It was October of 2010 and Angelica, a college graduate who was unable to work or continue her education because of her immigration status, had reached an impasse. As she decided whether she needed to leave the United States and her family, her world came crashing down when she found out that a loved one had been placed in immigration proceedings.
With her loved one facing the threat of a voluntary departure, Angelica began searching for help. She had lived in the United States since the age of four and her loved one had been here since the age of two. For either of them, a deportation would be “similar to pulling the roots of a tree and expecting it to thrive outside of its home,” Angelica said.
In her search, Angelica found a group of young activists who provided an alternative route—to make the immigration case public and work with an attorney. Through this collaboration, Angelica’s loved one was able to remain in the United States.
Soon after, Angelica was invited to participate in a civil disobedience to protest deportations with the young activists who had helped her. For the first time in her life, Angelica faced her fear of deportation as she and her fellow protesters were arrested.
While Angelica was in police custody, a stranger detained in an adjoining area assaulted her.
“I was absolutely exhausted,” Angelica says. “I think by that point we had spent the whole night there, and it was cold. I had not had food because we were talking about potentially doing a hunger strike, so it took me a few minutes to figure out what had happened because I was feeling a great deal of shame even though I didn't do anything wrong.”
A friend who witnessed the incident helped Angelica report it. Although the deputies were initially disbelieving, once they saw the video evidence, they helped her. Because of this traumatic event, Angelica later learned that she was eligible to apply for a U visa, which provides a path to citizenship for immigrant victims of crime who are willing to assist in investigation and prosecution of the crime.
At around the same time her U visa was approved, she was also approved for DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allowed her to stay in the country.
“Unfortunately, due to horrible circumstances, I had a U visa but I also had DACA,” Angelica says. “I see so many young people who are incredibly smart and talented and want to be able to pursue work opportunities or pursue their education. However, because the [DACA] program has been rescinded they are now stuck. It's a whole generation of young people who want to contribute but are barred from doing so.”
Angelica’s status has enabled her to pursue her PhD after completing her master´s degree in social work. Her area of study: the experiences of immigrants without lawful status living in Chicago.
Having DACA and a U visa, however, is not as secure as having lawful permanent residence, however. Angelica still couldn’t travel to see her extended family in Mexico, and the possibility of the repeal of DACA put her ability to stay in the country in danger.
Angelica first came to a National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) Legal Protection Fund clinic through her university. NIJC attorney Kate Ramos helped her submit the documentation needed to get her green card, enabling her to obtain permanent status.
“I always dreamed that I would be in a place where I would have a Social Security card, be able to work and travel freely, and I'm getting closer and closer,” Angelica said. “I will be able to travel for the first time after 29 years.
“We have more options than we realize, and it's incredibly important to take a chance with a reputable source and ask for help, and at least know what our options are.”
Angelica just returned from a trip to Mexico to see her family for the first time since she was four. The trip was bittersweet.
“I was able to see my grandparents on my mother’s side. I came in time to say goodbye to my grandfather who passed away two days after I arrived. It was a very difficult trip but I am grateful that I could be there with them,” she said.
Angelica is still involved in immigrant activism through her research and work beyond academia.
“I'd like to remind [politicians] that people want to contribute, and they want to make the U.S. a stronger country,” she said. “The way this story gets told it seems like everything is wonderful, like someone broke a rule and now they're being rewarded, but no one is ever rewarded. People come, and because they don't have proper authorization, they're exploited, they don't have access to proper care, and so they're giving years of their life and their health.
“I think if you actually looked at the data and talked to individuals you would find that they're very much like everyone else. They're working people who have families who want to be able to contribute and go back home, but the system has changed in such a way that that's very difficult to do.”
Alejandra Oliva is a communications coordinator at NIJC.