by Sharon H Chang
ALEJANDRA PÉREZ, 23 years old, is energetic, passionate, often fiery. On this day, and I suspect on most days, Alejandra’s eyes are bright; she is animated and lively. She has a story to tell that could leave her and her family vulnerable, but that is not going to stop her. She will do whatever it takes to fight for justice for undocumented people.
Alejandra is a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient who will be losing her protected status in 2019, thanks to the current conservative administration, which just rescinded the program earlier this month.
Born and raised in Guatemala, Alejandra came to the United States with her mother and brother in 2006 after her parents divorced. While they were staying with family in South Central Los Angeles, Alejandra’s mother started working as a nanny, eventually overstaying her and her children’s visitor visas. “One of the first things I heard [family] say,” Alejandra recalls, “was that within six months we would become undocumented.” Alejandra was twelve years old.
The move was an enormous life shift for the preteen. Back in Guatemala, her parents had been accountants raising their children in a middle income, privileged household. She grew up “going to school and expecting to go to school.” But now, as an undocumented person and student in the United States, things were entirely different.
Her mother’s college degree did not transfer when they migrated, adding another barrier to the fact the mother was, and still is, undocumented. “I went from seeing my mom in an office,” points out Alejandra, “to taking care of [other people’s] children and cleaning houses.” In Los Angeles, Alejandra also keenly observed the outcome when an undocumented cousin graduated from high school. “I remember seeing him not go to college,” she says, “and thought, ‘oh I can’t go to school because I’m undocumented.’”
To the young Alejandra, these foreboding societal messages about her limited future as an undocumented Latinx were clear. She internalized the ideas quickly and by the time she started high school herself, “I didn’t care,” she says. “I skipped school and didn’t do my homework.” School counselors only made it worse by affirming that she, like her cousin, should limit her academic and economic expectations about the future.
When Alejandra became a sophomore, the family her mother worked for no longer needed a nanny. “My mom needed to find a job, and it was really hard,” she tells me. “All of the jobs paid her below minimum wage. My mom didn’t know at the time that that was against the law, even though she was undocumented. So my mom was exploited and overworked.”
Because of the labor abuse, her mother decided to make another move–to Seattle, where they knew no one but were put in contact with a Guatemalan family. Alejandra, her mother, and brother shared a bedroom in the Guatemalan family’s two-bedroom apartment on Beacon Hill. Her mother was able to find work as a nanny once more.
After so much change, moving multiple times, and in a new, cramped home that belonged to someone else, “I was fifteen and mad at everything,” says Alejandra. “I would literally grab food and eat it in [our] room because I didn’t want to eat in the living room or in the dining room. I just didn’t feel comfortable.”
But fire and passion were about to arise. Alejandra’s mother signed her up for Cleveland High School where the teenager learned for the first time that she actually could go to college as an undocumented student. “So then I went to class! I did work, and eventually I ended up getting really involved in school.” With enthusiasm and newfound determination, Alejandra won 22 scholarships and a state grant, enough to fully fund the cost of her undergraduate college tuition. She attended the University of Washington Bothell, earned her Bachelor’s degree in 2016, and will be starting her Master’s in Education program there next week.
Still, Alejandra is quick to remind me that she was not a model student. It is important to nuance her success, she says, because the mainstream media is constantly working to divide the undocumented community through harmful narratives of the “undeserving” versus “deserving” immigrant. Alejandra refuses to participate in such binary framing.
“Dreamers” for example, is a nickname used to describe young, undocumented people brought to the U.S. by undocumented parents. It refers to youth, like Alejandra, who would have qualified under the proposed Dream Act, which failed to pass in 2010, and qualified instead under DACA, President Obama’s replacement program, in 2012. The legislation helped the young people but the label “Dreamer” inferred the potential of children at the expense and exclusion of their parents. Which is why Alejandra, while a DACA recipient, hates the word. “I don’t call myself Dreamer,” she states unequivocally, because “it’s about saying, ‘I am the deserving immigrant who came here with no will of their own and it’s my parents fault’ and I’m like, No.” Alejandra asserts, “I came with a will of my own and I’m not going to put the blame on my parent because she survived.”
Today, Alejandra works at CCER (Community Center for Education Results) supporting the Road Map Project across South King County to dramatically change the numbers of low income students and students of color graduating with postsecondary degrees. At the moment, she is also really busy doing a lot of advocacy work for DACA with the Washington Dream Coalition (WDC). There are seemingly arbitrary deadlines looming that allow certain DACA recipients to renew their status. Together with WDC, Alejandra has been organizing informational clinics, educator forums, consultations, and funding for eligible renewals (which cost $495 per person).
“There’s confusion, disappointment,” Alejandra says of current feelings in the undocumented community. Renewal is expensive, some people need a lawyer, and everything has been packed into a very short timeline. “It’s overwhelming for a lot of folks . . . there’s some fear,” she adds. “Immigration [and Customs Enforcement] literally has [DACA] folks’ information . . . the hope we have is that it’s not used to detain and deport people.”
Alejandra herself is not eligible for renewal, but that does not impact her ever-fierce activism and commitment to her community. She has been leading trainings since her first year of college when she started creating professional development seminars for UW Bothell professors and staff on how to support their undocumented students. She is resolute in continuing these trainings as she begins her graduate studies this fall, and into the future.. “My undocumented work is really important to me; making sure that folks see the intersection of immigration and detention and education,” Alejandra says, “making sure that our community knows they have rights.”
Asked how she feels knowing she will lose her own DACA status one day, Alejandra seems unruffled. “I think we’ve got to remember how our other 10 plus million [non-DACA] folks have been working, have been fighting, have been resilient, have been hustling,” she answers thoughtfully. Rather than being despondent in trying times, Alejandra sees her community’s longstanding resistance and resilience as a source of strength. “Our community has been doing this for a really long time . . . The knowledge is within our community and we need to be able to come back and use it, because our community has all of that power.”
Sharon H. Chang is an activist, photographer and award-winning writer. She is author of the acclaimed book Raising Mixed Race (2016) and is currently working on her second book looking at Asian American women and gendered racism.