When Erendira Rendon started college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2004, she was hesitant to tell her classmates that she was undocumented. She was among the first young people to take advantage of an Illinois law that allowed undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state colleges. But a sense of stigma persisted. She didn’t like the fact that her roommate had to lease their apartment and put her name on the electric bill. “I had to learn how to survive as an undocumented person by depending on U.S. citizens,” says Rendon, who came to the United States when she was 4years old. “I wasn’t allowed to get a state ID card. It’s little things like that that remind you you’re not really an American. People would tell me that I’m as American as they come, but I couldn’t get my own card to rent videos.”
Rendon graduated with a degree in sociology and went into the nonprofit sector. Today, she feels a duty to share her story, especially as the American public is hearing more about the struggles of the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States. “I feel like we’re more open about it now,” says Rendon. “It’s been so liberating not to have to feel scared.” In 2012, she received another reason to feel more accepted here: The creation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program gave qualifying undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as young children the right to work , apply for driver’s licenses, and enroll in college.
I had to learn how to survive as an undocumented person by depending on U.S. citizens.
“It’s been great to experience a stable life and focus on building a career instead of living day to day,” says Rendon. She is now 32 and works on state and local campaigns for a nonprofit called The Resurrection Project to improve the lives of immigrants.
But ever since it was announced that DACA would be cancelled in March 2018, Rendon fears that her job is at risk. She says it is time for Congress to enact immigration reform that offers undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship. Such legislation would protect her right to work and would help her parents, who are also undocumented. “I thought it was bad to be a student and be undocumented, but now I realize it’s worse as you get older,” says Rendon. “My parents are now 61. My brother and I worry about their health and the fact that they don’t have health insurance or retirement. What if they get hurt?” Although many undocumented immigrants have been paying into the Social Security and Medicare systems for decades, they will not see any of the benefits. Between 2000 and 2011, undocumented immigrants generated a $35.1 billion surplus in the Medicare Trust Fund.
There is another cost to being undocumented for nearly three decades. Rendon’s family cannot leave the country to see members of their extended family, who are getting older. Although two of her mom’s four brothers in Mexico have been able to visit the United States, Rendon worries her mother will never get to reunite with family. “I’m worried about her not being able to see them again. And if she goes back, I might not be able to see her again,” says Rendon. “I don’t want families to have to make these choices. I don’t want families to live with this pain.” Such emotional agony has only worsened with the recent waves of deportations that are splitting up parents and children. “We can’t put off reform any longer. It’s hard always living with this uncertainty. My parents have been undocumented more than half their lives,” she says.