I'm Undocumented And I'm Not Going Back In the Shadows

Courtesy of Nayda Benitez
Welcome to the inaugural class of '29. We've selected 29 graduating college seniors, entering the "real" world in 2018, to write about the state of their lives. What are their hopes, dreams, fears, stressors, failures, and successes as they leave school behind? We will be releasing new entries on a daily basis. If you would like yours to be considered, please email classof29@refinery29.com.
My first year in American public school, I spent most days sitting alone in the cafeteria and on the playground during lunch and recess. I was 7, and my family had recently immigrated to the United States from Puebla, Mexico, in search of economic and educational opportunities we had been deprived of back home.
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I didn’t know how to speak English and so it was hard for me to make friends. Even after I started learning, I was ashamed of how “broken” my English was. The cultural assimilation process was much worse for my parents. They were forced to navigate their new home country all on their own, without any formal English education. My mama and papa were young at the time and so they had to grow up quickly for there were no parents to comfort them. They each worked multiple jobs to help us get by. Though they never complained, I know now that they were severely overworked and underpaid. As undocumented Mexican immigrants, they were subjected to exploitation, racial discrimination and dehumanization. And yet, they persevered. By instilling in me the importance of education and the power of diligence, my parents enabled me to become the first in my family to graduate from high school and to be admitted to college. After the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was established in 2012, I was able to drive and work legally, which helped me immensely as I made the transition to college. Most importantly, I was able to live without the constant terror that I could be deported to a country I did not know, and consequently, be separated from my family. I could breathe a bit easier as I sat in class lectures, went to work, drove by police cars, and lived my life.
Illustrated by Paola DeLucca
Once I got to college, I again saw injustice and inequity. Undocumented students at my university were severely underserved. They had no institutional or financial support, no one to help them navigate higher education as students without legal status. For a long time, I wanted to do something about it, but I couldn’t find the courage or confidence to do so. I was worried that I would be alone even after I stepped out of the shadows and shared my identity publicly. I waited around for a long time for someone else to step up. I’m not sure if it was the increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric being spewed on campus, the sense of fear and shame among my fellow undocumented peers, or my own insecurities, but I realized there and then that I was the one I had been waiting for. With that in mind, I established a student organization for immigrant students. Within a year, we were able to enact new institutional policies to improve educational equity on our campus, including starting up a scholarship open to undocumented students and helping establish a staff position to help vulnerable immigrant populations. When DACA was rescinded, my student activism became community activism. I spent my senior year planning rallies during class lectures and catching up on homework assignments while at immigration town halls. I often had to choose between being a student and an activist, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I was no longer going to wait for someone to save me.
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In May, I became the first in my family to graduate from college. My diploma represents tears, dreams that once seemed unattainable, and a promise I made to myself and my familia. It represents a broken status quo, a glass ceiling that I fought long and hard to shatter as an undocumented brown womxn. But, this accomplishment is not mine alone: I have been successful because I stand on the shoulders of my family, the people that have come before me, and my broader immigrant comunidad. Their sacrifices live in me and I will forever be grateful for the strength they have given me.
I won’t lie, I am really worried for the future. Graduate school is even less accessible than undergraduate school for undocumented people. I also fear for my family and other families. Immigrant communities continue to be terrorized. Millions of hardworking members of our communities continue to live in limbo, without a pathway to citizenship. Many are being detained, abused while in detention and deported. Within the last few months, more than 2,000 immigrant children have been torn away from their families. What is worse is that the U.S. government currently has no institutionalized plan of retribution and reunification for these families. The trauma that has been inflicted on these children is inhumane. Migrants, especially brown migrants, are being criminalized and terrorized for simply seeking a better life.
And yet, even with those fears, I am hopeful. I know that the spirit of my immigrant community is larger and stronger than any man-made border. Many of us are no longer afraid because we understand that even though our undocumented identities are a part of us, they do not diminish us. Every day we use our courage, love, and strength to protect and advocate for each other. We are the ones we have been waiting for.
Nayda Benitez recently graduated from the University of Colorado Colorado Springs with a major in Sociology and a minor in Criminal Justice. She plans to continue community organizing while preparing herself for law school.

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