These undocumented women are graduating from Harvard—but immigration policy could ruin their futures


Lisette Candia Diaz, a 22-year-old from Long Island, will put on a cap and gown this week and walk across a stage in front of thousands of people to graduate from Harvard. Five or six years ago, that’s something she could have never imagined happening. Diaz’s family is from Chile, and though she’s been in the U.S. since she was six years old, she’s undocumented. Her parents encouraged her to apply to Harvard although she never thought she’d get in–let alone get a full-ride scholarship.

“I always thought growing up undocumented that high school was the end of the road. Even though I wanted to go to college, realistically some part of me was always thinking like, once I get through high school and finish it, what am I going to do,” she told me.

For undocumented students like Diaz, this is a moment filled with as much anxiety as optimism: while they celebrate earning an Ivy League degree that holds the promise of bright possibilities, they’re beholden to immigration laws that are still very much up in the air and threaten to upend everything they’ve worked for.

She wants to go to law school after getting some experience as a paralegal for a couple of years, but even the decision about where to go to school hinges on which states allow undocumented people to take the bar and practice law. Right now, that’s allowed in California; in New York, an undocumented man won what could be a precedent-setting court case last year allowing him to practice law.

Diaz’s immediate future very much hangs on the fate of President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive action.

DACA doesn’t grant legal status, but it allows young undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. when they were younger than 16 years old and have been here since before 2010 to access work authorizations, and in some states get drivers licenses and social security numbers. So far, 1.3 million young people have been granted deferred action under the program. More permanent reforms appear to be off the table at least until after the presidential election (and maybe for much longer). But DACA is still a temporary fix for the longer, looming question of whether America will ever see more permanent immigration reform.

In the meantime, the Supreme Court is considering a case brought against President Obama by 26 states challenging his executive order in 2014 that established the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) program. DAPA provides temporary employment authorization and deferred action to undocumented parents who have lived in the U.S. since at least 2010 and whose children are American citizens or permanent residents.

The states argue that Obama’s action was an over-reach of executive power. If SCOTUS rules Deferred Action for Parents of Americans unconstitutional, that by extension could endanger DACA. Some 11.3 million undocumented immigrants living the U.S. are watching that Supreme Court decision closely.

This lingering possibility that her life could be uprooted if immigration laws take a turn against people like herself is why Diaz said she’s always planning her life in six-month increments.

“I think even now I still think about my life in short periods of time that I have to get things done in,“ she told me. “I’m always living my life in these short time periods. Because I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. And I have a lot of anxiety about my parents back home, and just being away from them and being so unreachable in case something should happen.”

That’s part of the anxiety that many young undocumented people deal with as part of their everyday lives. One of Diaz’s graduating classmates, Tania Amarillas, told me that uncertainty has meant that she’s gone through periods of depression and anxiety while trying to figure out her next steps throughout her life, despite having a pretty clear idea of what she’d ideally like to be doing.

Both young women were involved in a student group at Harvard called Act On A Dream, a source of support and guidance for undocumented students on campus. Amarillas told me that when we talk about undocumented people, especially young people working out what the rest of their lives might look like, the toll that uncertainty takes on their mental health is often overlooked.

“It gets lost how hard it is on us as individuals,” she said. “We all sort of go through these bouts of depression, where you’re like, I don’t know what’s going on, I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. And that can be so difficult. And then on top of this you have your trying to get through Harvard classes.”

That uncertainty is particularly hard on young people between the ages of 18–25. At that stage in life, it’s important for people have a sense that their goals and ambitions are actually attainable, Dr. Sita Patel, a psychologist and professor at Palo Alto University who specializes in working with young immigrants, told me. And despite being extremely driven and hard-working, the reality for students like Diaz and Amarillas is that the trajectories of their lives are to some extent out of their hands.

“One of the things that’s really important in that age range is ambition, and having goals, and being able to pursue them,” she said. “For kids who are undocumented that’s certainly relevant in terms of what you can hope for, and that depression that can come along with feeling like you can’t have ambition.”

And in addition to that disempowering feeling of their plans being subject to immigration policy out of their control, financial difficulties put even more pressure on students from disadvantaged families. Even on a full-ride scholarship to an Ivy league college, incidental expenses can add up, as The Washington Post reported earlier this month. Without a scholarship, going to Harvard in 2015–16 costs $60,659 for tuition, room, board, and fees.

“I think that the financial reality is often really huge. I’ve seen lots of examples of kids in high schools, they go to school, they go home for a couple of hours to sleep and then they work all night and then go back to school…You have to be incredibly resilient to get through that,” said Patel. “I also see that carry over to the college setting where kids are struggling to pay their rent and just stay at school.”

Amarillas sought help from a counselor at Harvard’s student health center but said the specific stresses that she and other low-income undocumented students face are far removed from some of their classmate’s college experiences. At times, she’s worked three jobs while at school, and has always felt a pressure to help her family survive—for a while, she was the only person legally allowed to work in her family.

Amarillas grew up in El Sereno, a low-income suburb of Los Angeles, where she moved with her parents from Mexico when she was five years old. Her family left the city of Cuiliacan, the capital of Sinaloa, a state wracked by warring factions of drug cartels. Coming from a neighborhood where most of the kids she grew up with would not graduate from high school, she was determined to go to college and get to Harvard.

One of the factors that makes undocumented young people–or even young people from low-income families more broadly–more susceptible to anxiety and depression when they enter a space like Harvard, Patel, the psychologist, said, is that their self-esteem and resilience can suffer when they’re surrounded by people who seemingly have more: more access, more resources, and more freedom to make whatever choices they want about their careers and their lives.

It’s hard to get an exact count of how many undocumented students there might be at Harvard because not everyone wants to declare themselves to school authorities, but students estimate that there are probably fewer than 50 enrolled in the college at any given time. There are around 6,400 undergraduate students in total at Harvard.

For Amarillas and Diaz, graduating from Harvard is bittersweet. A world of opportunities and realized ambitions are within their grasp, but if DACA isn’t extended, their lives could take a drastically different turn. They think we need a more permanent solution, comprehensive immigration reform that’s more inclusive and doesn’t rely on temporary programs like DACA and DAPA.

“One thing we always recognized about DACA that it was always temporary and it was always a Band-Aid solution,” said Amarillas. “We’ve definitely seen a lot of rhetoric around immigration in the election cycle this year. I’m really hoping that this conversation continues and we end up with something that’s fair and humane.”

Her parents, for example, aren’t covered under DAPA because Amarillas and her two siblings are all undocumented and the program only applies to parents who have U.S.-born children.”My dad’s a small business owner, always pays his taxes, contributes to the community. We need something bigger,” she said.

But despite her worries about her life and her family’s future, she’s trying to be optimistic. She’s planning to go back and work in east L.A. on a public service scholarship. She’ll be working on two projects: a college access program, and an immigration law clinic. She’s looking forward to going back to her community equipped to try to change other young peoples’ lives—she knows what it’s like to be in their position with little support from anyone who understands the American education system. She said it’s hard to have a clear vision of the next five years, but this is the plan she’s hoping to stick to.

“The next president could take [DACA] away or could pass immigration reform, it’s hard to know,” she said. “What does my Harvard degree do for me if I can’t even legally work?”

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