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Life as an undocumented immigrant in high school By Elise Mulligan

"not all undocumented immigrants are bad people.”

The student’s name has been changed for confidentiality purposes.

A pair of feet shuffle through the front entrance of Naperville North High School as Sofia arrives at school. She says good morning to the campus supervisors and makes her way to her first class. The day proceeds as usual until the final bell rings. She walks out of the building, and returns the next day to repeat the familiar school schedule.

Almost every person at Naperville North is unaware that Sofia traveled a very different path fifteen years ago — one that took her across the Mexico-U.S. border. An abstract political argument about walls is something she’s actually lived.

In 2004, three-year-old Sofia, her pregnant mother and Sofia’s aunt crossed the Mexico-U.S. border within a larger group of immigrants and the assistance of a human smuggler known as a “coyote.” In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security estimated that human smugglers charge up to $9,200 for this journey. After traveling through Texas, Sofia ended up in Illinois, where she currently resides with her mother, step-father and her four younger sisters. Her sisters were all born in the United States, so they automatically obtained citizenship while the remainder of the family are considered undocumented immigrants.

“[My sister] once told me that she felt guilty because she was a U.S. citizen and that I wasn’t,” Sofia said. “I always reassure her that my status here doesn’t affect what I want to do with my life…So even though [she is] a U.S. citizen, if I work harder than [her], then I will be able to achieve whatever I want.”

Sofia is an undocumented immigrant living in the United States, and she is not alone. The American Immigration Council estimates that 450,000 undocumented immigrants lived in Illinois in 2014, making up 3.5 percent of the total state population.

An undocumented immigrant, according to the Internal Revenue Service, is defined as someone who has illegally entered the country without approval or has remained in the country without permission after their visa or authorized stay has expired.

Regardless, Sofia explains that she does not dwell on her legal status on a day-to-day basis as she navigates high school.

“It’s one of those things that’s in the back of my mind,” Sofia said. “[When] no one asks, you’re not going to say anything.”

On a national level, the topic of undocumented immigration is not just “hot” — it’s blazing. President Trump has quite the reputation for his harsh stance on this issue, including his comments during the third presidential debate in 2016 about removing “bad hombres” from the country. Amid Trump’s plans to build the controversial border wall and discussion of drug trafficking and violent gangs that supposedly enter from Mexico, Sofia still feels no animosity towards the country she resides in.

“Just as much as [other] people don’t like to be categorized, we don’t either. Just because one undocumented immigrant did something bad doesn’t mean that everyone fits that mold. Just like not all Trump supporters are bigots, not all undocumented immigrants are bad people,” Sofia said.

Many undocumented immigrants who arrived as children, including Sofia, are protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) created during the Obama Administration. The program authorizes these children to be “lawfully present” in the United States for a period of two years — granted that they arrived before the age of 16 — and may be renewed for subsequent years. In other words, it provides temporary relief against deportation and grants applicants a social security number, driver’s license and work permit.

However, in September of 2017, the Trump Administration announced they would terminate DACA and refused to accept new applications. Federal judges have fought to keep the program alive, allowing those who previously received deferred action to apply for renewal. But those who have never applied are out of luck — the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will no longer accept new applications.

Sofia applied for DACA before September of 2017 and was approved in mid-January of 2019, granting her a social security number and the ability to apply for financial aid in college using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). She has since been accepted to three colleges, and more scholarship opportunities are available to her. Her DACA acceptance has also prompted a significant change her mindset.

“Now that I have DACA, I feel like there are so many more opportunities and things that I wasn’t able to do that now I can do,” Sofia said. “Now I don’t have anything to fear, but there’s still that uncertainty left inside of me that isn’t sure that I truly belong here given the fact that my status can be taken away from me.”

Citizenship in the United States is more than just a legal status. Philip E. Wolgin of the Center for American Progress, an independent nonpartisan policy institute, explains that U.S. citizens earn significantly higher wages and do not have to fear deportation, among other benefits. The process to become a citizen after birth begins by obtaining a Green Card, which grants permanent residency in the country and official immigration status. Next, one must apply for naturalization and meet certain criteria (including passing a citizenship test) to finally obtain citizenship.

Undocumented immigrants do not have the ability to obtain a Green Card and remain stuck at step one. Aside from a few unique circumstances, the United States offers very few options for undocumented immigrants to change their status.

Even within Naperville North, there is no sole consensus on how to approach undocumented immigration. NNHS students Kevin Phares, Ana Cardenas Manrique and Tim Zangler offer various solutions and opinions, which can be found here. Regardless, Sofia views the student body, for the most part, as fairly welcoming towards students like her.

“There still are people who will disagree and they do have their opinions, and I’m not saying their opinions aren’t validated — they are. But sometimes I feel like people are more open-minded than what we give them credit for,” Sofia said.

It wasn’t a seamless transition for Sofia’s family to adjust to the American lifestyle. She explained that she does not have a definitive sense of belonging in any one country. Aside from her first three years of life as a child, she is unfamiliar with her homeland of Mexico and many of the traditions from her past.

“If you want to be a part of the American culture, you have to give up a little bit of who you are,” Sofia said.

For now, Sofia will attend classes at Naperville North High School while preparing for her future on the horizon. Yet she will continue to live her life in the United States of America with the label of “undocumented immigrant” hovering behind her.

“I consider the U.S. my home, even though I wasn’t born here...I don’t belong here, but I don’t know another place to call ‘home,’” Sofia said.

Photos by Elise Mulligan and Noah Semeria
Created By
Elise Mulligan
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