of those days. By the next morning we were sitting on an empty living room floor in a house in Arizona waiting for food.
“Here,” said my father in Spanish, handing me a bag. I nodded my head, taking the bag from him hand. Opening the bag I encountered a strange yellow round foil and a bottle of water. My stomach growled but the need for water was stronger. Uncapping the water bottle I couldn’t help but wonder how far away from home I was. The cold water felt wonderful going down my throat and I couldn’t help but hold the bottle up to by forehead and neck. Knowing it was the only water bottle I was going to get I salvaged half for my meal. The round thing inside the yellow foil my father explained was a cheeseburger. Taking a huge bite, I soon regretted it; the taste was like nothing I’d ever had. Meat, yellow cheese, ketchup, pickle and onions wedged between two buns. My first McDonald’s cheeseburgers tasted like crap. I shook my head, handing it to my father. My impression of American at the time was not a kind one. Not with the kind of food they were selling.
At eight I was unaware of the consequences of my crime. It hadn’t occurred to me that at my age I should have been home sleeping and not in a prison cell waiting for a verdict. I committing a crime that to this day had not been forgiven. I had entered the United States illegally. It had not occurred to me till I graduated from high school that I wasn’t the only illegal child in the United States. There are approximately 80,000 undocumented children reaching high school graduation every year in the United States writes Janet Kier Lopez, a doctorate candidate at the University of North Carolina. I was one of these 80,000 students when I graduated from high school in 2008.
The Dream Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) had first been presented in 2001 but it did not grab the medias attention till 2010. By this time I was well aware of what was at stake and paid attention to any updates coming in from Washington D.C. In 2011 at the height of the fight to pass the Dream Act, Jose Antonio Vargas a Filipino American journalist wrote an article for the New York Times titled “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant”. His article made headlines because it had been the first time a undocumented had come forward who was an educated man working at one of the top newspapers in the world.
Jose Antonio Vargas was brought to the United States from the Philippines in 1993 at the age of twelve. For over two decades he kept his status a secret with the help of the people he loved. His grandfather, Lolo got him a fake passport. With this passport and the help of friends he was able to get a driver’s license in Portland where he felt the requirements for documentations required were less strict. Acquiring a driver’s license gave him the opportunity to work at many renowned newspapers like The Post and The Huffington Post. Lolo upon finding out that Jose Antonio was going to get a driver license told him he was dreaming too big, risking too much. His grandfather, like many first generation immigrant, did not expected his grandson to want do anything beside work at a low-paying job and then when it would come to marry he would marry a woman who would be able to give him the appropriate papers. Vargas did neither of these things: he became a journalist and came out as a gay man in 1999. What his grandfather couldn’t grasp was that in order to dream big one has to risk big. Jose Antonio Vargas is a prime example of the things an immigrant child can accomplish if given the right documentation.
Vargas discusses in his article in great depth the fear he felt throughout his career carrying this secret with him. There was a constant fear that his job, at any of the renowned newspapers he worked for, would dig deeper into the documentations he gave and hand him over to the authorities. What he was doing, using fake Social Security, carries a severe punishment here in the United States that consists of jail time and deportation. Lawyers he had spoken told him that in order to get his status in order he would have to go back to the Philippines and remain there as a punishment for ten years, a process he did not go through. Yes, his mother had remained in the Philippines but aside from sending her money he had no ties to the country that had borne him. After he was turned away at the D.M.V for attempting to get an identification with false papers, he writes, “I grew more aware of anti-immigrant sentiments and stereotypes: they don’t want to assimilate, they are a drain on society. They’re not talking about me. I would tell myself. I have something to contribute.” This sentiment is carried throughout many children of the Dream Act.
There is a certain stigma to being an immigrant that was hard for me to face. Like Vargas when the debate over the Dream Act was at its peak in the media I couldn’t help but read the comments people left in articles. Right before my eyes there were these people who not only oppose the Dream Act but also disliked me. Disliked “my kind”. Immigrant. Alien. Wetback. Anchor baby. Job stealer. The list goes on and on. It became all too clear that I was not wanted here and yet I remained. This is my home, I would think every time I watched the debates concerning The Dream Act.
The Dream Act of 2010 would allow states to offer in-state tuition for students who had lived in the United States for more than five years, were under 21 years old and had no criminal record. This would only be the beginning to a long process towards citizenship. I was a perfect candidate for it. I was a year from graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in psychology, under twenty-one, never committed a crime and I had been brought to the United States as a child. The argument for this legislation was that a child brought to the United States did not choose to immigrate and therefore should not be punished. The arguments against it were that immigrant children should not be rewarded amnesty for committing a crime no matter the reasons behind their arrival. In her essay “The Dream Act”, Janet Kier Lopez writes, “others in opposition to the bill appear to feel threatened and claim that by allowing undocumented students to attend colleges for in-state tuition would place undocumented immigrants in direct competition with American college students who rightfully deserve to attend public universities.” This goes hand in hand with the believe that the reason why there are so many unemployed Americans is because immigrants are stealing their jobs.
On December 8th, 2010 I sat in front of my television and watched as the House of Representatives pass the bill. I sat in a classroom on December 18th when the Senate failed to get 60 votes to pass the Dream Act. During this time I had signed petitions and called the appropriate government officials. I told family and friends to do the same. It made me come out of my shell and tell those who I had known for many years about my migratory status. From friends it was easy to receive support because they knew me. My migratory status did not change who I was and they were happy to support me. I was active in the movement but looking back I made no attempts to approach other DREAMers as the media calls us. I read their stories and saw their rallies on television. They were often dressed in high school cap and gowns carrying signs seeking support from legislators. What made them unique was that their stories varied and yet they united for the same cause.
After the Dream Act failed to get passed in Senate a sense of bitterness overcame me. Looking around my neighborhood I realized I was the only one of my childhood friends who was going to finish college. Many of them hadn’t even finished high school. The truth is they had all the resources available to them to complete their educations. They had all been born here. The government pays full tuition for those students coming from low-income households to any university in the United States. I am well aware of the lifestyle they have chosen to follow. Many of these individuals I have known since elementary school. For the most part I hung out with them through my teenage years. To this day they still hang out at the handball courts in Central Park where I myself had spend summer days playing alongside them. What separated them from me was not a Social Security number. It was the fact that I had the drive to continue by studies while working a full time job. I don’t know think I ever made a decision to distance myself from them. It occurred to me not too long ago that it had been over five years since I’ve shared anything in common with them. While they sold drugs on the street corner I was working as a housekeeper full time. While they spend their nights getting drunk I was coming back from nigh school ready to either continue my night studying or doing an essay.
New York City is known as one of the more liberal cities in the United States. It is notorious for being democratic. It is also one of the few states that allow immigrant students to pay in-state tuition as long as they can show that they have lived in the state for more than five years. Having attended elementary, middle and high school in New York City I was able to provide the documentations to attend college with an in-state tuition. In high school my teachers helped me with the process and I was able to apply to all the CUNY colleges. In fall 2008 I began my first semester at Borough of Manhattan Community College. My parents who have saved diligently for the past twelve years have paid my tuition. They believe that if I finished college the probability of my siblings attending college severely increases.
My mother works off the books as a housekeeper and was the one that actually gave me some jobs that she could no longer do. We work very hard and even though we get paid well there are some days that my mother works up to three jobs a days. As the years have gone by she has noticed severe pain in her back and legs. My father on the other hand works at the meatpacking district with the use of a fake social security number and a fake resident card. In New York City is it very easy to acquire these documents and many times the bosses know these documents are not legitimate. Unlike others states New York City has yet to crack down of these type of documentations or the people who are hiring people with such documentations. Saving to them became second nature as soon as they had paid off all their debts in Mexico. They knew what hunger felt like and promised they would never go through that again. After 12 years they have yet to make plans to return to Mexico. They miss their family and longed to be back with them but they fear the crime going on in Mexico that is constantly being shown on the news.
“No hay nada aya,” my mother often says after hearing the news of the crime-ridden Mexico ruled by drug cartels. There is nothing over there.
I in part wrote this for myself but I also wrote this for my brother. He was two when he crossed the same desert I did. He spent the entire trip sleeping in the arms my father. Since birth he was a quiet child who spent the majority of his time sleeping to the point that a doctor recommended force-feeding him. He lost one of his shoes in the desert. “mi zapato, mi zapato.” He told my father the second day we crossed the dessert. My shoe, my shoe. He had lost his little brown shoe. In his drawer the other one still remains. He recalls no such memories and relies on stories to give him a better grasp at the things that were sacrificed during that trip. He remembers nothing of Mexico and does not wish to return. He is now fifteen. His Spanish is often chopped and intermingles with English. He wants to be a doctor and thrives at his high school currently in their honor roll program. He enjoys playing video games on his spare time and goes to the movies with me whenever possible. He is one of my dearest friends. In two years he will graduate from high school. My greatest wish is that by then the Dream Act has passed. He is humble about his situation and has done many things to contribute to the cause. The one thing that is has been hard for him is letting his friends known his status. He once compared it to telling someone you have cancer.
“How do you respond to that? You can’t man. Leaves people stump,” he would mutter whenever I would tell him his friends should sign an online petition. He has told his closest friends and very recently told his school that had inquired college and what his plans were after high school. Jose Antonio Vargas reflects on his undocumented status writing in his article, “we’re are not always who you think we are. Some pick your strawberries or care for your children. Some are in high school or college. And some, it turns out, write news articles you might read. I grew up here. This is my home”. My brother is an American and knowing his status does not make him any less American than a child who has a social security number.
On a federal level the Dream Act has been stalled but there are states that see the benefit behind passing it and have made attempts to pass their own versions of it. In March of this year New York state tried to put their version of the Dream Act in their budget. Their version of the Dream Act would allow immigrant students to acquire financial aid at a cost of 17 million dollars, which according to Ted Hesson, “…actually represents just one twentieth of one percent of the state’s annual income tax revenue, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute.” If New York passed it, it would be the fourth state to give financial aid to undocumented students. New York State did not pass their version of the Dream Act but it does still allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. The prospects of it being passed in the future though have not diminished. Undocumented students continue to fight for their right to continue living here because to us this is home.
The Dream Act shows that there is never too late to dream big and for thousands of children living in the United States undocumented it is the one thing that will shape their futures. Undocumented children are not afraid to dream as it has been demonstrated from the thousands of stories heard every day on the news. We have drive and with the right resources we can achieve so much more than we would have otherwise. We are only limited by documentations. If we are even give the opportunity to achieve citizenship there will not be a day where we would not be grateful for it. I do not take things for granted because I know what it are like to be thirsty, to face a 100-degree weather and to spend the night in prison. This is my home and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.