I spend my days working with immigrants at Su Casa Hispanic Center. Several weeks ago, I attended an event about immigration and Laura was one of four college students who told their stories. She moved to the United States when she was four from Colombia. Her family was escaping violence. She is undocumented but is able to attend college because of DACA (Deferred Action for Child Arrivals), a law that was put into place to allow undocumented immigrants who came over before the age of 16 the opportunity to go to school or work. We hear a lot about immigration and will start to hear more as the election rolls around. So often, if we just get to know people with different experiences than ours, our opinions change for the better. At the end of the day, I’m no better than Laura. It was sheer luck and chance that I was born a United States citizen and thus will never have to experience things she has. I’m so grateful that she was willing to tell her story on here. I hope it makes you think.
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio; born in Bogota, Colombia
Do you have any memories of the first several years of your life in Colombia?
Most of my memories are of right before I left. We lived in my grandma’s house. I remember that very well. It was very crowded. A big thing in my family we called porunchos. We pretty much would all just like cuddle in my grandma’s bed, even though it would be like 10 different people … I don’t remember too much, though. I just remember we weren’t well off, we weren’t dirt poor. We were just kind of there, I feel like. My parents owned a car body shop. I loved being there. I remember me and my sister would always be there. I guess they would build things and they would have wood shavings in there. And so we’d build things with it. They have pictures of me doing that. But I remember that a lot, playing in there. It wasn’t in the best neighborhood. I think that was one of the reasons my parents would get so many threatening calls and things like that. I don’t remember too much.
So your parents would get threatening calls?
According to what my sister and my parents had told me, it wasn’t that unusual. I think what was unusual from that one call that made us come here was how much they knew about us, which was my sister’s information. So when she came to school, when she came home, her bus number, our address … just very, very personal information. My parents took it very seriously.
So what exactly was that call about? They said they knew all this stuff about you, but what were they threatening to do?
Money. I don’t know too much about exactly what went on. I just know that it was most-likely money. Colombia wasn’t the safest place at the time. My parents … it was either my dad or my sister who told me, but my dad has been held at gunpoint before. Things have been stolen from us. It wasn’t that safe. When we left, it wasn’t that uncommon, people leaving. Later on I started looking up things. I found out that Colombia has one of the highest rates of displacement, which means like people have left their homes and either gone abroad or somewhere else in Colombia. Colombia has one of the highest rates of displacement, so my family was among thousands of families that fled because the violence was so bad there. Now it’s getting a lot better. It’s not as bad as it used to be. There are certain parts of Colombia that are still pretty bad and you have to look out for, but what I’ve heard and what I’ve read, it’s not as bad as when we left.
So after that call happened that was really scary, you guys decided to come to the US.
So my dad, these are my parents words, my dad told me that after two weeks or a month or so, my dad came here and then we followed after like three months. So my dad came here because my aunt lives here. So I asked my mom because I’m going to Costa Rica and the reason why I was so interested in Costa Rica is because Costa Rica has one of the most friendly immigration/refugee policies. Most of their refugees are actually Colombian. So that interests me a lot. So I asked my mom why we came to the US? Did you ever think of going to another place? And she was like “well, your aunt lived here and that just seemed like the best decision.” So I asked her what if my aunt wasn’t living here and she was like “I have no idea where we would be.” So that kind of is an interesting thing. We had someone here. Most people don’t have someone here. That ends of being why a lot of people cross the border because that’s their last resort.
So your aunt had a cleaning business here in Cincinnati and you guys came to work with her? Did you come over on tourist visas?
Yeah we came over on tourist visas. So my parents told me we were going to Disneyworld. So we went there. I don’t remember any of it, surprisingly. I remember sleeping on the bench after all of it (laughs). But we went there. We were there for a while and then we went up to Cincinnati.
What was going through your head when you first came to the United States? Do you remember any of that?
It’s all a blur. I feel like I was very indifferent to everything. I don’t know if it was because there was so much changing that it just like flew over my head or what, but I don’t remember much as to my opinion. I just remember we were coming to Cincinnati and my parents were like “this is your new home!” And I’m like “okay, I guess?”
So you had said in your story that your sister was able to buy you all a house. How does that feel now to have something permanent?
We finally have something that’s our’s here … It’s really hard to buy a house if you’re undocumented. I believe it’s like for anybody else, you can put 10% down. Typically for undocumented people, it’s like 15-20% down that you have to put. A lot of the things that we do, we have to think of them as not permanent. I mean when my sister first told me that she wanted to buy a house, I was almost against it. I was like “I don’t know what’s going to happen.” My dad refuses to get a new car because he’s like “I don’t know what’s gonna happen. What if we buy a new car and then end up getting deported or something?” Nothing’s really permanent in our lives.
What is that like? What kinds of fears does that bring?
Driving. My dad drives everywhere … Kentucky, Dayton, all throughout Ohio and Kentucky as well. So he’s constantly driving. His car looks very beat-up. It’s my aunt’s car from when we moved here. It’s a 1996 I think, model. So it’s really old and it’s gone through a lot. So that scares me. Cops typically look at old cars and kind of scope them out a bit. And it does look sketchy in certain neighborhoods. So it does worry me when my dad drives. My parents have been pulled over a couple of times. My mom got pulled over two years ago for speeding. Luckily nothing happened. My parents are friends with a bunch of lawyers, apparently, so that’s vey helpful. The court that my mom went to was not Butler County. Butler is known for being really terrible when it comes to immigrants and undocumented people. They are literally trying to scope them out. That is there mission. So my mom was fine. My dad once got pulled over for a tail light and he was fine. But we’ve been very lucky. One of the top ways that people get deported is because of driving.
People get pulled over and then have to show their papers.
Yeah but Cincinnati is oblivious. I guess we fall under the radar. I think if we lived in a place like Texas, for example, or somewhere in the South, this would be a bigger issue. We fall under the radar. But it’s still scary. They used to do raids around here. I don’t think they do it too often anymore. When we first moved here, my parents worked in factories. So my mom would have, I specifically remember this, I would cry when my mom would go to work. She would go from like 6 to 2 in the morning, and I hated that. My sister was my babysitter at like nine years old. They had to work a lot and my parents couldn’t afford a babysitter. They didn’t even know how to get a babysitter. So that was difficult. A lot of it is just the driving part. We don’t have to worry about raids because my parents own their own businesses, practically. But when they did work in the factories, I didn’t realize how scary that actually was.
So that’s pretty typical. ICE (Immigration and Customs) will come to a factory and just check everyone’s immigration status, basically?
Yeah. I’m pretty sure they’ve done that with construction. So that’s still a little bit of a worry with my dad (he works in construction). So when my parents worked, either my sister would have to take care of me or typically, we’d just go to work with them even though we weren’t supposed to. We would go to work with them and there was this huge paper on the wall about all the rules and regulations. And there was a big section that was the immigration part. It would always make me laugh after I found out about our situation.
When did you find out that you guys were undocumented?
15. So probably a little bit before then, my best friend’s family was real close with my family. Her older sister was studying to become a lawyer and so my sister opened up to her. And her older sister kind of told my best friend and then she kind of told me. But I guess some of the stuff I would say didn’t add up. I didn’t catch on to it, but her family did. So I remember one day I was walking with my friend and we started talking about things. And she was like “have you ever thought of why these things don’t add up? Have you ever asked your parents? Have you ever questioned anything?” And I was like “no. I never thought of that.”
What sorts of things wouldn’t add up?
So the fact that some of our bills were under my aunt’s name. The fact that my parents, when it came to driving, I remember specifically when our car broke down, and my parents would freak out and I didn’t understand why that was a big deal. The fact that the seatbelt … my parents freaked out about that. Not just because of my safety but because they don’t want to get pulled over for that. The fact that we hadn’t been back to Colombia in so long. That was odd because it’s expensive but not to the point that we shouldn’t have been able to go for over 15 years. The fact that we had to go to Indianapolis or Chicago to go to the embassy for things. There’s just a lot of random things that were odd. So I didn’t know what I was. I didn’t know if I had a green card. A lot of people would ask. Which you would think something like that is so personal, but people would ask “are you a citizen? Do you have a visa? Do you have a green card?” And I didn’t know these terms. My parents had never talked about it. Surprise, but I never tried to figure out what these things were. So I would just lie about what I was. I didn’t know why I was lying, but I did.
So when you found this out, how did you feel?
It was funny because my friend gave me the “maybe you should start questioning things” and then my sister was talking to my parents and they were like “we need to tell her.” My sister told me when we were on a walk. My mom didn’t want to see me cry about it. I guess she didn’t want that to happen. So my sister wanted to tell me beforehand so that when my mom told me, it wouldn’t be a big deal. And when my sister told me I was like “oh, that’s fine. It’s not a big deal.” It was almost a relief because she was like “I have this huge thing” and I was like “oh, that’s all you had to tell me? Like I already had an idea about it.”
So at the time I didn’t realize exactly what it meant to be undocumented. It wasn’t until a little bit later. When I turned 16 … oh that was another thing that didn’t add up. Every time I talked about driving, she would get so mad at me. I’m like “why are you getting mad at me? This is a normal thing!” It was just like “I don’t wanna talk about it!” I didn’t know why she would be upset and why she didn’t want to talk about it. I remember in school we talked about the citizenship thing you have to go through. They simplify it so much. Oh you take a test, you have to speak English, you have to do this. I would get mad at my parents and I’m like “in school, we learn this. It’s not that hard. Why aren’t you doing this? Why aren’t you taking this seriously?” And my mom would refuse to talk to me about any of that stuff, so that didn’t add up. After I found out and it came time to get my temps and then college came around, thats when I felt what it meant to be undocumented. Everyone was getting their temps and were asking why you weren’t getting your temps. “Oh, driving school is too expensive. I’m going to wait until I’m 18 and I can drive.” Things like that, I had to lie about a lot.
When it came to college, nobody in my family knew what to do about college. My parents thing had always been do well in school, get good grades and the rest should take care of it’s self type of thing. So luckily my best friend’s family kind of helped me with that a little bit … When it came to financial aid, I think that’s when it got really, really rough. That’s when I knew I was undocumented, when it came to college. I think it was the college part that just hit me because every time I looked at scholarships, citizen was tied to it. When I looked at how much college costs, my parents could barely afford many things. So I remember crying in my friend’s car saying I have no idea how I’m about to do this on my own. I have no idea how I’m supposed to pay for all of college. I don’t want to ask my parents for help because they can’t help. That was the biggest thing for me. I was a decent student. I wasn’t the smartest, but I did well in academics. By midway through high school, my biggest goal was to do mostly AP and accelerated classes. My parents had always said “if you do well, something has to happen. If you push yourself, something has to happen.” And so I pushed myself to do the most that I could because in my mind, I thought “if I do all this, how could something not happen for me? How could I not go to college if I push myself to do all these things?” And summer of junior year was the first time I thought “maybe that doesn’t happen. Maybe no matter how hard you push yourself, shit doesn’t happen sometimes.” And it did. I’ve been very lucky how things lined up.
So you’re able to go to college because of DACA?
So when I said I wasn’t a great student, I got a 27 on my ACT but not enough for academic scholarships. So I would look into diversity scholarships. Each time citizenship was attached to it. Lulac at a point required citizenship. I believe the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce had citizenship required at some point. So all these scholarships had citizenship attached to it. And then I got DACA and I looked into UC and found the Darwin D. Turner Scholarship. It was funny because their’s didn’t explicitly say that you needed to be a citizen. They had about six different requirements you had to have, one of which was that you had to have in-state tuition. At the time DACA or undocumented students could not get in-state tuition. UC would have cost me 23,000 because I would have been considered an international student at most schools … that was … I had no idea how I was supposed to afford that. But when my senior year rolled around, Governor Kasich announced that he was going to let all Ohio schools let DACA students get in-state tuition. UC’s Darwin T. Turner Scholarship, all it said was that you need to be able to get in-state tuition. So I kind of found my loophole … a lot of things were opening up for DACA students my senior year. That’s extremely lucky.
So a lot of things opened up my senior year. So when I tell my story, that’s one thing I want people to keep in mind. I have been lucky, or blessed or whatever you want to call it because most people don’t get that opportunity. My sister, nothing happened during that time. Most students don’t even know that these things are happening. And for most … I have a couple of friends who are undocumented and they were able to go to college. I have no idea how they did it. They had nothing in place for them.
So that worry of losing your DACA … what’s that like?
Nothing’s permanent. If I can sum up my experience, it’s that nothing’s permanent and nothing’s yours. College is a big part where you’re always planning ahead. I don’t know how many professors and advisors have asked me what I plan to do after I graduate. What internships are you looking for? And now many time I’ve been told to start looking things up now and I can’t do that because I don’t know what’s going to happen when I graduate. That’s one of the most annoying things. I remember my director … she knows my story to the bone. I’ve told her everything. One of her questions was “where do you see yourself in 5 years? Even 10?” And I said “I can’t even tell you where I see myself in two years. I can’t see myself past DACA. Once that expiration date, I can’t even tell you what happens to be honest.” So that’s always in the back of my head when it comes to planning my future because I can’t. Research opportunities, internship opportunities … most of them have citizenship tied to them. A lot of it is just planning and it’s hard when your future is so shaky.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about immigrants?
So many … so many so many so many. The fact that people think citizenship is so easy to get. Nobody knows … I don’t even know the process. It’s complicated. I haven’t even been able to go through with it myself. I’ve read about it and things, but I don’t even know to the full extent. But it’s difficult to get here, let alone have some sort of status in here. I remember … so my parents tried to apply for asylum and had a really terrible lawyer who told them they couldn’t apply for it, which we could have. But they don’t accept many refugees. If you’ve heard about the Syrian crisis … people here are so afraid of refugees, people are so afraid of immigrants, which is funny when you hear “America, the land of immigrants!”
Throughout history we’ve always been terrible to immigrants. That’s something that I’ve studied any time that I’ve had to do a research project, I’ve always done it on immigration. The first time I got exposed to it was my AP American History class. I had to a 20-page research paper on a major event and so I did the 1925 immigration act. So I got to study all the history of immigration and all the policies that went with it. We’ve been really terrible to immigrants throughout history. People have this idea that immigrants are going to take jobs and they’re terrible people. Or they’re immoral or as Trump wants to say “Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers and things that.” So a lot of it is based on fear. A lot of the assumptions. Obviously you get your bad people with anything, but that doesn’t mean were all like that. If anything, we’re mostly not like that. So the the biggest misconception is that citizenship is easy to get and it’s not. Not at all. Getting refugee status as we’re starting to learn, is not easy at all. You can’t just come in and that’s how people want to view it. Luckily my family didn’t get to experience it but a lot of families do.
Crossing the border is not fun and dandy. If you’re a woman and you’re crossing the border, you’re most likely going to get raped. You’re most likely going to get mugged, if you don’t die there. The chances of you dying are pretty high as well. They have found so many bodies in the desert. And so all these deceptions that these processes are so easy and they’re not. People don’t just come here because it’s fun. It’s because that’s their last resort. I read through Facebook comments, which is the worst thing you can do. What I’ve seen a lot of people say is “why don’t you just go back to your country and try to fix it? Aren’t you a little bit of a coward for not trying to help your country be fixed?” And it’s not that easy. It’s not easy to do that. It’s not that people don’t have pride in their country, it’s the fact that their lives are on the line. And for the most part when people are crossing the border, they’re not saying “oh, I’m going to break a law today!” That’s not on their head. What’s on their head is they’re either trying to escape poverty or they’re trying to escape violence, pretty much. I think that’s the thing that people don’t realize … how much harder it is. It’s a privilege to be born here. People are so entitled to that. “Oh, what did you to deserve to be here?” And people don’t realize what we’ve put into. Another misconception about undocumented people is that we don’t pay taxes. Yes, we pay taxes. A lot of us do. The number of people actually paying taxes has risen a lot in the past few years. We are one of the major contributors to the welfare programs because we put in a lot of taxes that we can’t take out. We can’t receive any welfare.
Anything else you want to add?
Yeah my trip to Costa Rica! So for DACA, you can apply for advanced parole. Advanced parole pretty much means … you pay like $300. Pretty much you apply for this thing and you have to show that you’re going abroad either for school, work or there’s a family crisis. You have to have obviously a bunch of proof on that. And then typically it takes two to four months to get a notice. Through advanced parole … it’s a lot of money to spend to even think about going abroad. I’ve already spent close to $1,000 and I’m not even sure if I can get into Costa Rica.