Fernanda was just 10 years old when she crossed the U.S.-Mexican border by foot with her then six-year-old sister, who had a broken arm at the time, and her mother, chasing the American Dream. They left their hometown of Cholula, Puebla on Nov. 17, and were some of the lucky few who arrived in Queens just a short week later. “It was really only because the person smuggling us received the money transfer a few days late,” she remarks, looking back on her journey considering herself and her family “some of the lucky ones.”
Most migrants cross the border by foot, which means walking the mountains and deserts, often taking upwards of a month in extremely dangerous conditions. Ultimately, “it depends on how much you want to pay” and considering many migrate looking for better economic conditions, they do not have the income to resort to safer methods.
Upon arriving, Fernanda began attending public school in Queens where she remembers finding it difficult to make friends as she was the “immigrant little girl” who spoke very little English. Her sister recalls being teased and her second grade teacher giving her “books that little kids use to learn how to read and write.”
She would finally realize she was undocumented when she saw a film about people crossing the border and remembered when her family had crossed as well. As a child, she’d always hear about others traveling and wanted to, but her status as an undocumented immigrant restricted her. Ultimately, her family transitioned to Brooklyn where she and her sister continued their education.
Currently, Fernanda is pursuing a degree from BMCC and hopes to earn a bachelor’s from John Jay College. Growing up, she always knew she was undocumented. However, the reality of being undocumented did not truly kick in until her senior year of high school when it came time to apply for college as an undocumented student in New York City, the concrete jungle of dreams.
“I knew the the things I couldn’t do or get because I was missing 9 numbers. But I didn’t know about the bigger picture,” Fernanda says. She felt college in the United States wasn’t an option because of “the notion in the undocumented community that college isn’t for us.” “I was looking left and right for a way for me to stay here and be able to go to college because I realized college IS for everyone,” she says. She’d just have to scrape together the funds to pay for college herself. One of the most common arguments that people make when they say undocumented people take away from Americans is that “they’re living off of the government.” This is a misconception, Fernanda says, especially when it comes to undocumented students attending college.
Many say that those in college are “taking financial aid money or scholarships that these White Americans deserve” when in reality undocumented students do not receive any financial assistance from the federal government for attending college. Let’s use New York as an example: Here, students apply for TAP (tuition assistance program), which is the state financial aid at the same time that they apply for FAFSA (free application for federal student aid), which is the federal aid. Undocumented students are unable to fill out both applications as they are only accessible to legal residents and citizens.
Undocumented students pay out of pocket for everything college related. “Scholarships available for undocumented students are rare as well, most require to be a legal resident or citizen of the U.S., and those that are out there are very competitive for the same reason that there’s a bunch of people trying to get it because there’s nothing else.” Others are only applicable to students who qualify for DACA, thus eliminating others who are still undocumented and do not qualify for DACA, Fernanda included.
“I was one of the lucky ones because I got a scholarship and they covered the tuition for my first year of college. To me, being undocumented doesn’t only mean lacking the proper documentation to be in the country anymore. Through the scholarship, I’ve met so many people who inspire me everyday now and I know that I’m no longer alone.”
Fernanda takes inspiration from a documentary called “No Le Digas a Nadie (Don’t Tell Anyone),” a film that follows a little girl who equates being undocumented with having strength. “She’s right,” Fernanda says. “Being undocumented isn’t something I carry with me with me shame, it means I’m resilient and all these racist Cheeto supporters can go f*ck themselves, because despite the adversities and the hate directed at my community, we stay strong. I stay strong.”
The star of this documentary, activist Angy Rivera, currently co-leads the New York State Youth Leadership Council which is the first non-profit in NY led by undocumented youth and is currently led by women. Fernanda remarks they are “some badass women” who are currently training her, amongst others, to organize their summer political program called YEP (Youth Empowerment Program), where some of the topics include dismantling down patriarchy, the different systems of oppression and youth leadership/advocacy.
As for why the topic of immigration has resurged in the mainstream media, Fernanda said this was not a new issue, but rather one that caught the limelight with the installation of a new administration that sees immigrants as a threat to the wellbeing of Americans.
“The Trump campaign gave people that already had this anti-immigrant sentiment a platform to openly hate us without feeling bad about it,” she says. “That’s why we are being targeted now more than ever, but it’s nothing new. Under the Obama administration we were still under attack but it was silent. Democrats and Obama himself were always like very pro-immigrant but he deported more people than any other president in U.S. history.”
When asked why the Dream Act was so important to her, Fernanda said it was because she and her family would “actually be eligible for it, unlike the time DACA was passed,” which could be a life-changing experience. She explained that it would also be very important for the youth that is constantly involved in the movement and is fighting for change to see an accomplishment rather than yet another setback.
Do we believe in a world where she can be sent back to a country she never knew as home? Do we believe in a world where we can criminalize her parents for wanting a better life for their children?