If All the Doors Are Closed: Undocumented Youth & Higher Education

Near the end of my freshman year at college, the woman who would become my lifelong best friend and – in so many ways – mentor stood in my dorm room, perusing my framed photo collection amid my Introduction to the Humanities course readers. On the shelf was a framed photo of my high school class, taken on the day when all the seniors wear their university t-shirts and pose on the bleachers outside our college preparatory academy for a final group photo.

       “What about the kids who didn’t go to college?”, my friend inquired.


       “Every kid in your class went to college?”, she confirmed, incredulously.

Now, there were only 72 of us in that graduating class. But, yes, every single one of us went to college. As did every kid in the class ahead of us and the one below. And while I know not everyone finished a four-year collegiate program, I’m sure it was considered scandalous if there was a student from my high school who didn’t – at least – initially enroll. College was a guarantee. And an expectation. I had no idea of my own privileged position until that friend of mine called me out on my ignorance. Thank goodness for her. Swapping my naivete for a wider world view is an important challenge and I hope the stories and perspectives we share through Miss Matters only continue that challenge for me…and for you, Sugars.

Nowadays, I make a living teaching standardized test prep, editing college application essays and advising students and their parents on college selection. I work with privileged students, with students applying for scholarships and work-study programs and with students with learning disabilities, for whom the academic future is uncertain. With the increasingly – nearly prohibitively – choosy admittance percentages of colleges, there is an encouraging increase in interest in nontraditional educational paths. But many of us unwittingly assume we’re operating under a mostly merit-based educational system. As long as you’re pursuing a reasonably achievable academic goal, you’ll find your niche in the appropriate environment.

So what, then, does one do, when – despite the necessary academic achievement and ability and ambition – doors are closed to further advancement? What does one do when merit doesn’t matter?

As a dedicated and accomplished student, activist and community organizer Veronica Gomez deserved the education she pursued; but as an undocumented youth, government policy restricted her academic access.

My own college application process involved one single fear: that I wouldn’t get into my top choice. There was no other major concern. I knew I would go somewhere. My lack of fear was merely an absence of uncertainty.

Of the approximately 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school each year, only 5-6% will overcome the associated difficulties (lack of financial aid, exclusion from the workforce) and attend college. For Veronica and the thousands of others who not only desire, but are willing to fight for equal access to higher education, their rallying banner “undocumented and unafraid” doesn’t denote a lack of fear, but a determination to press on despite tremendous risk.

In this week’s mentor blog we are honored to share Veronica’s story, in her own words. She is joined by Jenniffer Castillo and Saray Deiseil, the two intrepid filmmakers who joined and documented Veronica’s and six other activists’ cross-country march to raise awareness for immigrant rights.

The resulting film, American Dreamers, “tells the story behind the Campaign for an American DREAM (CAD)*, a group of six undocumented youth and an ally who risk their freedom when they publicly come out as undocumented and walk 3,000 miles to the nation’s capital to organize for immigrant rights. These are college students, young professionals, activists, and community leaders. The documentary chronicles their journey as they come out of the shadows, share their stories, empower communities, and put everything on the line to fight in what they believe is their civil rights movement. They are undocumented and unafraid.”

How did each of you get involved in Campaign for an American Dream, originally?

Jenniffer Castillo: I first heard about CAD through a Google Alert! I had been writing a story about immigration at the time and had been doing a lot of research for it. When I read about them, I emailed Saray right away. Figured if they didn’t have cameras with them and they were open to being filmed, that this would be a tremendous story to cover. Within a week, we were on the phone with them. And within a month we met them on the road in Provo, Utah.

Saray Deiseil: As Jenn mentioned, she came to me with the article when CAD began their walk in San Francisco.  I immediately was on board because these are the stories we want to tell, stories that have a social cause and can shift the way people think and view certain issues.  This was a story that not only is important for our country to have a dialogue about, but it really hit close to home for us on many levels.  We were very fortunate to have had the opportunity to join them on their journey.  

Veronica Gomez: I found out about the walk via Facebook! Saw a post about a group of activists putting together the walk who were accepting applicants for walkers. I decided to submit, but they actually turned me down… Twice! I didn’t let that stop me. I volunteered with them before the walk, and when the walk first started I drove out during the weekends to walk with them. By the time they reached Vegas, they asked me to join full-time and I never left.

Vero, you have a personal story which relates specifically to educational rights in this country. Will you tell us a little about what it was like growing up undocumented?

VG: Growing up I didn’t really know what it meant to be undocumented. It wasn’t until I was 16 and tried to apply to a California driver’s license that reality sunk in. At the time, California did not issue licenses to undocumented immigrants. Once I graduated from high school, another reality sunk in… I couldn’t go to a four-year college because I didn’t qualify for in-state tuition… Or so I thought! AB 540 had passed in California in 2001… This was 2005… But the advisors at my high school were not not aware of the opportunities available to undocumented students and neither was I… I was told I couldn’t attend a four-year university. I went to community college instead and obtained two associates degrees. By then I realized I qualified for AB 540, I transferred into a four-year institution where I received a bachelor’s degree. Still, at my graduation I held back tears because I knew that without a work permit, I wouldn’t be able to use the degree I had worked so hard to obtain.

The biggest issue with being undocumented for me was not knowing others who were in my same situation. Back then, letting others know about your status and trusting them with that information was a big ‘no no’. It was a secret you could not share. Since 2010, with the rise of the undocumented youth movement, more and more people are now coming out of the shadows and sharing their stories publicly.

For those of us who don’t understand the process, can you shed some light on just how difficult obtaining legal status is in this country?

VG: For as long as I can remember, everyone always said ‘to get in the back of the line’ to obtain citizenship, but if there was a line many undocumented folks like myself would have stood in line.

My parents applied for residency through my dad’s sister when they first arrived, but 23 years later they were still waiting for an appointment from immigration to fix our status. Because of our broken immigration system, the processing time for a sibling to petition another can be decades long. If you ask me, 23 years is not a line, it’s a lifetime. My parents were finally able to get residency when my younger sister turned 21. The processing time when you’re petitioning a parent is much quicker. Within six months they had residency. Unfortunately, if my sister tried to petition for me, we would also be looking at a very long processing time.

Hearing stories like yours – and like that of your fellow CAD activist Jonatan Martinez who hoped to serve in the American armed forces – it seems particularly ironic that you sought a degree and a potential career in the public service sector in a country that, seemingly, via public policy, doesn’t appreciate your fight for your own education or your desired service. How difficult was it to maintain your own determination?

VG: It was difficult to maintain my determination and at times it still is…but my parents sacrificed so much to provide a better future for us. They’ve given me the strength to move forward. My mother always told me that when one door closes another opens, and if all the doors are closed, I better find a window or another way in.

Just to give you some background on my desire to pursue law enforcement…before I went to school for Criminal Justice because I wanted to be ready to be able to protect my family in case immigration ever came for them. Now that I have a work permit, granted to me through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, I am able to work legally but I still can’t be a police officer in the state of California because I am not a US citizen. DACA doesn’t grant us a pathway to citizenship and police work requires citizenship. My sister who is a US citizen is actually applying to be a police officer in San Francisco as we speak.

Since the walk, I’ve learned that I don’t have to be a police officer to protect my family. I have to be up to date with laws and legislations, I have to know our rights, and I have to be connected to a group who can advocate for us if anything happens. Being connected to activists and people on the ground who can advocate for you and your family goes a long way when you or a family member are in deportation proceedings… That’s why I urge people to get involved and reach out to the groups in their communities. It’s not that I’ve entirely given up on the idea of being a police officer, it’s simply that that is not an option for me at this time. Even with DACA, I am still undocumented.  

There’s been progress for the cause made via both your specific activism/film and via legislation at state and federal levels. For each of you  – personally – what is the most rewarding change you’ve witnessed?

JC: The most rewarding legislative change to have witnessed was the DACA announcement. CAD was part of a national civil disobedience orchestrated by the National Immigrant Youth Alliance and Immigrant Youth Coalition in which undocumented youth staged sit-ins in President Obama’s campaign office across the country, demanding President Obama to pass an executive order that would stop the deportation of DREAMers. Vero and Javier from CAD were the first to go in. The office they took over was the main campaign office in Denver. Their sit-in also turned into a hunger strike, and Saray and I were with them in the office for those six days. It was truly moving to see them risk arrest and deportation as a way to speak up for their community. At the time, we didn’t know what would come of it and if any of it would be worth it. But the day they walked out, others actions erupted in other states across the country and two days later President Obama announced DACA, giving them exactly what they asked for, a way to stop the deportations of undocumented youth.

It was really empowering to see young people spearheading the change. There were many other actions, previous to the takeover of the President’s offices, and I truly believe it was the collective efforts of the undocumented youth movement that led to the change. President Obama and his administration didn’t just make that announcement because it was the “right” thing. They did it because they were pushed, right when it hurt them the most, when they were canvassing for re-election votes.  

SD: I echo every word Jenn just mentioned.  The action in the Obama Campaign office in Denver, CO during the 2012 election they participated in was such a pivotal moment not only for the film and for the undocumented movement but for me personally.  To witness first-hand the power and influence that a small group of people can have inspired me to be more active in what I believe in and feel is just and fair.  Their courage and vulnerability carried the weight of what our country stands for and what the people of America have fought for. They taught me that we can’t just sit idle waiting for something to happen, we have to make it happen and they did.  Although it was rewarding to see them accomplish this, I know it’s not enough and I know that we still have a long way to go before we can make real change and I know they will continue the long fight just as they kept walking across the country after DACA was passed.

VG: Across the country different groups are organizing and continuing to fight for State Dream Acts, which allow undocumented students to pursue higher education degrees and qualify for in-state tuition. Some states like California are going a step further and allowing students to apply for state-funded grants and scholarships. There are also more and more privately-funded sources of aid for students since undocumented students cannot apply for federally-funded financial aid. My greatest sense of achievement as an activist and community organizer is becoming one and using the skills I have learned to help others.

Vero, obviously, you now fight for the rights of other undocumented individuals. What is the specific dream (for yourself and for the others’ on whose behalf you work) that is worthy of your undeniable conviction?

VG: My goal is to help others find their voice and to fight for their rights no matter the issue at hand.

What’s the next big hurdle for the campaign and what is the greatest threat to continued progress?

VG: The biggest hurdle is sometimes not being aware of the resources that are available to you. Other than that, it’s funding. We don’t qualify for federally funded financial aid and even in-state tuition is expensive. Many times it takes us 6+ years to obtain a degrees that others can afford in 4.

JC: So now that there is a way for young people to remain in this country with two-year work permits and deferral from deportations, we have to create a pathway to citizenship. Right now DACA does not offer a pathway to citizenship so young people who qualify for DACA will continue to have to reapply and pay hefty fees every two years.

We also need to expand relief to the families– parents and young people who may be over 31 years of age (a requirement of DACA) because remember one of the biggest problems of the broken immigration system is the separation of families. There was a push for parents of U.S. citizen children and young people over the age of 31 through another announcement President Obama did called DAPA & Extended DACA. However, a federal district court in Texas issued an order that temporarily blocks these programs from being implemented so the programs are being held up in court as we speak. The programs are expected to benefit 4.4 million people. We have to push for that program to be implanted, and then we have to fight for their pathway to citizenship as well.

But the fight is long from over… There’s an estimate of 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. About 4.4 million would benefit for DAPA and Extended DACA and just under 1 million have already benefited from DACA… so that’s what? 5.6 million who will not be eligible for any relief? What happens to them? And what happens to those who have already been deported? The other dreamers? The families who have already been separated? There’s always more work to be done… Unfortunately, this system has been broken for too long and it has affected too many people.  

Surely we will all hear much about immigrant rights and immigration policy on the road to the 2016 elections…for readers who are interested in how their votes will affect immigrants’ rights: do you have particular insights or opinions about what to look for within candidates’ platforms?

JC:  Look at their track record. Politicians like to change their mind and do whatever it takes to win a vote during election time. Let their own votes speak for themselves. But it’s not enough to look through platforms and hear speeches. As a community, we have to continue to hold our legislators accountable. If they promise something, make sure they follow through.  That’s what the undocumented youth movement has been doing with President Obama’s administration… holding him accountable for all the promises he made during both campaigns… It’s been an uphill battle for them and many people have sacrificed a lot, but they are slowly making strides. By pushing President Obama, they have been achieving what others have been trying to do in Congress for decades.

What’s next for the film, specifically?

SD: The world premiere of American DREAMers at the LA Film Festival this year was just the beginning. The film is getting ready to participate in the San Francisco Latino Film Festival September 18, which we are very excited about as San Francisco is where the journey began for CAD.  We will then have a small theatrical run along with visiting universities and high schools across the country starting this fall and into next year. The film will then be released online and through television outlets by next spring, at the latest. We will be inviting communities across the country to host screenings, so stay tuned by visiting our website. We have been so fortunate to have an incredible amount of support thus far and hope to continue sharing the film and engaging in this important discussion on immigration.  We invite undocumented activists and allies to connect with us and use the film as a tool.  This film is very much theirs as it is ours.  

How can people see the doc and how can individuals/communities of undocumented activists and allies join the campaign?

VG: Get involved in your local immigrant rights group and know your rights so you can protect yourself and others.

American Dreamers screens at the San Francisco Latino Film Festival on Saturday, September 19th at 3pm at the Mission Cultural Center – 2868 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110

For further reading on immigration policies as they directly relate to higher educational opportunities for undocumented youth in the U.S., we highly recommend the case study “Young Lives on Hold: The College Dreams of Undocumented Students” by Roberto G. Gonzales, for College Board Advocacy.

If you’d like to support and join the Campaign for an American Dream, please take a look at the following sites and sign up for the American Dreamers’ newsletter on the documentary website.







10494599_833572716727604_4175325848259784278_n*CAD’s mission: “to walk across the nation from San Francisco to D.C. creating dialogue around the passage of the DREAM Act and immigration reform with the values of equality, unity, and diversity. We believe all people are equal, all those who are oppressed should be united, and our daily lives and the Campaign itself highlight diversity.