From the age of 12, Adriana Cardoso-Reyes spent her summers and weekends picking blueberries alongside her parents and siblings. She was one of the almost 100,000 migrant workers who support Michigan’s $100-billion-a-year food and agriculture industry. Now a trained social worker and the director of Western Michigan University’s federally funded College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP), Cardoso-Reyes helps 40 students a year from migrant backgrounds access funding and support for college. “It’s personal to me, because it’s my story,” she says.
Cardoso-Reyes was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, but when she was seven years old, her mother took her on a bus ride north. Cardoso-Reyes remembers getting off the bus, climbing a hill, and slipping through a gap in the border fence. “Just walk casually,” she remembers being told. “Act like you’re window shopping.” Once safely across, they grabbed lunch — “Our first introduction to American culture was McDonald’s French fries,” Cardoso-Reyes says — then went to meet Cardoso-Reyes’ father, a migrant worker who had made a similar journey north at the age of 14, and who had been working on farms in California, Michigan, and Florida.
Cardoso-Reyes might have remained undocumented but for the fact that her father had been in the United States in the mid-1980s, and had gained a green card through the passage of the sweeping Immigration Reform and Control Act, passed under Reagan. That allowed him to apply for green cards for his family, and seven years after their furtive border crossing, Cardoso-Reyes and her mother gained legal status. “My dad happened to be in the right place at the right time,” she says. “There’s no difference between me and the members of my community who came in illegally and are still undocumented.”
The success of the younger generation shows how much potential still remains untapped in the undocumented population.
It was only as Cardoso-Reyes grew older, and watched undocumented friends and family struggle that she understood the significance of her green card. “I started to realize what having status meant: having a driving license, having access to services,” she says. She also started to realize, as she helped newly arrived friends to navigate English-language services, just how much power there was in knowledge and information. “It’s something that stuck with me—that if I wanted to make a change, I’d have to get an education,” she says. “If you have education, you have power—you can make the best decisions for you and your family, and you don’t have to live in fear.”
That realization drove Cardoso-Reyes to win a merit scholarship to Western Michigan University, and eventually earn a master’s degree in social work. Now, as the university’s CAMP director, Cardoso-Reyes wants to inspire other students from migrant backgrounds to achieve their full potential. Her team goes into local schools, and out into the fields, to let young people know about the resources available to them. The results, she says, are striking: The first-to-second-year retention rate for CAMP students at WMU is more than 90 percent, and thanks to her efforts, dozens of first-generation students are now earning degrees and starting careers.
Many of the young people with whom Cardoso-Reyes now works were born in the United States, but often they have close ties to others in their community who remain undocumented. The success of the younger generation shows how much potential still remains untapped in the undocumented population, Cardoso-Reyes says, and how much the local community would benefit if such people were given a chance—as Cardoso-Reyes’ father was—to obtain legal status for themselves and their families. “We’re constantly asking, is this going to be the year there’s going to be immigration reform?” she says. “We need a path for the families that are here, who’re making a living, who’re here to work—because this is their home.”