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Students Share Experiences of Being Undocumented at Swarthmore

Undocumented immigrants are foreign-born individuals who do not possess a valid visa or immigration documentation, because they entered the U.S. without inspection, stayed longer than their temporary visa permitted, or otherwise violated the terms under which they were admitted. Due to their status, undocumented immigrants do not have access to work authorization, driver’s licenses, depending on the state, or access to federal health care or funding. 

Under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), undocumented children brought into the United States are supposed to receive protections and work authorization from the U.S. government. There are currently an estimated 580,000 active DACA recipients residing in the U.S. However, as DACA has recently been challenged in the courts, the fate of many DACA recipients remains unclear. Most undocumented students at Swarthmore reside in the United States without any form of federal identification, ability to work, or progress towards getting citizenship without getting married or being sponsored by a company. 

Undocumented students at Swarthmore have been conflated with international students when it comes to advising and resources on campus, even though they live in the United States and are accepted into the college as domestic students. After years of being under-resourced, last spring, the college hired Undocumented Student Advisor Lesley Reyes Pina. 

“We [the faculty] can’t just bank on the students’ grit anymore. We have to do something now,” Pina emphasized.“There’s not a way that you can just be like, ‘Oh, they can handle it or they can figure it out.’ That’s just not what the response should be anymore. We have to do something.”

Pina was a temporary hire for one semester, and by the 2022-2023 academic year, her position was dissolved. The following year, the college had her reapply for the same role, except now she is named as the International Students’ Advisor, much to the dismay of undocumented students who no longer wish to be conflated with being international students. 

The Phoenix interviewed two undocumented students, Lucia ’24 and Teresa ’24, on their personal experiences at Swarthmore. 

Some names have been changed to maintain anonymity.

Could you please introduce yourself? 

Lucia: I am a fifth-year student here at Swarthmore; I’m doing a special major in Education and Sociology, and a minor in Peace and Conflict Studies. I’m from Houston, Texas. 

Teresa: I’m a senior here at Swarthmore, and I’m studying Peace and Conflict Studies and Latin American/Latino Studies. 

Could you tell me about your immigration status/experience?

L: I’m from Saltillo, Mexico, a northern city bordering Texas. When my mom found out that she was pregnant with my middle sister, my parents decided that they wanted to come to the U.S. with a visa. I did kindergarten in the U.S. but then I did first, second, and third grade in Mexico. I came back for fourth grade, and we overstayed our visa. I haven’t been back to Mexico for over ten years at this point.

T: I was born in Honduras, and I came to the U.S. in 2014. My mom and I crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without proper documentation. We were detained by immigration enforcement, and then released. I have been living in the U.S. since, undocumented.

What does it mean to be undocumented for you? 

L: I’m fully undocumented. I do not have DACA, which provides someone with a work permit. I do not have a work permit, a social security number, or any U.S. federal identification. I am not allowed to have a driver’s license or a credit card. You’d be surprised how many things you need a social security number for. I feel like often when people think of undocumented people, they just assume that you can’t legally work. It’s much more than that. If I were to go back to Mexico and apply for a visa to come back in, it probably would take over ten or fifteen years, because I’ve overstayed my time in the U.S., which would negatively affect that application. Therefore, I cannot leave the country unless I don’t want to see my family for who knows how long. When you’re applying to college, you have to be very meticulous about where you’re applying, because often we are seen or categorized as international students. 

T: In the most capitalistic way that I could explain this, I don’t have a social security number, which prevents me from applying to any type of job that requires to be reported to the IRS. So any job on campus, I can’t access because I don’t have a social security number, thus no work authorization.

So how has your experience been being undocumented at Swarthmore College? What are some challenges and benefits from being at this institution?

L: My first year, I remember seeing people in the summer with internships, extra jobs, and research opportunities. I asked my dean, who was actually the international student dean, about getting involved in these opportunities, and she said, ‘We can’t help you in these things.’ I was thinking of how to get funding or how to just get any money. There was no hope. She was like, ‘If you figure out a way, let me know, though.’ She sent me to other people, and then I would go talk to another dean, and they wouldn’t know either and would send me to another person. I soon realized when you would tell people that you were undocumented, a lot of them did not know what that meant. 

In the same year, I found this really good internship and interviewed. They said you’ll be great for us and I was so excited. Then I told them that I was undocumented, and they said they’d have to check in with their supervisor. The following day, they told me, “We’re not going to be able to offer you the position anymore because we can’t pay you.” That devastated me.

I thought, “Is this how all of college is going to be?” Because, clearly, [employers] want us. They want our work. They want our thoughts. They want us to be there and hear our voices. However, because they don’t know how to pay us, they have to tell us no. I’m in my fifth year now. I had to take a semester off because I was struggling a lot with my mental health. I was almost going to drop out because I didn’t see the point of being here anymore. Because of my status, even if I stay here and after I graduate, what am I going to do with that? I’m still not going to have a work permit. I’m still not going to be able to legally work anywhere. No one’s going to be able to hire me. No one’s going to want to. 

T: There are times when my undocumentedness is invisible and there are times when it’s very present. Whenever I want to apply to leadership positions, I can’t. I don’t have access to those since they’re paid. Sometimes, I get emails about positions I am interested in, then at the bottom of the email, it’ll say, ‘Look at the job description on Handshake or apply on JobX.’ Nevermind, that’s not available to me. 

I feel like at an institution like Swarthmore, where the college claims that they are super progressive, that they are open to students regardless of status, and then you get here and you go ask for help from faculty and they don’t know what being undocumented means. The faculty, they look at you like you have a third eye. They’re really taken aback because they don’t know what that means, and many of them confuse it with me having DACA status. Are you [the college] actually welcoming to us if you don’t know how to support us? I had an instance last semester where I had to go to the financial aid office, and the financial aid faculty did not know how to help me. I was having trouble paying my fee bill, and they were trying to offer me federal loans. I had to explain to them that my hands are tied because one, I don’t have access to the loans, and two, I can’t work on campus. 

A lot of the faculty responses were, “You probably know more than me about how you can be helped.” 

What are some things that you wished other students, teachers, and faculty knew or acknowledged about undocumented students or being undocumented?

L: I would say, first thing, DACA is dead. Do not ask us if we are DACA because we’re not. Second, we’re not like most regular students. We need a little bit of extra care and attention. We need to … we need to be included. We need to be remembered. When it comes to whatever conversation, often I feel like we’re just left on the back burner. Like, we’re not even thought about. And that we are here. We are. And we are sitting in their classrooms, in any department. 

T: We don’t have access to those same things. As a senior, I’m seeing it more now as I approach graduation. It’s a different story for undocumented students because we are battling an unknown terrain, like as you go, you don’t have a plan in place. So just understanding that our path is not linear and that we don’t have access to everything that other students have access to and therefore that limits us in a way. Another thing is that being undocumented doesn’t make me any less in the sense that I still have my dreams, my inspiration, and my goals that I want to reach. Just because, you know, there’s an obstacle in the way, it doesn’t mean that I’m not going to try to find my way around it.

How have your professors reacted to finding out that you were undocumented?

L: There was a time when I was talking to a professor and she suggested that my sister can petition for me, but that’s going to take 25 years. And she said, “Just wait 25 years.” They need to understand that it is not something that just goes away one day. It’s something that has been placed upon us, it has limited a lot of the opportunities that we want for ourselves. 

The other crazy thing that people have told me is that I should just get married. Even my mom, one time she sent me a picture of a late 20s man. She was like, “he’ll marry you for three thousand dollars.” And I was like, “You’re trying to sell me off.” Why do I have to get married to just live out my dreams? Just to be a regular person. That’s all we want. Just to have the same opportunities. 

We have the same upbringing as Americans. Most of us have lived our entire lives in the United States. We’ve been in the United States for longer than we were in our home country, even if we get deported I wouldn’t be able to fit in over there because I don’t know what the culture is anymore. We haven’t been there for over 10, 15 years.

What are your thoughts on Lesley and or the position itself and its importance to the college?

T: Prior to Lesley coming to campus and being hired as an International Advisor, the undocumented students were paired with Director of International Student Programs Jennifer Marks-Gold as our advisor. We had to go to her if we had any questions regarding resources that were available to us. But Jennifer is the Dean of International Students and again, we’re being conflated into being international students, when our situations are vastly different. It’s the institution’s fault for conflating us into one identity. And then not to mention that the way in which she supported us was very limited. She didn’t really know how to support us.

Lesley has been such a great support, not just because of the resources that she finds that are available to us, but just being a friend and an ally. She understands our frustrations as students at this institution and she shows it not just through words, but through actions. It’s unfortunate that the way Lesley got hired last year, her position was a temporary position. She was only hired for one semester and then after that, they were going to dissolve the position. But a lot of us, since we had gotten to know Lesley, obviously didn’t want that to happen. 

There’s a lot of bureaucracy at this institution. In order for her to become a part-time employee, Human Resources renamed the position to the International Student Advisor and there’s no mention of her being an undocumented student advisor. I don’t know if it’s the institution just looking to be discreet, but I feel that it also erases us. I understand that the college is trying to protect us in a way, but other undocumented students don’t know about her unless they hear it from a student. It’s some bullshit that her title doesn’t include undocumented students because you’re not being discreet, you’re erasing us. 

I don’t understand all the bylaws that the institution has, but they make it so difficult for her to help us. In the instances when she does do something to be able to help us, they try to co-opt her work.

When it comes to undocumented students, we’re so hidden to the point that there are no events happening at all which erases our identity as a whole. All because the college wants to claim that they want to keep us safe. But realistically, the ICE is not going to come knocking on our doors. And the college just not acknowledging that we’re there does not make us present, it just erases us.

Undocumented students don’t even know how to find each other on campus. I’m not saying to put a target on my back but at least provide us a way that we can come in contact with each other. When people come in contact with each other, there’s power in that and by keeping us isolated from one another, the institution is exerting power over us. There’s just so much knowledge that’s not being shared amongst each other or from the college to us.

What are you doing after college?

L: I don’t know. But I do believe in God that they’re going to help me out. Like there’s something that’s going to work out. I want to be a social worker but I can’t because that’s under the federal government. I want to get a little master’s or PhD in social work, but I can’t receive federal aid for it. 

I often think about how if one day we were to get papers, I wonder if our problems will be solved. What if one day I do get my papers and nothing changes? Because we have been denied the opportunities to build on those skills, there is literally nothing to go off of right now. I’m just like, oh, like that’s for later. Developing that skill can be a later thing. 

T: I don’t know. Everyone, please be mindful when you ask this question to seniors. I’m sure it’s just as frustrating to seniors who are not undocumented, but especially when you’re undocumented. I really don’t know and that’s not just because I want it to be that way. It’s because I truly don’t know what comes next for me. I’m getting a degree from an institution that is so prestigious, but it doesn’t really mean anything except just that. I have a degree but at the end of the day, I still can’t apply for jobs. In the span of the past three days, I’ve gotten that question so much. It sucks because I feel so frustrated and powerless. And some people that I don’t want to share my identity with, it’s like I just look back at them and I’m like, you know, I don’t know what to say.

If I woke up tomorrow and I had legal status or citizenship, I would still have to go through a million other things that I have no experience in, such as applying for a job for the first time. How do you prepare for those? How do I file taxes? As a citizen, I would have to do that. But I will have to go through all that, you know, and just like things that we have historically have not had experience in. So it wouldn’t solve everything.

2 Comments

  1. These students are brave.
    The college should help provide immigration legal services like petitions for H1B visa or permanent residency. Perhaps schools with graduate programs are more equipped to deal with this?

    Who is paying for undocumented students to attend Swarthmore? Does the FA office provide 100% demonstrated need-based aid like with documented, domestic students? If so, that is indeed very progressive.

  2. Thank you Lucia and Teresa for sharing your personal stories and experiences! Your vulnerability and transparency is much appreciated. I just wish the authorial voice was weaved throughout the article rather than simply providing the reader with a transcript. It feels as if the undocumented students, once again, are left advocating for themselves. On another note, “Lives in Limbo” by Roberto Gonzales is a great read for those who want to expand their knowledge about undocumented narratives within the United States and brainstorm ways to support their undocumented peers.

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