Saturday, May 15, 2010

Puente Stories: "Karly"; or, how one student has changed the "immigration debate" in our house forever

One of the biggest differences between Puente and the other cadre of support services and programs for college students in California is that Puente services and advocates for undocumented students. I think it has to do with where the money for the programs come from, but I am not sure. I do know that Puente is my first taste of working with people who are living in the US without citizenship.  This issue is a rabid one right now and it will only become more heated as we get closer to the next election cycle. I have always held the position that being born in the United States is like wining a type of global lottery. The resources we have available to us as Americans is equalled by few other countries. With this does come responsibility, something the US does seem to grasp, but I often disagree with the way we "share" our wealth. I have always held a vewpoint that  we have to live in a way that shows compassion for our global neighbors. All this to say, I have been known to say that we should just open the borders. I understand now, after talking with students who are going through the citizenship process, that widespread corruption on the Mexican side of the border would make this impossible. But, I still believe that something needs to be done. I don't know what. But something.

I start with this discussion, not to argue or challenge anyone's belief systems or to begin a debate about immigration, but to just establish a context of where I am coming from. In my family, I am the only liberal democrat in a sea of conservative republicans. Sometimes I feel like the only liberal democrat in Shasta County! In my family, most everyone, but me, believes (or at least used to) in building a wall between the American and Mexican border (I think some may think we need one between Canada and America as well). There are some family members who believe more strongly than others, and even some who traffic in racist emails and jokes. Discussions about immigration have ended in angry shouted words, slammed doors, and tears. But, since my experience with Puente some of this has changed. Mostly because I bring home my student's stories. I share their victories and frustrations. Political discussions are different when they are about real people instead of abstract policies. This has changed the way we talk, but by fat the biggest difference for us has been Karly.

Karly's family moved to the United States from Mexico when she was 11 years old. She spoke fewer than 20 words of English, and she that was more than anyone else in her family. She started school in northern California where she was lucky enough to be enrolled in a school with a bilingual education program. At school and on her own she learned English. Within a year she was helping other recently arrived students and immigrants with their English. During the day she went to school, in the evening she helped her family pick fruit, vegetables, and almonds, and at night she studied.

Karly's family has been trying to gain American Citizenship for nearly eight years. There is so much corruption in the system that this process can take between nine and 13 years for Mexicans to gain American citizenship. Usually, what will happen is the Mexican government will approve one family member's paperwork and then demand bribes from the other family members. They put the paperwork on hold and dangle the hope of citizenship in front of them. This puts them in a situation where in order to live together in one country much of the family must live here illegally.  And then there is a special problem for children. When Karly first applied she was a minor. Last year when she turned 18, and when she became an adult she had to file new paperwork. That means that the eight years that her paperwork has been in the system is now erased. It is incredibly frustrating.

Karly lives in a small farming community in another county. She rides a bus for over an hour to and from school everyday. The bus picks her up at  a bus stop in town at 5am and returns her at 5pm every day. It is another 20 minute drive from the bus stop to her home. She has the best attendance of any student in my class. She is the best student in my class. She writes and speaks English with an accent, but her essays are clear and smart. I always know I can count on her to have done the assignment and to have done it well. If class discussion stalls I look at Karly and she says something smart and insightful and moves the discussion along. She revises her essays 3 or 4 times each until they are A's. She reads everything and more. She is inquisitive, earnest, hungry. She is a good student.

Now, the problem is that she is undocumented. This means she pays non-resident fees. Classes that would cost most people about $25 a unit will cost her nearly $200 a unit. The Puente program is 9 total units. She paid nearly $2000 to be in a program that most of the other students paid for litle or nothing. She cannot get financial aid or support from EOPS or TRIOS like the other students. Last semester I bought her books, something I couldn't really afford either, but I wanted to help. There are other challenges as well.  We nominated her for the Puente leadership conference in UC Riverside this summer and she was accepted. She gets to go to UC Riverside for a week long leadership conference paid for by Puente. When she was chosen, we were ecstatic until we realized that she would have to fly there. She isn't a citizen, she doesn't have ID.The tuition at a four year university is going to cost her thousands of dollars. She runs the risk of some overly zealous person turning her into immigration at all times. She cannot get a driving liscence in this state. Of all my students she is the most capable of achieving her goals. She wants to get a Phd in Nutrition. But of all my students she is the least likely to achieve her goals. Because, the system does not want her here.

I often talk about my classes at home. How my day went. How certain students learn or how an assignment would work, or not work. Soon, my family began to "know" certain students. They know that Jason is a jerk. Jesus is a ladies man. Bill is shy. And that Karly is the hardest working student I have. I didn't tell them she was undocumented for a long time. It isn't something you want to talk about in Shasta County--where just being brown is enough to get you pulled over (or worse). But, as her situation became more and more frustrating to me I shared more and more. Slowly, the attitude of some of those around me has changed. The discussion of illegal immigration has become more compassionate. The wall isn't really seen as a viable solution. We all kind of see that there is this much bigger global problem and that deportation and walls aren't going to help Karly.

This story is a tough one. It is good because her situation has changed the attitudes of many people on campus and in my own life, but the tragedy of how difficult it is for her to make a life for herself is heart-breaking. In reality if she returns (or is returned) to Mexico she has nothing. Here she has a shot. It's just a long one.


  1. Another tear jerker, but for a completely different reason. It's so hard to not get emotionally involved with our students' lives, yet to get involved is equally difficult.

    While at NAU, I had a student at the beginning one semester who I knew was having trouble getting his tuition paid. Financial Aid wasn't helping him out, something about his family making too much, yet he got no financial help from them, or somthing like that. He kept coming to class, though, and although his writing was not quite up to par (actually far from it), he kept trying and he really cared. Finally, one day he came to class, participated in discussion and turned in his essay. When class was dismissed, he stayed behind. He thanked me for class, said he'd enjoyed it so far, and that he didn't want to disturb class by talking to me before it started. He told me that he had to leave the university because he wasn't able to find any means of paying, and he'd reached the deadline for paying it. He said he'd return home, back to the manual labor that he'd been doing before, and try to save up enough money for the next year. I was heartbroken for him. I'd already been talking to him about possible avenues to try and he said he had tried everything yet nothing panned out. I realized how unfair our system is, that although university is supposedly open to everyone, it's really not. It is, in reality, an ivory tower.

    The thing that broke my heart even more -- he asked me to please still grade his essay and to e-mail him his grade and comments.

  2. I just realized I didn't comment on this (I read it in the car on Cardo's phone).

    Just wanted to let you know that it's stuck with me, especially your idea of the global lottery.