When the woman I'll call Ana Rodriguez was eight, her third-grade teacher told her that one day she'd go to college and "make a difference." She had no idea what he could possibly be talking about.
"I'm like, 'What's college?'" She laughs and shakes her head. "He said, 'College is a place where you learn a lot, you get a degree, you can make more money and you can help people.'" Her eyes widen with excitement when she re-tells the story of the moment that changed the course of her life—this was when she decided she was going to go to college. It never occurred to her that it might not be a possibility because of her immigration status.
Born in Irapuato in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, Rodriguez is a so-called DREAMer, meaning that she was brought to the US illegally as a child. In Rodriguez's case, she emigrated to the U.S. with her parents in 1999 when she was five and grew up in the LA area. While her two younger siblings were born in this country and are US citizens, she and her parents remained undocumented.
"Being undocumented was a huge part of my life," Rodriguez, now 22, says. "Especially in high school. I saw all my friends getting into colleges and I was over here—with a 4.1 GPA, 100 hours of community service—I got accepted to so many places but I couldn't go because I didn't qualify for financial aid."
Then in 2012, the Obama administration adopted the policy known as DACA (deferred action for childhood arrivals), allowing some immigrants who came to the US as children to apply for permission stay in the country. DACA didn't give DREAMers legal status, and they must renew that permission every two years, but the policy allows them to work legally and live without constant fear of deportation.
While there's no federal or state law preventing undocumented immigrants from attending college, undocumented students, including DACA recipients, aren't able to get federal aid for college. They can often get financial aid from the state or the college, but most, Rodriguez tells me, are unaware of these options.
"If a student knows they are going to be homeless, they're not going to be thinking about the answer to '3x = y = 26.' They're going to be thinking: I need to get a job."
She's hoping to change that. Rodriguez, now working toward a masters degree in school counseling, is a case manager with EduCare, an afterschool and summer program for low-income kids. Here in LA, these students are predominately Latino, and many of them are DREAMers.
"One of the greatest issues with my students is that their outside lives have a huge impact on them," she tells me. "If a student knows they are going to be homeless, they're not going to be thinking about the answer to '3x = y = 26.' They're going to be thinking: I need to get a job."
For Rodriguez and the nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants granted a reprieve by DACA, the policy was life-changing. She got a Social Security number, starting building credit, and her options for education expanded exponentially.
Still, when we sat down to talk, Rodriguez asked that I change her name for this story and not show her face in photos. She tells me it's a combination of a feeling of precariousness about her status since the election, along with fears of getting trolled online if she uses her real name. Her warm smile and naturally bubbly vivaciousness come to an abrupt halt when the topic switches to current events. The rhetoric in recent months has been hard to take.
"Why don't people want me here?" she asks. "Just because I wasn't born here? To be categorized in this giant, subhuman category? I'm not a bad person."
She's watched as America has seemingly become consumed by anti-immigrant rhetoric. On June 29, officials from ten Republican-controlled states wrote a letter asking the Trump administration to rescind the DACA program by September. That same day, the House passed two strict immigration bills that would threaten federal funding for so-called "sanctuary cities" that don't cooperate fully with immigration authorities and increase mandatory minimum sentences for immigrants who come back to the US illegally after being deported. (The Senate has yet to vote on these bills.)
But more immediate than national politics are the plights of the kids she sees every day. She's encountered students who don't come to school because they fear immigration raids. Others have an abusive or alcoholic family member at home, or are homeless after a foreclosure, or have lost family members and were abruptly placed in foster care. The list goes on.
"If you go home to a house where there's 11 people living there because they can't afford anything else, or if you're scared your dad might do something to you—you can't concentrate on a homework assignment," she says.
Rodriguez is able to connect with the students she mentors because she's been through a lot of the same things—poverty, physical abuse, alcoholism.
"We did grow up very poor," she says. "My parents' combined income was $17,000 a year, there were five of us in the house, so it was tough." Her mother's schooling credits didn't transfer over from Mexico and her father only had a sixth-grade education. She tells me that her mom was verbally abusive towards her and her dad was an alcoholic who abused her mom and the kids. She felt powerless.
"How do you bring the police against your own parents?" she asks. She eventually did call 911, the cops appeared, and the abuse stopped.
Sharing those stories with students she works with helps her build a level of trust that keeps many of the students coming back to the program.
"Immigrant students in particular are more difficult to serve," says George Hernandez, the vice president of after school programs for EduCare. Many of them work long hours in addition to school. EduCare has added morning programs to give kids access to a computer and someone to help them with their homework. "If they have a positive relationship with someone like Ana, it's very impactful," adds Hernandez. "There's a level of accountability by those students to our staff. A lot of these kids come to the program not to get their grades better, but to connect."
That connection, Hernandez explains, can help keep kids in school—many of whom are new to the country, some who need to pass the California English Language Test before they can move on to take the classes they need to graduate.
EduCare, a nonprofit that receives some state and federal funding, also refers teens to resources to support them outside of school, partnering with other nonprofits in LA like MEND (Meeting Each Need with Dignity), which provides emergency food, clothing, and other services.
"Just giving them access, to say, you can go to MEND, they'll give you food. You'll walk out of there and go home and it will be food for the family," says Hernandez, "They wouldn't have known those resources were there without us."
Spending the morning at a school in the Sylmar neighborhood of LA, I meet a wide range of students—some undocumented, some recent arrivals, many who were born in the US but for whatever reason, find themselves in summer school.
One 15-year-old I'll call Veronica arrived in the US last year from El Salvador and, like her family, is undocumented. She's willing to talk but is shy and a bit self-conscious. She gives short answers to most of my questions about her experience in summer school and how she feels living in the US.
"Muy feliz," ("very happy"), she says, more to her shoes than to me. She tells me in Spanish that she's nervous being in the country right now because she doesn't have papers. She's not yet comfortable with the English language.
Her case manager, Mayra, who works alongside Rodriguez, tells me that in the time she's worked with Veronica, some of her grades have gone from F's to B's.
She echoes what both Rodriguez and Hernandez have shared—that none of the work can happen without building trust, a process that can take months. (Mayra was born in the US to immigrant parents who both had documentation.)
"The most challenging thing was gaining that trust," she tells me. "I was simply trying to get to know them, but in their mind, this random person is asking me why I came here."
Mayra has helped her students find jobs, find a place to sleep, and helped them prepare for court dates related to their immigration status. She says that many came to the US because "they weren't safe in their country, they might be killed if they go back, so they have to open up about that. It's stuff we don't have to think about here."
For Rodriguez, each student she works with who graduates and goes on to a community or four-year college is a personal victory.
"I have worked with students who will come up to me and say, 'I got into this university because of you,' and it's the best feeling in the world," she says. "There are no miracles here, it's all hard work by my students." In her opinion, it's one of the surest ways out of poverty. "I've always been an education advocate," she says. "There's no way I can help my family or myself staying in the same situation. I cannot do anything better earning minimum wage. There's no way."
Cole Kazdin is a writer living in Los Angeles.