DACA Students Continue Their Fight

College students share their obstacles, victories and plans for the future

If you’ve ever built a sand castle you know that it can be a laborious, lengthy and, at times, difficult task. You spend great lengths of time crafting and sculpting, ensuring that you’ve used enough water to keep the structure intact. And then someone comes and stomps on it. This is what the Trump administration is doing to some 800,000 people—stomping on the dreams of those who have worked hard and long to acquire and maintain a status in the U.S.

Those 800,000 individuals are known as Dreamers, recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA,  a program created in 2012 by the Obama administration, allowing illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to study, work, and obtain a driver’s license. It also temporarily protects them from deportation.

While some DACA recipients—the 154,000 whose status expires on or before March 5, 2018—have until October 5 to renew, it will only protect them through 2020, when the program ends. After that, all work permits, Social Security and IDs acquired through DACA would have expired, leaving hundreds of thousands of hardworking individuals vulnerable to deportation, unless Congress makes a move within the next six months. Many Dreamers are anxious, while many are continuing their plans, not allowing ignorance and hate to intimidate them. Instead, they choose to continue to live their lives, growing, educating and inspiring those around them.

The Price of Success

As a 19-year-old from Michoacán, Mexico, Adelaida Rama’s pathway to success has been straight, narrow and paved with great sacrifice. At 8 years old, Rama, also known as Addie, didn’t fully understand what it meant to not be a citizen. She didn’t realize the documents that she’d need to live an ordinary life, or the price she would pay to acquire and maintain said documents.

As a first-generation college student, and even more so as a DACA student, Rama had no direction on how to navigate college. Although DACA enabled her to attain a work permit and Social Security, protecting her from deportation, she was still at a disadvantage compared to most U.S. citizens.

Rama recalls writing an essay on immigration for a scholarship, and scrapping it after finding out it was limited to U.S. citizens.

In Nevada, all students are required to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid form to determine their eligibility for scholarships and grants, including Dreamers who don’t qualify for federal student aid but use their FAFSA to find state and private scholarships. Some Nevada schools also offer aid within their college, among them, Nevada State College.

Rama chose Nevada State for its low tuition and the scholarships that it offered DACA students. She received the Black and Gold Scholarship—$1,000 awarded to transfer students from Nevada System of Higher Education colleges, which covered a portion of her tuition—along with some private scholarships. The remainder she pays through quarterly payment plans with income earned through her student worker position. “This is still a lot, but it’s something that I am willing to do for my education,” she says.

In addition, Rama pays for her DACA fees, which cost $500 dollars every two years. Despite the extensive application process, she is thankful for DACA because it allows her to work as a course assistant and writing specialist.

Rama is an English major with a minor in social justice at Nevada State College and a spoken word poet. She plans to go to grad school at UCLA or Stanford to pursue an education to become a professor in post-colonialism comparative literature. She’s true believer that “the place to change minds and inspire people is in the classroom,” she says.

Color Me Normal

If you walk the halls of the Language Arts and Sciences building at Nevada State College, you will probably find some of Jose-Angel Corral Rodriguez’s cartoon pizzas singing into a mic on a flyer in the elevator, or a on a television screen, or on the windows of the Writing Center. Known for his portrayal of personified inanimate objects and the unique personality that he brings to the writing center, where he often hangs out, he seems just like every other college student. But there was a time when Corral Rodriguez did not feel like everyone else.

As a native of Guadalajara, Mexico, Corral Rodriguez recalls starting school in North Las Vegas not knowing “a lick of English.” “I only knew the word apple, and I thought people meant circus,” Corral Rodriguez says with a laugh.

The then 8-year-old learned English through “osmosis,” picking up words and phrases with the help of his Spanish-speaking classmates, who often translated for him. After two years he moved to Henderson, where he attended Glen Taylor Elementary. There were no other Mexican students there, he says. That’s when he realized he didn’t know much English after all.

This was the first time Corral Rodriguez recalls thinking about being different. He struggled in English class for several semesters, was placed in special education as a result and was called racist names by classmates, who had no idea of his immigration status, but made jokes implying he had crossed the border illegally. Still having not mastered an understanding of the language, he often brushed off these things.

Through some hard work, Corral Rodriguez began to learn and understand English. C’s in English class turned to A’s, and he began to thrive in his special education classes, answering questions that were thought to be too difficult for him. This assimilation brought on reflection of his status.

At the beginning of high school, many of Corral Rodriguez’s classmates began planning trips to Europe, getting jobs, obtaining driver’s licenses and talking about college. Without a Social Security card or state ID, these were all things that would be impossible, pose a risk or a challenge for Corral Rodriguez.

When the DACA program was instituted during his sophomore year of high school, it brought hope. His reaction was: “Yes! Now I can do all the things that normal kids can do.”

While the process was lengthy and daunting, Corral Rodriguez was thrilled when both he and his sister were approved. Thanks to DACA, Corral Rodriguez could use the art skills he acquired in magnet school to make money painting for a park event. This helped him earn enough money to pay for a semester of college, with additional aide from the Millennium Scholarship, which is awarded to students taking twelve or more credits, at $60 a credit.

“It’s sad that they ended [DACA]—sad being an understatement,” Corral Rodriguez says. As a visual media major at Nevada State, he’s concerned about being able to pay for his education, as the lack of a Social Security number will make it difficult to apply for scholarships. He is also concerned about his lack of stability, what would happen if he got pulled over, or how he would travel without ID, and how he will keep a job—amenities that most take for granted. But he’s taking full advantage of the opportunities awarded to him through DACA, “working twice as hard” to prove his worth.

DACA and Proud

Alicia Contreras came to Las Vegas from Jalisco, Mexico when she was 1. Growing up, she assumed this was her place of birth. It wasn’t until she was in the third grade her parents explained that she was not a citizen and would have several disadvantages throughout life.

Ashamed of her roots and afraid of possible repercussions if discovered, she lied about her identity, often telling classmates that she was born in California or Nevada.

When she was 15, DACA was instituted. And after four months of waiting, she finally got her state ID. She immediately took advantage of it.

One year into the program, she got her first job and later began a college bridge program at Nevada State, keeping the fact that she was DACA on the down low. The Nepantla program at the college brought on a new perspective for her. (Nepantla means “in-between,” as in in-between cultures and in-between high school and college.) The six-week program enables first generation students, who are also often minorities, to take English and math classes for free. The program offers activities, workshops and small group sessions for students with a focus on building relationships with other students and mentors, and getting acquainted with the resources on campus, all the while taking classes with these same 30 students throughout the first couple years of college.

The program helped Contreras become proud of her ethnicity and culture. “Hearing everyone else’s stories, sharing mine and getting support helped me be proud to say, yes, I am DACA, I’m from Mexico and I’m proud of where I’m from,”  Contreras says.

Inspired to help others embrace their identity, Contreras became a peer mentor for the next cohort and ran for student senate her sophomore year. Now she serves as student body president.

Thanks to the inclusivity of Nevada State toward DACA students, the 20-year-old has the confidence to work to increase transparency of the school so that students are a part of everything going on. She can be found meeting with the school’s president to devise ways to better the school, helping organize town meetings to bring awareness to various issues in the Valley and helping increase student involvement at campus events.

Contreras intends to further her impact on the community by becoming a lawyer of civil law by adding a pre-law minor to her business administration degree. She wants to start a nonprofit for women who have been sexually abused. Down the road, she hopes to come back to Nevada State as an administrator to help the school that helped her. She’s determined to make it happen, despite the potential risks the lack of DACA could pose.

Fuel to the Fire

For Karla Rodriguez Beltran, DACA was a “Godsend.” After taking the PSATs in high school she remembers getting pamphlets from colleges and having to recycle them because many of the schools were out of state.

A few days after high school she got a call from her mother telling her that the Dream Act had passed. In disbelief she began to research, finding that it was not the Dream Act—a bill that would have granted undocumented immigrant children legal status—but something that would provide some government protections for those same individuals. It was going to be difficult for her family to take on such a large expense, but they put their money together and pulled through. She began working to pay her tuition at UNLV.

The week that Rodriguez Beltran was to supposed to start work, her hours were dropped unexpectedly, forcing her to drop out of school for a year. A coworker invited Rodriguez Beltran to an advisor appointment at Nevada State, where an advisor laid out a plan for her, and showed her the scholarships she was eligible for.

Now with two more semesters to go, Rodriguez Beltran has begun applying for graduate school, making the uncertainty of her status in a couple of years heart-wrenching. Despite this, Rodriguez Beltran still intends to leave Nevada next year where she hopes to attend grad school on the east coast so that she can become a professor.

“It’s making me stronger,” she says. “The current circumstances are not the most welcoming, but as a result there are definitely things that I am learning about myself, along with the courage and strength I am finding within myself to continue to fight.”