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It Sucks to Be Undocumented When You're an Average Student

There are two narratives about undocumented youth in the United States: criminals, or university-bound valedictorians. So what if you're just a middle-of-the-road undocumented teen?

Melissa Pandika

Alejandra Matias with a friend between classes at MetWest High School in Oakland, California. Photo by Diana Clock

On a typical weekday morning, 16-year-old Alejandra Matias takes the bus to MetWest High School in Oakland, California. After class, she babysits her little brother or commutes to an internship at a local nonprofit. Before bedtime, she squeezes in homework.

Matias seems like any other teenager. She likes spicy Cheetos; she giggles a lot when she's with her friends. But beneath the normal confusion and stress of adolescence, other worries gnaw at her.

For example, the fact that she's undocumented. Matias immigrated with her parents to the United States from Guatemala when she was five years old. Her father was granted asylum, and she was included in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects certain undocumented youth from deportation. But she worries about the future, especially amid Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's threats to end DACA and deport millions of immigrants.

There are typically two narratives about the estimated 1.1 million undocumented minors in the United States: They're either criminals, or university-bound valedictorians. But what about all the teenagers like Matias, who fall somewhere in the middle?

When the immigrant rights movement introduced the DREAM Act in 2001—a proposal to grant conditional residency to undocumented youth in the United States—it came with a neatly packaged, sympathetic image of undocumented youth. Advocates highlighted the qualities that made DREAMers "deserving" of citizenship: They were smart, hardworking, and high achieving. These best and brightest would secure America's place in a competitive global market, even if they were born elsewhere.

"The exceptionalism part of it is a political strategy that is going to have to be stomached until we have fair immigration policy," said Maria Chavez-Pringle, the department chair of politics and government at Pacific Lutheran University, in an interview with VICE.

But other advocates worry that this strategy, along with recent media attention on a pair of undocumented valedictorians in Texas, makes life harder for undocumented students who aren't at the top of their class.

"The valedictorian story should be celebrated, but as part of a bigger pool of a diverse group," said Linda Sanchez, program director of 67 Sueños, a San Francisco nonprofit that promotes the inclusion of migrant youth stories through art and activism. Sanchez, who is herself undocumented, told VICE the valedictorian narrative obscures the challenges undocumented youth face. It implies that "if you don't make it, there's something wrong with you, and not your surroundings," even though many undocumented youth live in poverty and balance school with part-time jobs.

Alejandra Matias waiting for the bus. Photo by Diana Clock

Statistics from the US Department of Education show that just 54 percent of undocumented youth over 18 have a high school diploma, compared to 82 percent of US-born youth of the same age. Poverty, language barriers, and the psychological stress and stigma of being undocumented each contribute to the low graduation rate. The introduction of DACA in 2012 has helped a little, especially in reducing students' fears of deportation, but many students don't qualify for DACA, and the longevity of the program isn't guaranteed.

It only gets harder after high school, as undocumented students aren't entitled to the federal grants or in-state tuition that make paying for tuition possible for so many students. In some states, undocumented students are explicitly banned from attending public universities.

Undocumented students sometimes feel that they're held to a higher standard than their documented peers, despite dealing with harsher circumstances and trauma just to get to the United States.

Cuahuctemoc Salinas, who graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in May, lived out of garages with his mother and brother when they first immigrated to the United States from Mexico. His childhood in the US was rough, and he says he was physically abused by his stepfather.

In high school, he sold donuts to pay for his bus fare. When he was accepted to UC Berkeley, he had to cover many of his college-related expenses on his own. Last summer, Salinas juggled seven part-time jobs to cover food and rent. His traumatic past and uncertain future—both related to his immigration status—took a toll on his mental health. "I definitely felt anxiety," he told VICE. "I felt very depressed."

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in social welfare, Salinas accepted a job with an organization that provides housing to homeless individuals. He traces his advocacy work to growing up "in a background where [he] wasn't allowed to use [his] voice." But the constant pressure to succeed amid worries about his undocumented status still leave him feeling overwhelmed.

"I'm always in hot water. Every day there's that pressure," he said. "I'm the first person to get a bachelor's degree in my entire family. Every day is, like, me hoping my dreams will come true because of how much trauma I carry. It's really hard to let go of something that affected your life a lot."

In Matias's case, the station wagon smuggling her and her parents crashed, flinging her mother from the window. Matias later awoke in the back of an ambulance, hooked up to a tangle of IV tubes. "I didn't think my mom had died, but then her body was lying down right next to me," she remembers. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained Matias and her father but let them stay in the country. They settled in Oakland about a year later, where they adjusted not only to a new country, but to life without Matias's mother.

During her freshman year of high school, Matias started an internship with 67 Sueños. Back then, her grades were "really bad." Amid family conflict, school had fallen by the wayside. But through 67 Sueños, Matias told VICE she "finally found a reason why I should be doing well in high school, why I should empower myself in my community."

Matias now earns straight As—not to prove anything, but to get to college and position herself to influence real social change in the future. She doesn't see herself as a DREAMer, but instead, as someone who "empowers my community and helps them stand up against those oppressing us."

Sanchez, the director of 67 Sueños who is a college graduate, also rejects the DREAMer label.

"There is more complexity within an individual," she told VICE. "Once I acknowledge I'm a DREAMer, that's the only thing celebrated about me. Instead, I want to be known as a full individual."

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