When Oscar Gonzalez was 11 years old, he, his mother and his three little brothers were caught trying to enter the United States and detained by border patrol agents.
His family was sent back to Mexico and later made a second, successful attempt to cross the border into Texas.
“It was pitch dark,” Gonzalez said. “We walked for like nine hours and then we got to Texas and (went to) a small house where there was a bunch of people pretty much pushed into a room and we couldn’t leave the room except (to use the washroom) and stuff like that.”
Now a student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Gonzalez joined two other college students March 2 for a panel discussion hosted by the DePaul Alliance for Latino Empowerment discussing life as an undocumented immigrant. Gonzalez was joined by Iris Sanchez, a DePaul student whose family came to the U.S. from Nicaragua, and Alex Escobedo, a Loyola student who came from Mexico at the age of four. The students shared personal stories of their journey crossing the border, adjusting to life in the United States and the effects of anti-immigrant rhetoric by elected officials.
Unlike Gonzalez, Sanchez and her siblings had visas to enter the U.S. They applied under the claim that she and her siblings were her uncle’s children as he was already an American citizen. Her uncle drove to Nicaragua, picked up Sanchez and her siblings and drove them back to the U.S.. She was three-years-old and her mother had already made the more dangerous journey by foot into the U.S.
Escobedo was only two-years-old when he was brought to the U.S. and has no real memory of the time he lived in Mexico.
“I come from a really poor family in Mexico and I’ve seen pictures of the little space we used to live (in),” Escobedo said. “It didn’t really have concrete floors (and things were) in need of constant repair. So they saw (moving to the U.S.) as an opportunity. And they just felt that maybe sacrificing everything and moving to a country that (could) provide a better life. And it was a good decision, I wouldn’t have all the opportunities I’ve had without their sacrifices.”
Opportunity was among the top motivators for Gonzalez, Sanchez and Escobedo’s families in leaving their home countries and living with the risk of deportation in the U.S. And while all three are happy their families moved to the U.S., sometimes their status as undocumented immigrants creates unique obstacles in their lives.
When Gonzalez was accepted into college, his status roadblocks in obtaining enough financial aid to actually enroll. The university sent him a letter that they would be unable to offer him financial assistance and when he met with an employee from financial aid he confirmed that if Gonzalez wanted to go to the University of Illinois he would have to pay full tuition. “That got to me,” he said. “(It felt) like all the work I had done was thrown into the garbage.” He applied to a number of scholarships and was granted four of them, enough for him to afford attending school at the University of Illinois.
Living in the U.S. is the only way of life Escobedo knows, but at times he’ll faced undesired reminders of his legal status in the country he was raised. One such occasion was during high school. His high school, Lane Tech, required that students pass their drivers test to graduate. He took the class at his school as it had its own driving range but when after the passing the class he was informed that he still could not receive his driver’s license
“They told me that because I didn’t have a social security number I couldn’t get my license,” Escobedo said. He describes this as the first time he truly understood he was undocumented and what that meant.
Sanchez, on the other hand, was aware at a young age that her family’s legal status in the U.S. put them at risk.
“My mom would be like ‘Stand up straight, behave, don’t do anything that would draw attention to yourself,’ just because she was scared and she tried to stay calm and be a figure for me to not be scared,” she said. “But, knowing her so well, I knew she was scared too.”
Escobedo emphasized that the tendency to see all undocumented immigrants as the same is problematic, and that “every story is different.”
Gonzalez said he tries his best to communicate with those who oppose undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
“I had an incident where people would come up to me and say, ‘We don’t want undocumented people on campus,’” Gonzalez said. When he tried to have a conversation as to why these people felt that way, one of them walked away. “What does that say? He’s ignorant or he has the wrong information. I have friends that voted from Trump and I say, ‘Alright, let’s talk.’”
Sanchez said anti-immigrant rhetoric is worsened by distortions of the facts.
“There’s so much going around, false information, misconceptions, just crazy things that are going on, especially with (President Trump),” Sanchez said. “Just start with the basis that we’re all human. Go off of that. Talk to them. Get to know them. We’re not all bad people, maybe some are.”
In response to the argument that undocumented immigrants should come to the U.S. the “proper way” by applying for visa and waiting for the visa to be approved, the students were in agreement that it’s easier said than done.
“Without (immigration reform) it’s highly difficult to become a citizen or even a green card holder,” Escobedo said.
Sanchez agreed, saying “a lot of people don’t have the resources or the option (to get the proper paperwork. There’s a lot of violence going on in a lot of different Latin American countries right now. Sometimes you don’t have the time, the resources, (or) the ability to just file some papers. You don’t know how long that’s going to take. There are people (whose) families are getting killed and these horrible things are happening that (they need) help.”
She pointed to her person story as an example of this.
“We did it the best we could,” Sanchez said. “It’s easy to say (immigrants need to enter the U.S. with proper documentation) if you’re not going through it, if you’re not struggling, if you aren’t going through hunger, if you aren’t scared for your life. If you’re safe and sound, it’s easy to ask someone else, ‘Why don’t you do it the right way?’ Well, the right way isn’t going to save your life or put food on your table or protect your family.”
Gonzalez said without reform, people like them will continue making the decision to come to the U.S. without the proper documentation.
“The immigration system is broken,” he said.