Illegal immigrant dreams of better future in U.S.

Dec. 25, 2010 at 6:25 a.m.

Nayeli, an undocumented worker, desperately wants to attend college to become a nurse. She is one of thousands of young immigrants from Mexico who grew up in the United States and have no ties to Mexico, but can't get financial aid for college because of their residency status in the U.S.

Nayeli, an undocumented worker, desperately wants to attend college to become a nurse. She is one of thousands of young immigrants from Mexico who grew up in the United States and have no ties to Mexico, but can't get financial aid for college because of their residency status in the U.S.

Growing up, 23-year-old Nayeli never envisioned her future career would be limited to cleaning toilets and emptying bedpans.

However, it is a life that the illegal immigrant, who asked to only be referred to by her middle name for legal reasons, has no choice but to get accustomed to living for now.

"I try to make myself seem like I'm not too concerned about my future, like I'm lazy," Nayeli said about how she responds to people who inquire why she does not go to college to better herself. "But I really do care, and it hurts to say those things about myself because they are not true."

This year brought a glimmer of hope to Nayeli that she would soon be able to re-enroll in college and pursue a better life for herself under the federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, otherwise known as the Dream Act.

The bill would have provided certain illegal immigrants, who met specific requirements, the opportunity to earn conditional permanent U.S. residency if they completed two years in the military or two years at a four-year institution of higher learning.

"We have a lot of idle, talented people who are ready, willing and able to work and can't because their immigration status won't allow them employment opportunities," said San Antonio-based immigration attorney Gerardo Menchaca. "The Dream Act is the most powerful form of immigration reform available. It is rewarding behavior that U.S. society values, which is getting an education and serving the country."

The legislation passed the House of Representatives, but was blocked on Dec. 18 in the Senate by a vote of 55 to 41 by Republicans and a handful of Democrats during the lame-duck session.

"I will not support the Dream Act legislation brought before the Senate because it expands the scope of the bill beyond the intended individuals who were brought here as children and grew up and were educated in the United States," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, said days before the bill died. "This serious legislation must be brought up in a timeframe that allows full debate and amendments."

"The senator continues to support the basic goal of the Dream Act and has great sympathy for the plight of children who were brought here illegally with no moral culpability of their own," said Jessica Sandlin, press secretary for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "He hopes Democrat leaders in Congress will stop playing politics with the Dream Act and the concerns of those impacted by it, and instead make a good faith effort to have it considered as part of credible immigration reform that addresses all pressing immigration matters and first and foremost secures our borders."

News that the bill failed to get the 60 votes it needed to pass left Nayeli devastated.

"I feel bad. Now, I have to keep on living the way I am doing it," said Nayeli, who lives in Yoakum. "I have to have faith that Obama can do something about it next year."

The Dream Act's 2010 demise is just the latest in a long line of setbacks Nayeli has had to endure regarding her education and citizenship.

Born in Poza Rica, Veracruz, Mexico, Nayeli came to the U.S. illegally on July 19, 2001, at the age of 12.

The 23-year-old brunette said she came to the U.S. to live with her mother, who came to the U.S. illegally months earlier in hopes of providing a better life for Nayeli, who was to stay behind in Mexico.

"Money was an issue. My dad would abuse my mom, and he never had a stable job. My mom would go door-to-door offering to wash clothes by hand. That's what brought some money into the house and put food on the table for us," Nayeli said through tears. "We didn't even have a door or toilet tissue."

She continued, "When I was a little girl, I would pray for God to just give me a chance to live a better life, an opportunity to get out of this situation."

From the beginning, Nayeli said, life in the U.S. was hard.

Nayeli's mother worked three jobs, leaving little room for mother-daughter time.

Nayeli also went to work, washing dishes at night in a local Mexican restaurant, where she earned about $80 a week.

"They didn't ask for a Social Security number or anything. They didn't care," Nayeli said. "They just wanted someone to wash dishes."

Upon her arrival in Yoakum, Nayeli said she went straight to high school because the local middle school did not offer English as a Second Language classes.

"The school was nice. There was air-conditioning and carpet," she said. " In my head, all that made up for the fact that I was not able to afford Nikes or Pumas like the other students. I was just happy for what I did have."

Despite being bumped up a grade-level, Nayeli said, she had no problems keeping up with the work; she maintained A's and B's and did exceptionally well in math.

"You don't have to speak English to do math," she said.

Nayeli graduated high school with a good ACT score and a positive outlook on her future.

Through the combination of wages she earned from her part-time jobs, a one-year scholarship from one of her mother's jobs and $6,000 that her mother managed to save for Nayeli's college education, Nayeli enrolled in Victoria College in hopes of pursuing degrees in computer programming and graphic design.

It was not until she attempted to enroll for her second year that the harsh reality of being ineligible for financial aid because of her illegal status really hit home.

With no money to pay for school, Nayeli said, she was forced to forgo school and instead work various jobs that never paid more than $8 an hour, which she was able to do with the help of fake Social Security numbers.

"I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I had no choice," said Nayeli, who said she needed the money to help pay household bills.

Still looking to better herself, though, Nayeli earned both her certified nursing assistant license and a certificate in phlebotomy from Victoria College in 2009.

She also started her own house-cleaning business and found work in an area nursing home, which is when she decided to pursue a career as a registered nurse.

She received renewed hope that a solution to her career problems was on the horizon when the Dream Act picked up speed after it was re-introduced in both chambers of Congress in March 2009, nearly 10 years after it was first introduced.

In addition to attending rallies and e-mailing and calling legislators daily asking for their support, Nayeli said she would send what extra money she could toward the cause.

"I wish I could do more than I'm doing now, but I could lose my job," she said. "Living in a small town, everyone knows who you are and where you live. All they have to do is make one phone call, and that's it."

It is because of the dangers that undocumented people face in exposing themselves for the cause that Cesar Espinosa, the executive director of Familias Imigrantes y Estudiantes en la Lucha/Immigrant Families and Students in the Struggle, decided to pick up the torch and fight the cause for them.

"The Dream Act is still very much alive," said Espinosa. "We are going to continue pushing it forward and giving it our all until we make it a reality."

Being from a larger city, Mike, a 20-year-old Familias volunteer and freshman anthropology major at Houston Community College, has fewer qualms about fighting the cause from the front lines.

"I've actually met a lot of students who have master degrees and one lady who has a Ph.D who can't get a job because she has no Social. She's waiting tables," said Mike, who declined to give his last name for legal reasons. "This is America. That shouldn't be happening here. These are educated people and their talents and knowledge is just going to waste."

He attributes much of the negative views the public has on the Dream Act to politically biased media outlets

"They never show the students with cap and gowns. They show images of the border and people getting arrested. They say they are illegals, not students, and they call it an amnesty program when it's not. It's still an extremely long process, at least 10 years," Mike said. "There's a lot of misinformation by certain people out there who are just giving out their opinions."

For now, advocacy groups are focused on gaining support of the bill in 2012.

Until that happens, however, Nayeli said she is back to working at the nursing home and cleaning houses throughout the area, both for minimum wage.

More importantly, however, Nayeli said she is back to living life in constant fear of deportation.

"Every day I have to be careful. Little things could cost me deportation. Living here, I have to be in the shadows. I'm not free," said Nayeli. "Going back to Mexico would be my nightmare. Everything I have would be lost."

At this point, Nayeli said all she can do is hold out hope the Dream Act will pass within the next few years.

"I hope people will forgive me and my mother for what we've done. I'm 23 years old. I have a lot of hopes. I do not have any kids. I don't want food stamps or Medicaid. I just want to do the right thing," said Nayeli. "This is my future. I know people are not going to understand because they may not be in my shoes. I'm just going to have to live with it and pray to God that hopefully they'll be able to push the Dream Act again."



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