As recent high school graduates bound for the University of Notre Dame last August, we had the usual questions running through our heads. What should we bring? Were the football games going to be as exciting as we imagined? Were we going to survive several months without delicious home-cooked meals? What would it be like living hundreds of miles away from home?
As time got closer to moving in, and things began to fall into place, these worries faded to a single thought:
What would college be like as undocumented students?
We’re identical twins, born in Zacatecas, Mexico. We immigrated with our mother to the United States at age 5 to join our father, who was already living and working here. We moved into a tiny house in Gardnerville, Nev., and went to a local elementary school, where we learned to speak English through the Head Start Program. In kindergarten, we would go to school all day and take several English-as-a-Second-Language classes to catch up to our peers. That first year of school was difficult because we could only speak Spanish; as time passed, we became proficient in English, and two of the best students in our class. Through middle school and high school, we continued to excel academically.
But we did not know if we would ever go to college.
We had learned in fourth grade that we were undocumented. We didn’t quite understand what being undocumented was, but we were told not to mention it to anyone else. No one really asked about our citizenship status until we were in high school. We were sitting at dinner with our friends when one of them asked where we were from. Indifferently, one of us replied that we were born in Mexico, hoping that the conversation would end there. Unfortunately, one of the girls abruptly turned toward us and asked, “Are you guys citizens?” Before either of us could answer, another girl turned toward her and replied: “Of course they are. Otherwise they wouldn’t be so classy.” Only a few people knew about our immigration status; comments like that alienated us, and only made us close up more about the whole thing. If we told others, we ran the risk of facing hostility from students and teachers.
When we received DACA status in 2012, everything changed for us. DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and we are commonly known as DREAMers. Undocumented residents with DACA status can work and attend college legally in the U.S., and we’re given temporary cards that must be renewed every few years.
DACA made college a possibility, but it was not guaranteed. Even with the new temporary status, we could not apply to most state schools, and we were limited to a few colleges. Our counselor in high school from QuestBridge, a program that partners with several colleges to encourage low-income and first-generation students to go to college, urged us to apply to Notre Dame and sent us articles about their new policy to admit DREAMers. After visiting, we were contacted by several faculty members who knew about our situation. It was the only school that directly reached out to us. The guidance we received gave us a sense of comfort and support that we’d never had when it came to our futures.
By the end of our senior year, we had become the first twin valedictorians of our high school. Our hometown newspaper interviewed us and asked several questions about our lives. When we told the interviewer about our DACA status, she decided it would be better to omit this important detail. We were contacted by “CBS This Morning” and found ourselves on People.com and Fox News. We were afraid of the reactions that would come from our immigration status, and we decided not to mention it during our interviews. (None of the reporters asked us about it.) Everyone was so proud that both of us were going to Notre Dame. We wondered whether our community would still be as supportive if they knew we were undocumented.
We were not the only undocumented students at Notre Dame this year. And like the others here, we faced several challenges our freshman year, and we will face several more in the next few years. This year, we couldn’t apply to programs that required legal residence or citizenship, and we might not get to study abroad, since we run the risk of not being able to reenter the country. Despite these obstacles, faculty members at Notre Dame have figured out a way to enrich our college experience; next year, instead of going to London, one of us has been given the opportunity to go to Washington, D.C., for the first time. Sharing our story with faculty members has allowed us to find these alternatives and more doors have been opened for us. We are both majoring in chemical engineering and may add pre-med.
One of our greatest experiences as a group was meeting Father Theodore Hesburgh before he died in late February at age 97. Father Ted was Notre Dame’s president from 1952 to 1987 and, among his many contributions to the nation and world, he was chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. He told us about his greatest accomplishments, including the acceptance of women into Notre Dame in 1972, and he said that we’d also make the university proud for accepting us. Having the support from a man who faced opposition and achieved so much in his life has given us the courage to tell others about being DACA students.
Now we want to share our story as undocumented students with others. Immigration reform has been an ongoing political issue at the federal level for years, and people often forget about the real people behind the headlines. Although not everyone supports DACA, we hope that the country is ready to hear from us and learn about the push-and-pull factors that cause families to emigrate from their home countries. In Mexico, we lived in a house with 14 people, and we often had very little to eat. Our parents wanted us to have a better life and education.
As our first year in college comes to a close, we are so grateful to faculty and staff members who have constructed a strong support system at Notre Dame for DACA students. We are committed to working hard so that one day we will be able to give the university and our nation as much as they have given us.