UTSA's Mexico Center

Crossing Borders

UTSA research project sheds light on undocumented immigrants' struggles

It's hard enough being a young adult with the burdens of completing school, finding a job and growing up. Multiply the hardship many times over for undocumented students living in the United States who add the fear of deportation to their list of concerns.

UTSA's Mexico Center is conducting research to discover more about the lives of young immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children. As they have grown up, they've attended school, graduated and now would like to get jobs. Their undocumented status, however, has prevented them from doing so, until recently.

In June, President Obama signed an executive order allowing young undocumented immigrants to apply for deferred action, protecting them temporarily from deportation, and for work permits. To qualify, they must meet certain criteria, such as being in school or already having a degree.

The order is a relief for many, but it's not the end of the journey for those in favor of the DREAM Act, legislation that, if passed, would provide a conditional path to citizenship for qualifying youth. DREAM stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors.

Harriett Romo, director of the Mexico Center, is collaborating with others at the university to lead the research aimed at understanding and documenting the civic engagement of such individuals.

"We're putting a face on these stories, these people who the media have treated as criminals," Romo said. "They're citizens in every way except on paper."

The goal, she said, is to bring the human aspect to public view in hopes of shifting negative stereotypes. Pseudonyms are used to keep the research from jeopardizing participants' well-being.

Romo conducted similar research for her doctorate; she studied undocumented children and the reasons families would risk bringing them to the U.S. In her current research, "these are the same children I was working with then, 20 years later," she said.

More than 20 students have agreed to be interviewed for the research so far. Romo seeks to discover how students plan to be involved in their communities, while in school and after graduation.

Some of the students she has interviewed have become activists for the DREAM Act, joining national groups, working to raise awareness and gain support for its approval.

Carolina Canizales, 22, came to the U.S. with her family at the age of 10, and she's been advocating for the DREAM Act for the past three years.

Her mother worked as a housekeeper in Alamo Heights, and growing up, Canizales attended school in that area. She didn't realize the limitations of her undocumented status until she reached high school when she wasn't allowed to take driver's education classes.

"I was the only one who rode the VIA bus. I was the only one who brought lunch from home," she said. "Cafe meals were expensive."

Though she realized she was different, she said Alamo Heights schools taught her to be competitive. "I wanted to prove I was as competent" as the other students, she said. She became involved in student activities and graduated in the top 10 percent of her class. Later, she was accepted to the Honors College at UTSA, and she spent the 15 hours per week she spent riding the bus to her classes doing homework and writing her thesis.

She graduated this year, right after she was named Most Outstanding Student in the Honors College. Now, she's applying to graduate schools while working at her internship.

She hopes that her participation in the research is an eye-opener for the public.

"I hope people will get the big picture," she said. "It's hard to fight every day. We've contributed in every way, but we're still not acknowledged."

On a deeper level, separation from family in Mexico makes living with undocumented status even harder. She had to miss her grandmother's funeral because she and her family knew they wouldn't be allowed back into the U.S.

"I have not been to Mexico in 12 years," Canizales said. "I haven't seen my family but I try to keep in touch." Since her grandfather got a computer, they're now able to see each other via Skype. "It means a lot to be able to see grandpa."

"We're putting a face on these stories, these people who the media have treated as criminals. They're citizens in every way except on paper."

Harriett Romo
director of the Mexico Center

INTENT ON CHANGE Harriett Romo, director of the Mexico Center, hopes to bring a "human aspect to public view" to balance frequently negative media coverage.

Pamela Resendiz, 23, also agreed to be interviewed for the Mexico Center research project. Active in the community as a co-founder of the San Antonio Immigrant Youth Movement and as past president of DREAM Act Now! while at UTSA, she aspires to be a voice for other DREAMers in the San Antonio area.

"Being a community organizer allows me to build solidarity with others' struggles," Resendiz said. "We're creating a youth that's becoming more aware of the struggles."

For her, being part of the Mexico Center's research project means shining a different light on the educational process, she said. "It's giving a human face to those statistics."

Working now as an intern at the Mexican American Defense of Education Fund, she hopes to go to law school in the future and become an immigration attorney. She graduated from UTSA earlier this year with a bachelor's in political science.

Another attorney in the making, Cristina Cigarroa, 25, a law student at UT Austin, is helping Romo with the research as part of her internship with the Mexico Center. In conducting interviews and learning more about the movement, she, too, has become an advocate. Though she was born in Boston, she said she relates more closely to the situation because of her Mexican heritage.

"Society generally thinks of immigrants as those who don't participate fully in society," she said, "but I'd say these immigrants are actually more active politically and civically. Many have surpassed citizens in their work."

Cigarroa believes that raising awareness that DREAMers are educated and involved in their communities will help change what she calls an "anti-immigrant society."

"But I think a lot of work still needs to be done," she said.