Maria’s mother never finished high school in Mexico. Instead, after having Maria at age 16, she and Maria’s father crossed the border into the United States. “They decided the best thing would be to come here and look for a better life,” says Maria, who has lived in Fort Wayne, Indiana, since she was 2 years old. Last year, Maria became the first person in her family to finish high school, graduating as valedictorian of her class. “I felt so accomplished — and my parents were so proud,” she says. She is now a freshman at Holy Cross College, at Notre Dame, studying biology and psychology with plans to go to medical school. “I’m going to be helping other people,” she says. “I’ll be one of the people who makes America great.”
Her aspirations are possible, in part, thanks to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a 2012 policy that allows qualifying undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to defer deportation for renewable two-year periods and to work legally in the United States. Maria has been able to get a driver’s license and take a job at the campus development department. She knows, too, that her studies will pay off with the opportunity to apply to medical school. DACA allows undocumented students to qualify for the loans they need to attend medical school and to receive a work permit to complete a residency program, a requirement for certification. “It changes things. It makes you feel like you’re a regular person,” she says. “Now I can feel like everyone else.”
Even with DACA, getting to college wasn’t easy. Maria ’s parents have always worked hard — her mother as a massage therapist, her father as an electrician — but they still couldn’t afford to pay the full cost of her education. And, as an undocumented immigrant, Maria would see any scholarship she won revoked once she disclosed her status. “I was treated as a foreigner, basically,” she says. Maria thought she might not make it to college at all, but her parents insisted that she keep trying, and eventually — thanks to support from Holy Cross and a scholarship from a local charity — she managed to scrape together the funding.
The fact I’m undocumented doesn’t limit me or define me in terms of what I can contribute to my country.
Now Maria is determined to make the most of the opportunity. Besides her studies, she’s involved in charity work for a number of different groups, and she volunteers at a local elementary school. “The fact I’m undocumented doesn’t limit me or define me in terms of what I can contribute to my country,” she says. “The fact that I wasn’t born here doesn’t mean I don’t have lots to offer. I have goals, and plans, and I want to be a part of my community.”
Maria is clear that Indiana is where she belongs, and frets about what it would mean if she were to be deported. “This is my home — it’s the only thing I can remember,” she says. “If I were to be sent to Mexico, it’d be a strange land to me. The United States is where I’m from.” Moreover, she says, sending her away would be a loss of potential for this country. “It’d be a waste of talent, of effort,” she says. “If someone wants to do something, and they’re good at it, and they prove themselves, then why wouldn’t you want that?”
President Donald Trump announced in September 2017 that the administration would phase out DACA by March 2018 unless Congress takes action. Some 1.8 million young people who would otherwise be eligible for DACA could instead face deportation. Rather than trying to roll back programs like DACA, policymakers should be expanding them, Maria says. “I think that DACA is a good start — it’s provided endless opportunities for all sorts of people,” she says. “But there’s still lots more that can and should be done.”
For example, age restrictions could be relaxed, she says. “It should be regulated, of course, but it could have a positive impact.” Indiana is home to more than 103,000 undocumented immigrants, 91.9 percent of whom are of working age. These workers pay a combined $201.1 million in taxes every year. Getting legal status would open the door to better jobs, and allow them to give more back to the community, Maria says. “They’d be able to get better jobs and not have to worry.”
Even with DACA, Maria knows that, as an undocumented immigrant, building a career in the United States will be challenging. “There will definitely be issues, I know that. But long-term, it’s what I’m going to do. I have to find a way,” she says. “I have hope.” That sense of hope was the theme of Maria ’s valedictory speech last year, in which she urged her 450 classmates to work hard, and to keep believing in themselves. “There are going to be many obstacles in life,” she told them. “But as long as you have hope, and the right ideas and mindset, you can overcome them.”