‘Becoming a Citizen Would Mean Finally Being Accepted in My Own Country’

Like her parents, Leslie Arreaza is an undocumented immigrant. But while her parents are still working hard in low-paid jobs, Arreaza is majoring in psychology at Meredith College, working at a student-run preschool for children with autism, and dreaming of a career as a high school psychologist or counselor. “There’s a stereotype that if you need someone to clean your house, or mow your lawn, then you call an immigrant,” she says. “But we aren’t less capable — we just aren’t given the same opportunities as everyone else. If I end up working as a cleaner, I want it to be something I’ve chosen, not because I had no other options.”

When Arreaza was 3 years old, her parents left her with her grandparents in Guatemala, a country still recovering from decades of civil war, while they set out for America to pursue a better life. Four years later, a family friend brought Arreaza and her brother on a flight to join them. “My grandfather told me to just smile and nod if anyone asked me anything,” she says. “I didn’t understand the gravity of what was going on.” Within a month of arriving in North Carolina, Arreaza, who spoke no English, was enrolled in a public school. “It was terrifying,” she says. “But where we come from, if you aren’t educated then you aren’t getting anywhere. My parents told us from day one, you have to succeed in school.”

Arreaza worked hard, graduated high school at the age of 17, and, thanks to employment authorization gained through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that shields young immigrants from deportation, she was able to get a job at a local Food Lion supermarket. As an undocumented immigrant, Arreaza had missed out on the high school driver’s ed classes required for a learner’s permit, so until she turned 18 and qualified for a driver’s license she walked to the supermarket every day for work. Eventually, she saved up enough money to pay for training needed to work as a medical interpreter. That helped her to get a higher paying job as a bilingual claims consultant, for National General Insurance, and to start paying her way through community college. “I was working at night and going to school in the mornings — it was very hard,” she says. “The only reason I kept going was because my family kept pushing me.”

After two years at Forsyth Technical Community College, Arreaza was encouraged by her teachers and older brother to apply for a Golden Door scholarship, a privately funded program that offers full scholarships to high-achieving immigrants. Winning one of the prestigious scholarships put a four-year university education within Arreaza’s reach and opened the door to a career in education and counseling. “I’ve been helped so much in my life that it’s important for me to give something back,” she says.

Arreaza knows she’s been extraordinarily fortunate, and says she hopes to see programs like DACA extended to other undocumented immigrants, many of whom are unable to achieve their full potential because they lack legal status. “There are still a lot of undocumented people who don’t qualify for DACA,” she says. “Some of the kids I grew up with were brilliant, but they gave up and went out and got construction jobs — they’re very unhappy, but they had no other options.”

In the long term, Arreaza hopes to see comprehensive immigration reform that will allow her to gain permanent legal status, and eventually citizenship. That would give her more security and flexibility as she begins her career, and allow her to become more fully a part of the country she considers home. “DACA gives us hope, but it only lets us go so far,” she says. “I consider myself American — I give back to the community, and I’m part of the community. Becoming a citizen would mean finally being accepted in my own country.”

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New American Economy brings together more than 500 mayors and business leaders who support immigration reforms that will help create jobs for Americans today. More…