COACHELLA, Calif. – Cristian Cabrera was working in the grape fields with her family last summer, saving money for the fall semester, when she received a text from a friend.
“Have you heard the good news?”
The news was life-changing for Cabrera and other undocumented college students across the country.
The Obama Administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program would help eligible undocumented students avoid deportation, apply for a social security card, obtain a driver’s license if their state permits it, and receive a worker’s permit. DACA also expands financial aid opportunities for students, although they would still not qualify for federal assistance.
“I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Cabrera, 21. “I remember looking at the grapes and thinking, ‘If I can finish college, I won’t have to come back here.’”
She quickly began compiling the required documents and saving for the $465 application fee. She helped her older brother and younger sister do the same. On Oct. 15, 2012, she walked to the Coachella Post Office and mailed off her three-inch thick application to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Then she waited.
Two daunting obstacles
Cabrera was 12 years old when she and her siblings left their hometown of Atlixco in the Mexican state of Puebla to join their parents in the United States.
The three children were taken by family members to the border town of Mexicali where they were instructed to climb over a chain link fence separating the two countries. They managed to get to the other side without getting caught and were found by the person charged with driving them to the Eastern Coachella Valley where their farmworker parents had settled.
Cabrera quickly adjusted to life in Coachella, learning English and making friends. She was drawn to the arts and renewed her childhood dream of a career as an animator or fashion designer.
A promising high school student, Cabrera decided to pursue her college dreams despite two daunting obstacles – her undocumented legal status and unsupportive parents.
“I was devastated because my parents didn’t support me,” she says. “I was dealing with colleges that were willing to help me, and I had a teacher who was helping me, so I felt that my legal status wasn’t much of an obstacle at the time. But coming home and not being able to talk to my parents about it was hurtful.”
By the time she was a senior at Coachella Valley High School, she had made the decision to go away to college — with or without her family’s support. Her high school English teacher, Kent Braithwaite, helped her obtain a tuition scholarship for Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. She had raised enough money from private local scholarships to cover room and board for the first two years.
“I felt really optimistic; I felt I was going to start a new chapter,” she says.
Her parents finally came around just before she left Coachella for Iowa in the fall of 2009. Armed with scholarships and her family’s support, her legal status seemed irrelevant. She was going to college.
A different set of circumstances
In 1990, 7-year-old Silvia Paz left Mexicali for the California town of Mecca to join her farmworker mother shortly after her father passed away.
Growing up in the La Peña trailer park, the youngest of 12 children, she always knew she wanted a better life.
“Like most young people who grow up in poor communities, the reason we seek education is for our families to be better off,” says Paz. “I was seeking some independence, economic independence, and I knew education was the way to achieve that.”
Like Cabrera, Paz dreamt of higher education. Unlike Cabrera, Paz is a legal resident of the United States.
Disciplined and motivated, Paz was valedictorian of Coachella Valley High School’s class of 2001. She had her pick of colleges, all offering generous academic scholarships. She chose the University of San Diego, where Paz majored in English literature and earned her teaching credential.
Her academic success was fueled by a strong desire to help her family and her community, but she knew the situation was even more desperate for undocumented students.
“There was an undocumented student two years ahead of me,” Paz recalls, now 29, and a married mother of one. “He had to be valedictorian, there was no option for him. He had to do it. He needed a full scholarship from a private university.”
Undocumented students are ineligible for most types of financial aid, including student loans. When accepted to a college or university, students must find a way to come up with the funds pay for tuition, room and board, and books. Some institutions, particularly private universities, offer full-ride scholarships for high-achieving undocumented students.
But those opportunities are few and far between. Not all undocumented students can be valedictorians like the young man Paz knew in high school.
“It’s difficult,” she says. “I know a lot of people who work very hard. Everything is a matter of circumstance. I had a lot of guidance and support and [legal status] and all that makes a difference.”
Unforeseen complications in Iowa
When Cabrera arrived at Wartburg College, she was pleased to find a beautiful campus filled with friendly students.
“I met a lot of international students, and I made a lot of friends. It was great meeting people from different parts of the world, learning about the things we had in common.”
Then her financial aid situation became complicated. Because she was an undocumented student, she says Wartburg classified her as an international student and tacked on unforeseen fees related to that status. With the help of Pathways to Success, a Coachella Valley scholarship program, she was able to figure out a way to stay.
But after two semesters, she went home for the summer and never went back. In order to register for the next semester, she needed to come up with a several thousand-dollar shortfall. Being ineligible for traditional financial aid put that amount out of reach for Cabrera.
“I felt bad, but it wasn’t because I didn’t try my best,” she says. “It was a situation out of my control.”
Feeling as if she had let her friends and family down, Cabrera sunk into a deep depression. With the assistance of Pathways to Success, she obtained the funding necessary to enroll at Cal State University at San Bernardino, about an hour away from Coachella.
“Then the depression hit hard, and I decided to drop out. I finally came to the point of thinking, ‘If I didn’t take care of myself, I would never make my dreams happen.’”
Cabrera didn’t like the anti-depressants she was prescribed. She went to counseling, increased her exercise, and changed her diet. “I didn’t want to be dependent on medication to be happy,” she says.
And she did her best to stop caring what people thought.
“It was a big problem trying to live up to people’s expectations. If things didn’t go the right way, I learned there would always be another.”
A plan to give back
Paz graduated from the University of San Diego at the top of her class. She remained focus. She had a plan.
“When I was in college, I knew I wanted to go into public policy,” she says. “I knew that if I wanted to make changes in our education system. I knew I had to be in the education system first.”
Paz came home and taught English at Coachella Valley High School for two years before moving on to the next step of her plan.
“After teaching and being involved in the community, I decided it was time to be in public policy in order to make some sort of change in my community.”
She had long decided she would seek an Ivy League graduate degree. She was accepted to Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and she left the Eastern Coachella Valley once again.
Even though her mother couldn’t fully comprehend her academic pursuits, Paz felt her mother supported her as much as she could.
“My mom never told me not to go. In our situation, she probably did understand that education was the best for me but couldn’t advise me because she didn’t have that experience. To her, I was already accomplished. I was successful. I had a job. But she left [going away to Harvard] up to me.”
She earned a full tuition stipend and took out loans for her living expenses, but she says she was undaunted by financial and cultural challenges. “My goal was to learn everything I could to bring back to my community. I was there with a purpose, and I always kept that in mind.”
Paz came home after earning her master’s degree in public policy and taught for one more year before becoming the district policy director for State Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez.
Undocumented = Fear
Cabrera’s journey led her to College of the Desert, the local community college, even though she was still ineligible for most financial aid.
She paid for tuition with a scholarship from the La Quinta Arts Foundation and her earnings from her under-the-table job. “Earning an art scholarship meant a lot to me,” says the aspiring artist. “It meant that people liked what I was doing with my art and that pumped up my spirits.”
It was much easier coming up with community college fees. She was getting back on track with her studies and her depression was under control. But she felt insecure about her future. Being undocumented meant living with a deep-rooted fear of deportation.
Cabrera’s biggest fear was being pulled over or getting into an accident. Because undocumented immigrants do not qualify for driver’s licenses, she was in danger every time she drove herself to work and school. At best, a citation could endanger her DACA application, which required a clean record. At worst, the police could deport her to a now foreign land.
“I didn’t go out on Friday and Saturday nights, because I know there are a lot of [DUI] checkpoints,” she says. These checkpoints, meant to pick up drunk drivers, end up netting many more undocumented immigrants than inebriated drivers. For the undocumented residents of the Eastern Coachella Valley, they mean almost certain deportation.
“I’ve heard stories about people getting stopped by police or at checkpoints. A lot of time, they take your car away and take you to jail,” where immigration agents are “waiting for you,” she said. “It happened to my uncle.”
Good news brings mixed emotions
In mid-January, Cabrera finally learned she was approved for DACA. Her sister was also approved. Cabrera was able to get her work permit and is now applying for a social security card so she can get her driver’s license. She is applying for financial aid for next semester, and her college degree seems within reach.
But the fear has not completely subsided. “I no longer fear deportation for myself,” she says, “but I am worried about my family being separated.”
Cabrera’s brother eagerly checks the mail every day to see if his approval letter has arrived, and DACA, only available to certain young people, is not an option for her parents.
“I had a dream that my brother wasn’t approved, and it was heartbreaking,” she says. “I was crying in my dream. He was really sad. I’m trying not to think about it.”
She tries to stay busy by helping other students with their DACA applications.
“The more I see, the more I see how much the community needs information. I went through this, but I don’t want others to go through this,” she said, referring to the fear of family separation and deportation. “I want our community to be informed so they don’t go through these injustices.”
Hope on the horizon
Paz is cautiously optimistic that this year Congress could pass federal immigration reform that could improve the lives of families like Cabrera’s.
At a recent immigrants’ forum in Coachella, she said, “We do have some reasons to be hopeful. We have new laws that protect an extent of rights for the immigrant community.”
She was referring to DACA, the California DREAM Act – which allows undocumented students to access financial aid — and several state laws that, effective this year, allow those who qualify for the federal deferred action program to obtain a driver’s license and protect against the impounding of vehicles at DUI checkpoints if the only violation is driving without a license.
Kent Braithwaite, the Health Partnership Academy teacher who helped Cabrera, says he has helped “several dozen” undocumented students get college scholarships in his 34 years at Coachella Valley High School.
“My word is ‘predocumented,’ not ‘undocumented’ or ‘illegal.’ Obviously, it is much more difficult for students because of legal issues and their lack of access to adequate funding,” says Braithwaite. “It’s a bit easier now. More colleges now offer funding. Some colleges offer backchannel scholarships that you can only learn about by knowing the right people and the proper code words. California Dream Act also helps. DACA will also help.”
But he says that isn’t enough. Without comprehensive reform, the paths to higher education and employment for students like Cabrera are limited.
“I stopped planning things because it’s hard when they don’t work out; you are devastated,” says Cabrera. “I don’t know where I see myself in five years. I want to do something with my art. Helping the community, like I have been doing, which is something I never thought I would do.”
-Alejandra Alarcon and Fatima Ramirez contributed to this report.