Ask Ingrid about her nationality, and you’ll be met with a long sigh and an even longer pause. “I guess I’m a Mexican living in America,” she says. “I can’t call myself an American because I’m not treated like one, but I’m not really a Mexican, either.” She has achieved a lot: A college degree and a job in the business development department of Hormel Foods. But like so many other Mexicans who were brought across the border as babies and raised without U.S. citizenship, Ingrid has worked extremely hard to forge a place for herself in this country.
Ingrid grew up in an impoverished immigrant neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas, and excelled in school. “I knew I needed to get out. I had such a strong desire to make something of myself and, looking back, I did everything I could to make that happen,” she says. However, despite her near-perfect grades and community service records, Ingrid couldn’t have anticipated the roadblocks to a higher education for someone in her position.
I guess I’m a Mexican living in America. I can’t call myself an American because I’m not treated like one, but I’m not really a Mexican, either.
“I had to pay for everything, and I didn’t have any money,” she says, citing the fact that undocumented students can’t apply for government financial aid. “Being rejected like that, when so many of my friends from school were receiving aid packages left and right, was hard. It was the first time I realized that I was different from them.” Eventually, a mentor of Ingrid’s at the area Hispanic chamber of commerce tipped her off to a state loophole: Kansas allowed undocumented immigrants to attend an in-state school if they paid for it themselves. With the help of local merit-based scholarships, Ingrid raised enough money to attend Kansas State University, where she majored in business. “I had to give up on my dreams of becoming a psychologist,” she says, explaining that one of her most prominent awards would only support her if she committed to a four-year business degree. “That helped me so much, and I was very grateful for the support. At the same time, it showed me that because of my status, I have to simplify my expectations of personal success if I want to be allowed any at all.”
Attending college wasn’t Ingrid’s end goal, of course. But in order to be considered for any type of work after graduation, she would need an internship to meet a university requirement. “I was still undocumented, and I couldn’t do anything but go to class,” she says. “I couldn’t even work part time at the local coffee shop. I was stuck and felt like I worked so hard for nothing.” In 2012, Ingrid was on the verge of dropping out. She wondered what good a degree would do if she couldn’t even get a job.
And then former President Barack Obama passed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which gave many undocumented young people the right to study and work in the United States without fearing deportation. “That was the happiest moment of my life so far. I always knew I had what it takes to make it and, finally, I felt like someone was looking out for me, and for us.” That December, Ingrid received her first Social Security number.
The summer after graduation, she accepted an offer from international foodstuffs brand Hormel and moved east to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Recently, she was promoted to become territory manager of Hormel Foods in Irvine, California. Although she is living her ultimate dream, Ingrid is hesitant to celebrate her success. Still unable to attain citizenship (she is currently on a 10-year waiting list), she must reapply for DACA status every two years. The future of the program are also unclear. That, combined with the fingerprints, questions, and extensive background checks involved, make her feel unwelcome and uncertain about her future here. Ingrid admits that it’s challenging to stay positive when she hears politicians call her a criminal. The United States is the only home she’s ever known, but she feels little security. “Living here is like living in a gilded cage. You have all of these beautiful things, but you are limited to what you can do and who you can be,” she says. “Now, I’ve decided that I am going to start focusing on what fulfills me and makes me happy rather than continue to try and to prove myself for a country that doesn’t want me.”