Alina Luna had the grades and the drive to attend college right after high school, but she didn’t have a Social Security Number. As an undocumented immigrant who came to Atlanta from Mexico at the age of 12, she wasn’t allowed to apply for federal financial aid without it. Luna felt left out as she listened to her friends talk about the application process and excitedly announce where they planned to study. She became hopeful when one of her teachers tried to help her apply for community college so she could pursue her dream of becoming a special education teacher, but without proof that she was a legal resident, she couldn’t qualify for in-state tuition either. “I was so disappointed,” she said. “It’s like my future was stuck.”
Luna hopes that immigration reform will include a means for immigrants who came to the United States as children to apply for a green card so they can study and work and reach their potential. “You’re already used to this country, and it’s too hard to go back at that point,” says Luna, now 31. Unable to attend college, she cleaned houses and worked as a teller at a check-cashing business in order to support her young son. She says the owner of the check-cashing business often expected her and her boyfriend to work unpaid overtime – reminding them that they couldn’t object, since they were undocumented. They were even held at gunpoint during a robbery.
Five years ago, Georgia passed a controversial law that allows police to question drivers about their immigration status during traffic stops. Worried that she and her boyfriend might face severe penalties if they were caught driving without a license, they decided to consult with an immigration attorney. During the consultation, Luna mentioned the robbery at the check-cashing business and told the lawyer that they had helped the police catch the perpetrator. The lawyer thought they might qualify for a “U visa” which is granted to some crime victims who help the police. The visa made them eligible to work for four years and eventually apply for a green card. Despite the trauma of the robbery and the years of mistreatment by the business owner, the couple was incredibly relieved to be safe. “We were so happy we felt as if we’d won the lottery,” Luna says. “We realized we had an amazing chance and had to do something positive.” Eventually, Luna became a law secretary, and her boyfriend became a customer service agent for Delta Airlines.
With my work permit, I was able to achieve so much in so little time. I just keep thinking, ‘What will I be able to do when I have my green card and eventually become a U.S. citizen?’
After seeing firsthand how immigration attorneys can impact people’s lives, Luna now wants to pursue a law career. She plans to apply to college as soon as she receives her green card in the next year. “With my work permit, I was able to achieve so much in so little time,” she says. “I just keep thinking, ‘What will I be able to do when I have my green card and eventually become a U.S. citizen?’”