This summer, when 21-year-old journalism and graphics major Erika Espinoza tosses her cap alongside her classmates at Ball State University, she’ll become the first person in her family to graduate from college. An undocumented immigrant who was brought to Indiana from Mexico when she was 9 years old, Espinoza has interned with Vox Media, Univision,and Time, and says she dreams of working in New York City or Washington, DC, for a big media organization. Above all, though, she wants to support her parents, and make sure her siblings get the same opportunities that she has had. “Wherever I go, whatever I do, I want to help my parents finish paying their mortgage and getting my little sister through college,” she says.
When Espinoza’s parents first came to Indiana, they left their daughters in Puebla, Mexico, in the care of a grandmother. Her father worked at a McDonald’s, then in a factory, while her mother worked for a company making children’s furniture. “They wanted to work and provide a better future for my sisters and me,” Espinoza explains. That’s something Espinoza says inspires her to work hard, too. “They gave up everything in Mexico to be here, to bring my sisters and me. What I’m doing is nothing compared to what they’ve done.”
As a child in a new country, it wasn’t easy for Espinoza to settle in at first. Still, she soon picked up the language, and by middle school she was writing for the school newspaper. That was the start of her love affair with journalism and media design. “People underestimate the power of journalism,” she says. “It sounds very cheesy, but it really has the power to make an impact.”
The people who get an education here, we’re becoming doctors and engineers.
Back then, nobody in Espinoza’s family had really thought seriously about sending her to college. “It wasn’t an expectation for us,” she says. In high school, though, she got excellent grades and started to think more seriously about her future. Without access to public student loans, and ineligible for most scholarships, because of her immigration status, Espinoza thought she’d be lucky if her family could scrape together the cash for community college. In the end, however, she won a full scholarship from the Lilly Foundation, one of only a few such financial aid programs open to Indiana’s undocumented population. “I was blessed,” she says.
Still, even with funding, Espinoza wouldn’t have been able to attend Ball State without 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. Having a Social Security number allowed Espinoza to take a summer job at Walmart to help support herself, and to work during school as a clerk in the university journalism office. “Having that nine-digit number can change people’s lives,” Espinoza says. It also made it easier for her to take internships, and to make professional contacts. “I don’t want to sound arrogant but I think I’m good at what I do,” she says.
Espinoza says many of her undocumented friends are similarly talented, and lately have been posting messages on Facebook about their upcoming graduations and their hopes for the future. “The people who get an education here, we’re becoming doctors and engineers,” she says. Ninety percent of the DACA-eligible population 16 years old and older is employed, and combined these Dreamers pay $3 billion in taxes every year. “Honestly, this is going to sound cliché, but we’re the ones who are making America great. This is our home and we love it.”
In September 2017, President Donald Trump announced that the administration would phase out DACA by March 2018 unless Congress takes action, potentially subjecting 1.8 million ultimately eligible young people to deportation. Espinoza hopes lawmakers will look at the contributions being made by young DACA recipients and find ways not only to retain the program but to expand it to adults, as well. People like her parents don’t mind not being citizens, she says, but they want to be able to work legally, to obtain driver’s licenses, and to quietly support their families without fear of deportation. “All they want to do is work, that’s all they want to do,” she says. “DACA is great, and I’m very grateful, but it shouldn’t stop there.”