In many ways, Maria Rojas, a senior education major at Northern Kentucky University, is like many ambitious young Americans. She’s president of her co-ed fraternity, Alpha Psi Lambda, and plans on becoming an elementary school teacher. “I’ve always loved teaching ever since I was a little girl, when I would play school with my stuffed animals,” she says. “I want to make a difference by teaching in low-income areas, since there are often huge gaps there. I want those students to understand how powerful their education can really be.”
But in other, albeit serious, ways, Rojas is different from her peers. She’s from a mixed-status family and can remember, from an early age, her father preparing the family for his possible deportation. When Rojas was 15, he actually was deported, and she didn’t see him for three years. “He missed my sister’s wedding,” she says. The time and distance “definitely put a strain on our relationship.” She wants immigration reform that will keep families together, not rip them apart, which is what’s happened to more than half a million parents from 2009 to 2013.
Literally, the day I got my Social Security number, I went and got my driver’s license and a part-time job,” says Rojas. “That’s how eager I was to contribute.
When the only country she’s called home deported her father, Rojas’ stress was exacerbated by the fact that she and her mother were also undocumented. Originally from Santiago, Chile, her parents had traveled between the countries for her father’s job as a horse jockey, the career that brought him to Kentucky and the historic Churchill Downs track where he raced. Her older sister was born during an earlier trip to the U.S., making her a citizen. But the rest of the family lived in the five-year increments of her father’s work visa. They once hired a lawyer to apply for citizenship, but the paperwork was filed incorrectly and the woman they’d paid fled with their money. When the visa expired, “we were scared,” says Rojas. But there was nothing to do but wait for her older sister to turn 21 — in seven years — so she could sponsor them for residency.
Rojas says their status made it difficult for them to integrate into the community. She knew she wanted to go to college, get a good job, and contribute to the economy, but without a Social Security number, she had few options for financial aid. And since no one would hire her, she couldn’t pay her own way. When she realized that her inability to secure a legal driver’s license would make it difficult to get to class on time, she almost gave up. “I was in all these AP and honors classes and was told I’d be eligible for so many scholarships,” she says, “but being undocumented meant I didn’t qualify.”
Finally, the day came when Rojas’ sister turned 21. She applied for their mother to receive residency, and once she was approved, her mother applied for Rojas. “Literally, the day I got my Social Security number, I went and got my driver’s license and a part-time job,” says Rojas. “That’s how eager I was to contribute.” Between her new paycheck and a scholarship, Rojas was able to cover tuition. “I love my school,” she says. She also volunteers with a local mentorship program and participates in community service projects. “I like to be involved and give back,” she says.
Rojas says if she had been sent back to Chile, “I would have felt completely out of my element. Most of the young immigrants I know have grown up in the U.S., so we don’t necessarily identify with our home countries. That’s why I think there should be a pathway for everyone who is already here.” Besides, she adds, even when her family was undocumented, they were still contributing to the local economy by shopping and paying for housing. “My family struggled for money,” says Rojas. “In Chile, my mom worked as an architect. But when we came here, her degree didn’t count. She had to work odd jobs as a maid or a nanny or waitress just so we could get by. That’s the case with a lot of families I know. We have DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] for now, but who knows what will happen in two years. I feel guilty because I had my sister, but not everyone has someone who can help them. I just don’t want anyone else to ever be afraid that they’re going to be separated from their family or not be able to go to college.”