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Photo by Jasper Nahid, 15,
New Roads School (Santa Monica)

A lot of people think undocumented immigrants are a drain on the economy or a danger to the country. Or that they’re criminals, because they’re here illegally. But if this is right, then I’m a criminal, even though I sometimes forget that I’m undocumented.

My mom and I moved here from Peru when I was 5. We came to visit my mom’s family, but my mother decided she would rather have me grow up here and have my sister born here surrounded by my mom’s family. Since then, like any other kid, I’ve gone to school, studied hard to go to college and tried to make my family proud.

Around fifth grade I noticed that unlike my classmates, my family never traveled. When I asked if I could go to Arizona with my friend who had invited me, my mom said no at first. I could get deported if I got caught by a border patrol agent since I was an undocumented immigrant. After that I never wanted to ask about my immigration status. It was too depressing.

When I was in eighth grade, I saw Legally Blonde and got inspired. Yes, it’s corny and unrealistic, but the girly main character played by Reese Witherspoon proved people wrong by succeeding at Harvard Law School. I wanted to do that—break the stereotype that Hispanics from Lawndale don’t go to college.

At my high school the first thing I had to overcome was the I-don’t-care attitude of most of the 3,000 students. The teachers don’t expect much of the students so the students don’t respect the teachers. During the first few weeks of school the halls are jammed, but by the middle of the year they’re empty because students are ditching or have dropped out. I could understand why. When you’re in lower-level classes like “academic science,” what’s the point? I’ve seen those classes and it’s so quiet with students sleeping because the teacher is not teaching or it’s super-rowdy because everyone is goofing off. Even I sometimes fell into the stereotype. I ditched a lot of my non-honors classes in ninth and 10th grades because I could still pass and not get in trouble.

In ninth grade when I started looking into college during my AVID class (a program that helps students go to college), I learned that college applications and financial aid forms require a Social Security number, which as an undocumented immigrant I don’t have. But I didn’t give up. I thought I’d find a way to go to college.

I kept my status a secret

I didn’t ask anyone what to do about not having a Social Security number because I was embarrassed and I didn’t know who to ask. Also, my mom had been trying to get legal residency since a year after we had come to the United States. I prayed my mom’s status would be resolved and I’d be legal by the time I was applying for college. Why tell anyone and potentially put myself at risk of being deported when it might not even matter? There were so many nights when I cried myself to sleep because I was freaking out about how I could make my college dreams come true.

I was working hard without knowing whether it was worth it. Meanwhile, the other students in my honors classes knew that their hard work was going to get them into college. Without a Social Security number or legal residency (or money) I felt like I was faking everything.

My family kept me going. My dad always worked so hard to provide for us. He moved here when I was in fifth grade and started working as a gardener. Then he got a factory job, which paid more, but he worked so many hours we didn’t see him very much. Yet, he would still find time to be with us and play with my little sister. When I thought about how hard my dad worked, that motivated me to make his hard work worth it.

My parents cut out articles about college and put them on my desk. They came here because they believed that the United States would help those who wanted to be successful. I felt like I was protecting my parents by not telling them that my lack of citizenship could prevent me from going to college.

In 10th grade, my school started a peer college counseling program and I was nominated to be one of the students who would advise other students about college. We trained at UCLA for one weekend during the summer before junior year.

Without a social security number, I couldn’t get loans

At the UCLA workshops I finally had to face my citizenship status and how it affected my chances of going to college. Whenever the UCLA admissions counselors talked about financial aid and the forms that needed a Social Security number, I would try my hardest not to turn red.

Although undocumented students can’t get federal financial aid, they mentioned that there was a form certain undocumented students could fill out so that they wouldn’t have to pay out-of-state tuition in California. This form verified that they had attended a California high school for at least three years and graduated. Eligible undocumented students would pay in-state tuition, but college still costs a lot—about $9,000 a year for the UCs and $4,000 a year for the Cal States (and that doesn’t include housing). When someone is undocumented, chances are they’re really poor and that would still be too expensive.

I thought that it would be awesome to make my parents proud and have them be able to tell their friends that their daughter is attending UCLA (the only school they’d heard of). But I tried not to get too attached, because it was hard to get in and I didn’t know how I would pay for it.

At the beginning of senior year everyone was asking, “Where are you applying?” I thought about my dream out-of-state schools like Boston College, Columbia or St. John’s (both in New York City) and two UCs.

I wanted big-name schools, because I thought they would have more generous financial aid. I also wanted schools in big cities, with good journalism or communications programs and plenty of internships. My counselor had suggested applying to private schools because he knew that two alums from my high school who were undocumented had gotten generous financial aid packages from Loyola Marymount University. I added LMU to my list.

As I was filling out applications online, I would leave the Social Security number blank and then the websites would think I was an international student. Then I would e-mail the schools and ask how I should apply. Some schools said to apply as an international student and others said to leave it blank.

I decided not to apply to most of the out-of-state schools. I didn’t want to be alone in another state where there might be more negative attitudes toward undocumented immigrants. Instead I narrowed it down to UCLA, UC Riverside, Loyola Marymount University, University of San Francisco and Columbia.

LMU and University of San Francisco seemed friendlier toward undocumented students because of their Jesuit mission of social justice, which means trying to help the less fortunate. Thinking about the undocumented girl from my high school who had received a great financial aid package from LMU the year before, LMU became my first choice.

During my hectic senior year I met with my counselor every week asking a million questions and venting my frustrations. By then I knew that my mom’s citizenship application wouldn’t be resolved in time.

Second semester was a tear-fest. I cried so many times in my AP human geography class after hearing friends tell me about all the colleges they got into. Despite not knowing if I’d even go to college in the fall, I tried my hardest last semester. Deep down I was still crossing my fingers.

After telling counselors and friends about my immigration status, I saw that people didn’t look down on me or see me differently. They wanted to help me. Through them I learned about the DREAM Act. This is a bill in the U.S. Congress that would make it easier for undocumented students to attend college and give them a path to U.S. citizenship. It would apply to people who came to the United States when they were 15 or younger who graduated high school, completed at least two years of college or military service and stayed out of legal trouble. They could work legally, get a driver’s license and some federal financial aid.

The DREAM Act seems like the perfect solution. It doesn’t ask for anything unreasonable, just a chance to succeed by making the road to college a little easier. 

My first acceptance letter came in February; it was from the University of San Francisco. It was exciting to have any acceptance letter in my hand and my parents were proud. Then UCR sent me an acceptance letter.

I got in, but how would I pay?

I received my acceptance letter from LMU in early March. I was relieved. But I didn’t get too excited because this didn’t mean that I was going to go. May 1 was the date that I had to send my enrollment commitment. So if I didn’t get enough financial assistance by then, I would go to community college.

In April, LMU hosted an overnight visit for Latino students who had been accepted  to help make sure that they actually enrolled. I got paired up with the undocumented student from my high school, who was now a freshman at LMU. She was really encouraging and told me that the school might be able to help me get enough money to pay for any costs my family couldn’t afford. But I was still too nervous to buy an LMU sweatshirt.

I fell in love with the school; LMU has the most beautiful campus. My mom and sister got to come and they also thought it was beautiful. The hardest thing was to hear my dad say that if I really wanted to go to LMU that he would make it work somehow. Hearing that brought me to tears; it would be impossible for my father to come up with $52,000 a year (for tuition, housing and everything else). I was not going to plunge my family into debt.

Two days before the May 1 deadline to sign my LMU commitment I still hadn’t heard about any financial aid package. While I was out with my boyfriend, I got a phone message saying I had just been awarded $6,000 from LMU and that I needed to call back. I was disappointed and felt like I would have to go to community college if that was all I was getting.

When I called back I was told to call one of the admissions counselors who was trying to get additional financial aid for me. Soon I would find out my fate. I was anxious, scared and hopeful.

After the “hello, how are you,” which felt like an eternity, she let me know that the school would offer me enough financial aid and scholarships to cover all the costs!

I cried. I didn’t know what the right thing to say was but I thanked her and told her I was excited. My mom gave me a tight hug and I asked her to call everyone we knew. She said that she had believed in me from the beginning, so she had already been telling everyone I was going to LMU. She could have jinxed it!

The next day I went with my dad to buy that LMU sweatshirt. We were surprised at how all the students smiled or said hi to us. My dad looked at me and said, “You’re going to be happy here.”

Now that I’ve been here a couple months, I want to thank all the people who helped me. But I am one of very few undocumented students who had this much help, the courage to look for help and an opportunity to get financial aid like what I received from LMU. And that’s why Congress needs to pass the DREAM Act. This law would help every one of us who wants a better future.


The DREAM Act, which stands for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, is a bill in the U.S. Congress that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented students. The idea is that teens shouldn’t be penalized for a decision their parents made. It was their parents’ decision to come to the United States, and children had no choice but to come with them.

If signed into law, the DREAM Act would give people who came to the United States when they were 15 or younger a chance to become citizens if they met certain requirements. If they graduate from high school or get a GED and are accepted to college, they could work legally and get a driver’s license. They also would be able to get federal student loans and work study, and states could provide financial aid to these students. They would not be eligible for federal Pell Grants.

Individuals would have six years to complete two years of college or vocational school or military service, while avoiding a criminal record. Then they would be granted permanent resident status and could remain in the United States legally. They could then apply for citizenship.

The DREAM Act is a proposed law that hasn’t been voted on by Congress.

Source: Undocumented Students Action and Resource Network ( and the National Immigration Law Center.