Dreaming of Becoming a Lawyer — But How When You’re Not a Citizen in Your Own Country?

Frida Islas Valdez, a sophomore at Wake Forest University, is keeping busy: She’s a leader in a social justice teaching program, a senator in the student government, and a peer leader trained to mentor students who’ve violated the school’s code of conduct. She plans to major in both political science and psychology, then has her sights set on law school. That’s a leap of faith for Valdez: She is an undocumented immigrant; and while the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program shields her from deportation and allows her to legally work in the United States, she still can’t gain admittance to the North Carolina bar. “DACA has been a gift, but there are still a lot of limits,” she says.

It’s an obligation to look for a better future. We have to keep going, despite the uncertainty, and hope for the best like we always have.

When Valdez was a toddler, her parents left her with her grandmother in Mexico City and crossed the border in search of a new life for the family in America. “Their hope was to establish a better future here, and to find a way for me to come here as a documented immigrant,” she says. After four years and no opportunity to bring Valdez to the United States legally, her mother returned to Mexico to fetch her. The journey across the border was arduous: Valdez recalls struggling across a surging river and later being tossed into a van along with many other immigrants, as though she was an object rather than a person. “There was a moment when I told my mother I couldn’t walk anymore, so she carried me on her back,” she says.

The struggle continued once Valdez was safely in the United States. Her parents worked a succession of draining, low-paying jobs in meat-processing plants, embroidery factories, and for landscaping and construction companies. Her parents still work long hours in factories, which is why Valdez says she is determined to get an education:. “My mom goes into the factory at 5 a.m. and comes out at 3 p.m. dead on her feet. I see how much my parents work, and it makes me want to work harder to give them a better future.”

Unfortunately, Valdez says, for undocumented immigrants, hard work isn’t always enough. She recalls going to Barnes & Noble in high school, looking through a book of college scholarships, and realizing that as an undocumented immigrant she wouldn’t qualify for any of them. “I cried,” she says. “I was like, What’s it all been for if I won’t be able to go to college?” Fortunately, a mentor from Davidson College took an interest in Valdez’s case and helped her find a scholarship program for DACA recipients and Dreamers, young, undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. “It was a huge relief to realize that there are people who have the heart to see our situation and recognize that we do have potential, and that we aren’t just a stereotype,” she says.

Many of Valdez’s undocumented friends haven’t been so lucky. She has seen bright, talented young people forced to give up their education and take tough, low-paying jobs. There’s a real need, Valdez says, for immigration reform that can give young immigrants a chance to make the most of their potential and pursue the careers of their choice. DACA recipients deserve the stability they long for.

In the meantime, Valdez says she’s going to keep studying, to keep aiming high, and to keep making the most of the opportunities that come her way. “My parents always told me to dream, and to keep growing,” she says. “It’s an obligation to look for a better future. We have to keep going, despite the uncertainty, and hope for the best like we always have.”

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…