As an immigrant, military spouse, aspiring law student, and intern at the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, Claudia Delgadillo speaks from experience when she talks about bridging different worlds. Sometimes it can seem as if Americans are divided, she says. But her unique position as the foreign-born wife of a U.S. soldier gives her a clear perspective on those divisions: “Simply sharing each other’s stories,” she says, “is what brings people from different backgrounds together.”
Delgadillo’s story begins in Mexico City. When she was 6 years old, she and her family moved to the United States on a visa, which was only temporary, and settled north of Chicago. It wasn’t until high school that her undocumented status first felt real to her: Her peers were getting their driver’s licenses. Students just as ambitious and driven as Delgadillo were researching colleges and applying for financial aid. She didn’t have a Social Security number, so those same opportunities weren’t available to her.
It was a complete blessing and a total turning point in my life.
Then, in 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy that allows qualifying undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to temporarily defer deportation, changed her life and her career path. “It was a complete blessing and a total turning point in my life,” Delgadillo says.
Now the proud owner of a Social Security number, she enrolled in community college. As a DACA recipient, she was still ineligible for financial aid, so Delgadillo got a waitressing job to pay her tuition. She married, and, as her Army husband’s postings changed, the couple moved to Georgia and then Tennessee, where Delgadillo eventually enrolled at Austin Peay State University.
Between all the studying, two causes became very important to Delgadillo: supporting military personnel and their families and advocating for immigration reform. She’d volunteered as an aide to families of sick veterans through Heartland Hospice while living in Georgia. And when the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition started a campaign for a state bill to expand access to in-state tuition for DACA students, Delgadillo coordinated Austin Peay’s local campaign. (Despite support from a bipartisan group of lawmakers, the legislation still hasn’t passed.)
These families are really here for one reason, and it’s for a better life.
It’s counterproductive, Claudia believes, for the United States to waste the talents of immigrants—especially when so many are ready and willing to work hard, pay taxes, and buy homes—rather than putting them to use, which could provide an economic boost to the U.S. economy. In Tennessee, for example, the most recent data shows that immigrants earn nearly $8 billion and contribute nearly $2 billion in federal, state, and local taxes annually. She believes that, by allowing these immigrants to come out of the shadows so they can work and earn an education, we’ll see the revenue and tax contributions provided by our country’s foreign-born population continue to rise. “These families are really here for one reason, and it’s for a better life,” she says.
Since graduating with her bachelor’s degree in May 2016, and completing a fall internship with the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, Claudia has been studying for the LSAT and volunteering at the Clarksville Soldiers for Life (SFL) chapter, which helps soldiers and their families reintegrate into civilian life following active-duty service. Her plan is to enroll in a Tennessee law school in the fall and focus on immigration law. It’s a topic she’s obviously well versed in; despite living in the United States for the majority of her life and being married to a native-born citizen, Claudia is still in the process of obtaining the permanent legal status that would make her a full citizen of the country she’s long considered home.
“We love this country so much,” Claudia says of immigrant families like her own. “We want to contribute here, and we want to give back here.”