Student grapples with identity as an undocumented student

Ashley Nava

After learning about the foundation of the U.S. in her eighth grade history class, Lizbeth was eager to join her classmates on a field trip to Washington, D.C., to see the monuments of American freedom.

But when Lizbeth told her parents, her mother was overcome with fear and told her she could not go. It was then that her mother explained for the first time that they were undocumented.

This was the first time Capitol Hill shattered her dreams, but not the last. The Trump administration’s attempts to end DACA within the last year have brought back the insecurities Lizbeth, an advertising junior, had to overcome before coming to UT.

Growing up, Lizbeth always wondered why her family never went on vacations and avoided the doctor. The revelation of her family’s undocumented status made it clear. Without essential U.S. paperwork, including a social security number, Lizbeth and her family couldn’t earn enough to afford medical insurance or travel expenses. And they felt seeking assistance could jeopardize their lives in the United States.

“That was when I realized how those nine numbers defined what I could or could not do,” Lizbeth said.

At three months old, Lizbeth and her then 14-year-old mother came to the U.S. with visas to reunite with her father, who had fled the violence and poverty in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. They settled in the small town of Itasca, Texas. With a population of about 1,000, it’s the kind of town where everyone knows everything about each other. Well, almost everything.

“None of my friends back home know about my status,” Lizbeth said. “It’s just a dirty word — ‘illegal.’ It’s just something you don’t want to be associated with. I always kept quiet. I couldn’t let them know my secret.”

Lizbeth lived a double life. At school, she was an “all-American student,” a cheerleader and a hard working academic in the National Honor Society. But at home, she was an immigrant, constantly worrying about the precariousness of her future.

“I had to lie about why I didn’t have a license or why I didn’t have a job,” Lizbeth said. “Everything in my life was one little lie after another.”

When Lizbeth was applying to community college, some of her high school faculty discovered her immigration status. The lies she had woven started unraveling.

“They just couldn’t believe it,” Lizbeth said. “They would make comments like ‘But you’re such a great student.’ They had a stigma that undocumented students were the ones that sat in the back of the classroom and had a heavy accent.”

Lizbeth graduated early at 17 years old, defying teachers’ stereotypes, financial hardship and a benign tumor she had removed from her chest during her senior year.

During her time at community college, Lizbeth tried to once again hide her identity as an undocumented student. She didn’t want anyone’s pity.

As she was finishing her associate degree, Lizbeth took a trip to Austin and made it her mission to come to UT. On the last possible day to submit her transfer application, she received a call from the University warning her that her application was incomplete. Forms regarding her citizenship were missing.

Submitting the forms just in time, Lizbeth thought her chances of admission had been dampened.

A couple of months later, she finally got her acceptance email.

Everything seemed to be falling into place. She had finally gotten to her dream school and began making friends. She even felt comfortable enough in her Mexican American Policy Studies class to reveal her secret.

“The very first day, I was sitting amongst other students that looked and spoke like me,” Lizbeth said. “I felt so comfortable with myself and my status. There were others that could relate to my experience, and that felt so liberating.”

But the euphoria she got from her self-acceptance as an undocumented student was short lived.

“For a moment I felt like I had finally made it — nothing could stop me,” Lizbeth said. “Then I saw the news.”

On Sept. 5 the Trump administration announced plans to rescind DACA. On top of dealing with being away from home and adjusting to the rigor of UT, Lizbeth now had to worry about her future in the U.S.

“I had never been that sad in my life,” Lizbeth said. “I thought to myself, ‘I just got in, how is this happening?’”

The media’s portrayal of “Dreamers” made her anxious. She felt like she had to justify herself.

“The way the media has portrayed us has really put the pressure on for us to be perfect,” Lizbeth said. “So what if we all don’t want to be doctors and lawyers? I think that people forget that the reason we are called ‘Dreamers’ is because we have the right to follow our dream, just like Americans can.”

As an advertising major, Lizbeth felt she wasn’t doing enough compared to other Dreamers in the media. And with the general pressure of being a college student, Lizbeth fell into a depression.

Lizbeth renewed her permit in the fall, but Congress’ inaction continues to frustrate her. Even though a recent court order deemed Trump’s March 5 DACA deadline irrelevant, the long-term future of DACA remains uncertain.

Last Wednesday, Lizbeth walked to the Texas Capitol with about 50 other UT students to call for a permanent solution for DACA recipients. This was the first time Lizbeth openly protested as a DACA student.

She was nervous, but when she was handed a sign reading “No human being is illegal,” she felt empowered.

“It was pretty powerful ‘cause where I’m from we don’t talk about it, and no one is picketing,” Lizbeth said.

The sign now hangs in Lizbeth’s room as a reminder of the day she says she finally became a DACA activist. She plans to continue advocating for Dreamers.

Despite Trump’s threats to DACA students, Lizbeth said seeing other Dreamers at UT has helped her embrace the identity she tried to hide for so long.

“I feel a lot more confident, more self-accepting,” Lizbeth said. “Having a sense of identity is beautiful more than anything.”