What It's Really Like To Be Undocumented & In College

Photographed by Collins Nai.
Laura Veira is an undocumented immigrant and freshman at Harvard University this fall.
As Laura Veira, 18, prepared for her first day at Harvard University, there were plenty of things to think about. Chief among them: the academics and extracurricular activities she would delve into, the new people she would meet, and how to figure out what she truly wanted to do with her life. In other words, hers were the typical freshman's hopes and anxieties.

But unlike most of her peers, Veira also had to think about whether her immigration status could someday keep her from finishing her studies or finding a job. Veira is undocumented, and she's starting at Harvard in the final months of a fierce presidential race that has had immigration as one of its focal points.

Every year, roughly 65,000 undocumented students like Veira finish high school in the U.S. According to the American Immigration Council, only 5 to 10% of them go on to pursue higher education. But this fall, as approximately 20.5 million students start college nationwide, Veira is among them.

That part of my life was hidden; it was a huge secret. My mom kind of taught me to be ashamed of it.

Laura Veira, Harvard University student
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Veira was born in Bogotá, Colombia. Her father came to the United States in 2000 and, a year later, brought his wife and three children to live with him. At the time her family left, Colombia was experiencing one of the deadliest periods in its history. Kidnappings were at an all-time high. In the first six months of 2001 alone, the Colombian National Police reported 98 massacres — mostly the work of paramilitary groups — in which 568 people were killed, according to Human Rights Watch. Veira’s parents were among the 1.6 million Colombians who left the country between 1996 and 2003.

Veira was only 3 when the family moved to a small city in Connecticut, where the children could go to school without fear of violence. Growing up, she said the burden of being undocumented was always there.

“That part of my life was hidden; it was a huge secret,” Veira told Refinery29. “My mom kind of taught me to be ashamed of it.”
Photographed by Collins Nai.
Veira said she lives with the constant fear of her family being deported while she is at college.
In her new home, her immigration status set her apart from most of her friends — one asked Veira if the green card she presumed Veira had was "really green." But her relative privilege made her want to fight for other undocumented people, she said.

"My experience is not representative of our community. I’ve had it hard, but still my life has been easier than other people’s," Veira said. "I came by airplane. I didn’t have to cross borders."

Veira qualified to stay in the U.S. under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Through DACA, she was granted a Social Security number, a two-year, renewable work permit, and the right to stay in the U.S. DACA also helped her enroll in college, as it has many other undocumented students.

Laws about whether undocumented students can enroll in college vary from state to state, and colleges use their own discretion over how they handle such cases. There's no federal law prohibiting the admission of undocumented students to college, but states such as Arizona, Georgia, and Indiana prohibit them from receiving in-state tuition rates, and others, such as South Carolina and Alabama, forbid them from enrolling in any public post-secondary institution. Meanwhile, other states, including California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington, are more receptive to undocumented students, offering both in-state tuition and financial aid.

[DACA has] been an important, transitional program, but it can't last in an open-ended basis

Dr. Michael Olivas, author of "No Undocumented Child Left Behind"
But her future in the U.S. remains far from certain. While a DACA permit allows a person to leave the country and return (in some circumstances), it isn't a path to residency or citizenship. People with DACA permits must pay taxes, but they aren't eligible for benefits, such as health care under the Affordable Care Act, for example. And it's unclear what a President Trump would mean for people who rely on DACA right now.

She said it was due to the "real threat [Trump] represents" that she flew to the Republican National Convention in July with other undocumented activists to protest his candidacy and his immigration platform. She said she plans to keep on fighting for immigration reform while at Harvard. But she’s also aware of the challenges she will face in her first year of school: normal freshman stuff, like balancing her activism with academics, and being away from her family for months at a time.

But unlike many of her classmates, she must also face the constant fear of returning home to find that her family has been deported.

“I’ve never been so simultaneously scared and excited in my life,” she said.
Photo: Ivan Molina
Joaida Tornes started at St. Mary's University in Texas this fall. She said meeting other undocumented students made her feel more comfortable.
Meanwhile, more than 2,000 miles away from Harvard, another young undocumented woman, Joaida Tornes, just started at St. Mary's University in San Antonio. Right off the bat, she said she found a support system of other “out of the undocu-closet” students.

“It’s nice to know people who understand what you’re going through,” she said. “If you tell some people, ‘I’ve to save money for my [DACA permit] renewal,’ they don’t understand.”

Tornes was born in Guerrero, Mexico, and crossed the border when she was 3 years old. Her family first moved to Alabama and then relocated to a town on the southernmost tip of Texas, just north of the Rio Grande, which divides the United States and Mexico.

Tornes was also able to go to college through a DACA permit. But getting the permit was both time-consuming and expensive. Tornes started by digging up school and medical records, school certificates, and other evidence to show she met the program's criteria. A lawyer prepared the paperwork pro bono, but she said her family paid $465 to submit the forms and have her biometrics taken.
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I didn’t really start thinking about college until my sophomore year, because that’s when I applied for my DACA, and I didn’t want to get my hopes up.

Joaida Tornes, St. Mary's University student
The application fee can make DACA out of reach for many. The average undocumented family earns about $30,100 per year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. That's far lower than the average median household in the U.S., which was $56,516 in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Once the paperwork was in, Tornes had to have her fingerprints taken so the government could verify that she didn't have a criminal record. She finally obtained her two-year DACA permit in March of 2015. It was around that time Tornes visited the campus and fell in love with St. Mary’s. After accepting its admission offer, she was happy to discover the school provided her with financial support.

David Krause, the university’s director of financial aid, said that currently there are roughly 30 undocumented students he has worked with on campus. St. Mary's offers free legal help to those who need help with the DACA application. Krause also helps students figure out how to pay for college — undocumented students are not eligible for federal funding such as loans, grants, scholarships, or work-study.

“We’ve seen the quality of our [undocumented] students. Many are stories of success after graduation,” Krause said. “The results have been outstanding.”

In the six weeks since Tornes started at St. Mary's, she has made new friends, is happy with her classes, and believes that leaving her hometown was the best decision she could have made.

“It’s really exciting to start my journey on getting a college degree. It’s always been a really big thing for my mom, me, and my sister,” she said, adding that it was why her mother left Mexico. “So, for me, the number-one thing is to make sure that my mom’s sacrifices didn’t go to waste.”
Photo Courtesy of Anayeli Marcos.
Anayeli Marcos is a 22-year-old undocumented graduate student. She said she didn't feel supported when she started college because of her immigration status.
But not all undocumented students find support and friendship right off the bat. Anayeli Marcos, a 22-year-old graduate student, remembers being thrilled back in 2012, when she started at the University of Texas at Austin. During her freshman year, however, her life began to unravel.

“I felt really lonely. I didn’t really know a lot of people,” she said.

Marcos spent most of her free time by herself, unable to connect with her classmates or even her roommates, with whom she didn’t seem to have anything in common. Being undocumented and keeping it a secret didn’t help.

“I felt uncomfortable going to my academic advisor because I didn’t know what her views on immigration were,” she said. “So I didn’t want to tell her I was undocumented, in case she didn’t like me anymore.”

Marcos — who, like Tornes, moved to the U.S. from Guerrero, Mexico, in 2000 — struggled so much during that first year that she was put on academic probation. She even considered dropping out.

I felt uncomfortable going to my academic advisor, because I didn’t know what her views on immigration were. So I didn’t want to tell her I was undocumented, in case she didn’t like me anymore.

Anayeli Marcos, University of Texas at Austin student
But everything changed her sophomore year. Marcos joined University Leadership Initiative, a student organization, and befriended other undocumented students who helped her cope.

“I worked really hard, and now that I had a support system, I felt better coping with all the anxieties and struggles that come with being an undocumented student, and I was able to come out of academic probation,” she said.
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Marcos graduated in May, and is now pursuing a dual master’s degree in social work and Latin American studies, also at UT Austin.

She said that her experience is a good reminder that despite the feel-good narrative of the straight-A undocumented student, making mistakes and sometimes failing is part of life, as well.

“[As] undocumented students and youth, we’re often pushed to be perfect,” she said. “But it’s okay if you’re not.”

As the election draws near, the future of DACA, and thus the 2 million young immigrants who depend on the program to learn and work, remains uncertain.

“DACA has been a tremendous success. It has provided refuge for people whose lives were in the shadows,” said Michael Olivas, PhD, JD, author of No Undocumented Child Left Behind. “But this election will extend it or end it.”

For all three young women, the end of DACA could mean the end of their futures here in the U.S. It's a possibility that Tornes said would negatively impact young immigrants and the country as a whole.

"There’s a lot of us who want to make the U.S. a better country. The people I’ve met that are in the same situation as me have been [some] of the most determined individuals I’ve ever come across," Tornes said.
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