When Mariana Ocampo was growing up in Texas, she and her siblings longed for part-time jobs similar to the ones their teenage friends held. They wanted to work, they wanted to spend their earnings, and they wanted to contribute to their family. But since Ocampo and her siblings were in the United States illegally – they entered on a tourist visa when they were small children and never left – they were not able to do any of the above.
“You always hear the argument that illegal aliens don’t pay taxes, but we would have loved to work, pay taxes, and pump money into the economy with our wages,” says Ocampo, who has since fixed her status (with the help of a pricey immigration attorney) and become a doctoral candidate at Texas State in the Science and Engineering school. She dreams of working as a forensic scientist for the government, a job that requires citizenship. “We were seen as a waste, like we were draining taxpayers’ money, but we didn’t even qualify for federal help since we didn’t have documentation. We weren’t using food stamps or Medicaid. We weren’t getting any assistance, and we also weren’t given the chance to work and improve our situation.”
We would have loved to work, pay taxes, and pump money into the economy with our wages.
The family lived on what Ocampo’s mother earned cleaning houses, which amounted to just about $40 a week. At the time, college seemed like an impossibility. However, Texas considers anyone who has lived in the state for at least 10 years and graduated from a Texas high school to be a resident, and Ocampo earned a scholarship to the University of Texas campus in Edinburg and completed her degree in chemistry. After completing her master’s degree, she was able to fix her status and apply for citizenship, which she will use to help her mother – who is still undocumented – and her siblings, who have the legal right to work under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
As she works toward her doctorate, Ocampo also teaches at Texas State. She sees a large number of international students study here and then return to their home countries when their student visas expire, taking with them the knowledge and ideas that could benefit the U.S. economy. She would like to see an opportunity for those students to stay here and work, and she would like to see an acknowledgment of homegrown talent as well – people who were raised here and educated here but, like Ocampo, simply did not have the appropriate paperwork.
“It’s not fair to be punished for something you didn’t have control over,” Ocampo says, referencing the struggles that she faced as a child, and those that her siblings still face. She supports putting undocumented minors on a path to residency. “If you don’t have a criminal record and you meet certain criteria, you should at least be able to get residency, and then eventually move toward citizenship if you want. Taking it slow, step by step, is fine with me, but for kids like me and my siblings who did nothing wrong, there should be a path.”