Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing series about the nation’s immigration debate and how United States immigration policy impacts the people and communities caught in its contradictions.
Julio, the subject of this story, is an undocumented immigrant living in Wisconsin. Julio is not his real name. He spoke to Myles Dannhausen Jr. on condition of anonymity. As a result, his name and some details about his life have been modified to protect that request. While the Peninsula Pulse rarely cites anonymous sources, our editorial staff determined that the perspective that Julio’s story provides was worth keeping the subject anonymous.
Julio began his junior year of high school with the same excitement as the rest of his classmates at his rural Wisconsin high school. His athletic career was nearing its peak, the end of high school was in sight, and his college dreams were solidifying in his mind.
Then reality hit him like a punch in the gut. As he poured over applications for colleges, scholarships, and financial aid, he kept encountering the same question.
“What is your legal status? Citizen, Resident, or Other.”
On form after form, Julio had to check “other.”
That’s because Julio, like more than a million other children in American schools, is undocumented.
Julio’s parents moved to Wisconsin when he was seven years old. After several years of working odd jobs for a month here or a couple months there, they left their small village outside Mexico City for the promise of jobs in America.
They enrolled Julio, the third of their four children, in third grade. He spoke no English, but after less than two years working with a specialist assigned to help him, he was nearly fluent. As I spoke with him in the kitchen of his parents’ rented home in early August, I would have guessed he was born into an English-speaking home, but his mother speaks very little and his father knows just enough to get by.
He says that most of his childhood was just like that of his friends and schoolmates, but he always knew there was a crucial difference.
“You know you’re not from here,” Julio says, “but for more than half of your life you live here, so you don’t think about it in terms of school and life.”
That crucial difference grew apparent around his junior year, as his friends got their drivers’ licenses and dreams of college moved into the realm of reality. Being undocumented means he doesn’t have a Social Security Number, which means he can’t get a drivers’ license.
Roberto Gonzalez, an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, spent three and a half years interviewing 250 young undocumented children in Los Angeles to get at the heart of what such children experience as they grow up without citizenship. All of the children he interviewed came to this country before the age of 12.
“Many of these immigrants don’t disclose their secret to their closest friends or partners. They make excuses for why they’re going to community college, taking the bus, or working in restaurants. This is a really impressionable age for them.” – Roberto Gonzales, Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago, on the isolation experienced by undocumented youth in the United States
He encountered dozens of stories just like Julio’s.
“Being undocumented only becomes salient when matched with experiences of exclusion,” Gonzales explains. “They have friends getting part-time jobs, drivers’ licenses, and all the normal things American kids do as they grow up, but they’re not able to move ahead. This is happening at an age when peer influence is really critical. To carry a stigma like this is really tough.”
A solid student, Julio wants to become a registered dietitian. His guidance counselor knew he wanted to go to college, but also suspected he wasn’t documented.
“You have got to be honest with me,” his counselor said. “I won’t get you in trouble, but you have to tell me if you’re undocumented so I can help you.”
When he revealed his undocumented status Julio says he felt a wave of relief. He had kept his secret from his teachers, his bosses, and his friends for years, telling only a handful of people. When teammates made jokes about illegal aliens in practice or on the bus ride to a game, he bit his lip.
“They don’t know you’re actually in that position, and you can’t tell them,” he says. “So you have to laugh it off. They don’t mean it, but it hurts when someone – one of your friends – says something when they don’t really know what’s going on.”
“Many of these immigrants don’t disclose their secret to their closest friends or partners,” Gonzales says. “They make excuses for why they’re going to community college, taking the bus, or working in restaurants. This is a really impressionable age for them.”
He applied to one college midway through his senior year, but as high school neared its end he had yet to get a response. Then he came home and found a letter in his mailbox.
“I was afraid to open it. What if it said no? Then my dream was gone,” he recalls with the misplaced finality typical of teenagers.
When he finally opened it and read the word “Congratulations” he jumped in the air. But as we sat at his kitchen table just a couple of weeks before the start of the semester, he pulled out the one-page tuition bill that, at the moment, controls his future.
In 2009, Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle signed a law that allowed undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition. In 2011, Governor Scott Walker ended the program. As a result Julio, who has worked since he was 15 and who competed at the state level for his high school team, must pay out-of-state tuition. For the fall semester that comes to $8,727.
As an undocumented immigrant he isn’t eligible for financial aid or many scholarships.
“Look at my resume,” he says, motioning to the sheet next to the tuition bill. It’s full of achievements and extracurriculars. He’s a decorated athlete, a youth mentor, a solid student. “In every way you look at me I’m ready for college.”
Julio is a soft-spoken young man. His voice is heavy with a sense of confusion, not anger. As he talks his sister, a quiet but curious three-year-old, climbs up off the linoleum floor to sit beside him, despite the toys strewn across the living room floor or the television playing music videos in the background. Above the television a cross hangs on the wall, flanked by images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.
Julio pulls the tuition bill away from the little hands of his sister as I ask him how he plans to pay the bill.
“From what I hear you can get a work permit, then maybe a Social Security Number, and then you actually get to be somebody in the states.” ~ Julio, on President Obama’s deferred action policy for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children
He puts his hands on his head, his elbows on the table as he stares at the huge number on the tuition statement.
“I don’t know yet, probably private loans,” he says, pointing aimlessly at the statement again and puffing out a sigh. He has been calling banks to see what options he has, running into dead ends. His parents aren’t involved in the process. In fact, he believes they don’t want him to go to college.
“I feel like I’m holding them back from going back to Mexico,” Julio says. “They’re not very supportive of it. They’re supportive of me in every other way, but when I told them I was going to college September 1st, they didn’t really say anything.”
He hasn’t shown them the tuition bill and says he doesn’t plan to. They don’t have the money or resources to help him anyway, he says, so what good would it do.
In an email, Gonzales says it’s not uncommon for undocumented children to pursue college dreams on their own. “Many families like his hang on tightly to a very thin thread,” Gonzales says. “Parents’ feelings about college range from enthusiastic to ambivalent to discouraging. Nevertheless, the bigger problem is that most cannot afford to contribute financially to their children’s education.”
He says that Julio and the thousands of young adults like him live their lives “on a treadmill,” with numerous obstacles – tuition, bills, car trouble, health problems, and caring for parents – that can cause them to quickly fall behind.
What little money Julio saved for college is now spoken for by just such an obstacle, a car accident he was involved in earlier this summer.
Nobody was hurt, but Julio’s car was totaled in a collision with another vehicle. Without a Social Security Number, Julio can’t get a license, which means he can’t get insurance. After the accident he was cited for driving without a license, driving without insurance, and inattentive driving. He says his fines total close to $900, plus he owes $3,000 for the repairs to the other vehicle.
Like the estimated 1.2 million other undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, Julio holds out hope that the deferred action policy that President Barack Obama announced in June will give him greater options.
“I’m hoping that the new law comes into action pretty fast,” he says. “From what I hear you can get a work permit, then maybe a Social Security Number, and then you actually get to be somebody in the states.”
Immigration experts are still ferreting out what the new policy will mean for children like Julio. What is known is that as of Aug. 15, undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States before age 16, who were under the age of 31 as of June 15, and who meet several other criteria, can file a Request for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. That would allow them to apply for a temporary work permit good for two years.
According to Gonzales, a successful deferred action application will make Julio eligible for work-study programs, paid internships, and more secure jobs. However, early indications are that such applications may take up to six months to process and won’t grant workers a Social Security Number. That means federal financial aid still won’t be available. It also doesn’t guarantee that a state will offer in-state tuition or issue a drivers’ license to permit-holders.
Julio says he didn’t worry about deportation much growing up, but as he enters adulthood the reality of his situation has begun to hit him.
“Definitely,” he says when asked if he’s scared of being deported. “What if you were sent to a place you didn’t know? What if you were sent to China when you have nothing that ties you to there? I have no idea what I would do [in Mexico]. No idea.”
“Do you consider yourself an American?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, without hesitation. “I don’t like football, that is the only difference between me and any other American.”
This is where many would ask why he didn’t come here legally.
“I would just say that I was seven years old,” he says. “You don’t have an option when you’re seven years old? What would you have done? Said no?”
He would love to apply for citizenship now, but he can’t, not without returning to Mexico. There’s no path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who came here as children, despite Obama’s June announcement.
“Regardless of your stance on illegal immigration,” Gonzales argues, “there’s a real case to be made to treat these kids very differently. To create a real pathway to citizenship. It’s critical to their parents, to their communities. These are fully integrated Americans, who are legally left out.”
Julio knows he’ll be taking a risk by applying for deferred action, but it’s the only option he has now to take a step toward any kind of legal status, which he desperately wants. So he’ll fill out the form, put his name and address into the system, and put his fingerprints on file at the agencies that he would normally do anything to avoid encountering. He’ll hope that in two years he can get a two-year extension.
At the end of those four years his future is unclear. There may not be a chance for another extension. He could once again be undocumented, with all of his information on file with the agencies that can choose to deport him, depending on the policy of whatever administration is in charge.
With his college dream just weeks away, it’s the only choice he has.