Countless people come to the United States in hopes of providing a bright future and equitable opportunities for their children and families. Often this means that many children grow up in the United States unknowingly undocumented and having never really known their country of birth.
Jorge Montes Rodriguez, a senior majoring in linguistics with a minor in Spanish at The University of New Mexico, was a young teen when he found out he was not a United States citizen. Born in Mexico, he came to the U.S. at the age of 3 and has lived in Albuquerque for 18 years, “the vast majority of my life.” He is now 21.
“My parents had the opportunity to attend college in Mexico. My dad is a lawyer, and my mom has a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Both my parents immigrated with a student visa and overstayed in hopes that their children would have better opportunities. Unfortunately, due to corruption, there aren’t any opportunities for people, unless you have connections.”
The oldest of three children, Rodriguez has a younger brother and sister who are citizens thanks to the 14th Amendment, which says, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”
“When I was 14 my best friend wanted me to apply for a job and when I asked my mom for the documents required, she told me that I didn’t have a Social Security number to present,” Rodriguez recalled. He would not be able to apply for jobs until he was 16 and could apply for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program, better known as DACA.
“Picture your hometown, city, home community. Now picture a country you’ve never been in, only heard of it in the media or news. Now imagine someone telling you that your hometown isn’t your hometown because you were not born there, but in fact that foreign country you just pictured is where you are from. Ask yourself what that would make you feel?”
DACA protects eligible immigrant youth who came to the U.S. when they were children from deportation. DACA gives young undocumented immigrants protection from deportation and also work permits. The protection expires after two years and DACA recipients must renew regularly to maintain protection.
“As a DACA student I must be a ‘model citizen,’ meaning even a speeding ticket can dictate if I can renew my application,” Rodriguez explained. “In other words, I must live up to perfection to make myself worthy of being in this country. No room for any type of mistakes. I function like your average American, only I have to be cautious of the things I do.”
He has been an orientation leader twice and works at the College Enrichment Program (CEP). CEP provides comprehensive support services that assist students with attaining collegiate success, focusing on first-generation and low-income students and those from rural areas.
“I try to be involved as much as I can with ethnic centers and UNM activities,” he added.
Rodriguez said UNM has provided a welcoming environment.
“One big help is providing state grants since I do not qualify for financial aid. This is a small grant that helps with my tuition and work-study funding so I can work on campus… El Centro de la Raza has also been a resource for me in making connections and finding relief aid in hard times,” he said, adding, “One of my biggest supports on campus has been CEP. I first got affiliated as a First-Year Transition (FYT) scholar, which is a program they offer for freshman to help them transition into college.”
FYT pairs students with a peer mentor and connections with tutoring, as well as helping students build a network of peers.
UNM doesn’t know exactly how many of its students are part of the DACA program or undocumented.
“We do not have a specific number as we do not collect that data for security purposes. I would venture to estimate that we probably have approximately 300 to 400 undocumented students, both with and without DACA,” noted Rosa Isela Cervantes, director of El Centro de la Raza and Special Advisor to the President on Latino/a Affairs at UNM.
El Centro is among the campus programs that support undocumented students.
“We advocate and work with partners to remove systemic barriers that create a challenge for students who are undocumented, with or without DACA,” Cervantes said. “We work to provide a welcoming campus for students who have DACA or are undocumented so that they still have access to higher education. We do this through our cultural and specific programming, our student space and training staff and faculty. We center students in decision making and this allows us to always think about how our programs can be the most accessible. For example, our cohort programs do not require students to be citizens to be eligible to participate. Also, we promote and disseminate information about how undocumented and DACA recipients can access and successfully graduate from the university.”
“The DACA program is critically important to our community and has helped many students be able to take care of their families by making them eligible to work and to access education for example in higher education,” Cervantes explained. “However, there are many flaws with the DACA program because it also promotes and creates a binary of good and bad immigrants, it does not provide a pathway to citizenship, and keeps many in limbo without any real support. Additionally, many of our new undocumented students and several of our existing undocumented students do not qualify for DACA.”
“My optimal goal is to work in travel management or a job that allows me to travel. With my current situation, it doesn’t look too possible, but I try to be optimistic about it,” Rodriguez continued. “When I graduate, I plan to move to Miami or another place in the country, if the opportunity arises. I would really like to travel but until then I will remain optimistic about my circumstances to be able to one day leave the country and return to it as it is my home. I feel like I have been in school for my entire life and would like to experience life outside of academics and books. I am hoping to find my place in this world and see how I can make an impact even if it’s small.”
Because he’s enrolled in the DACA program, Rodriguez doesn’t feel threatened with deportation.
“I am very responsible for renewing my DACA prior to my expiration date. I do, however, get tired of seeing news like ‘Judge rules DACA unconstitutional,’ which temporarily pauses the program in accepting new applications, but those who have already been approved can continue to renew. It is just unsettling to see how unstable this program is and it’s upsetting to me as a recipient to feel like I am just the program. Do I matter as a human?” he remarked.
The administration of President Joe Biden is currently taking steps to save the Obama-era DACA program, which shields more than 600,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation. The DACA program has been the subject of ongoing litigation since it was established in 2012. President Donald Trump tried to terminate the program, an effort blocked by the Supreme Court.
Right now, the future and any opportunities for Rodriguez to become a citizen look unsettled.
“Unfortunately, there aren’t any steps for me to take. My only way would be to marry a U.S. citizen and have them file for me, but that is something that isn’t happening anytime soon. My other hope is to see if Congress approves some type of pathway to citizenship for people like me,” Rodriguez explained.
Becoming a citizen costs a lot of money to apply and the application process is complicated, he said, involving “a lot of waiting, biometrics, background checks, interviews, and tests, not to mention I have to become a resident and be a resident for three to five years before I can request citizenship. As of right now becoming a citizen isn’t in the near future for me.”
“But when I do become one, I don’t know how I would feel,” he continued. “I guess I would have mixed emotions, but the biggest feeling would be feeling accepted and having validation of belonging and not feeling so foreign in a place I call home. Or being identified with an alien number as my DACA card lists me.”
“I think I’m fortunate to be in a welcoming community and surrounded by people who make me forget I’m a ‘foreigner.’ Being at UNM I’ve never really felt like I didn’t belong, diversity on campus is something I have really admired, and no one has ever made me feel unwelcomed. I hope that people continue to encourage others and have compassion for people outside of their world. It’s so easy for us to live in our world with our perspectives and project them onto others but it takes real courage to step outside of that and understand someone else’s world.”
To understand his situation as a person who has lived almost his whole life in this country, yet is not considered a citizen, Rodriguez urges people to consider this thought exercise: “Picture your hometown, city, home community. Now picture a country you’ve never been in, only heard of it in the media or news. Now imagine someone telling you that your hometown isn’t your hometown because you were not born there, but in fact that foreign country you just pictured is where you are from. Ask yourself what that would make you feel?”
“I hope that as a nation we can step out of our views and do things to address our problems and the nation’s problems. As ‘the greatest country in the world’ what are we doing to address the world’s problems,” he mused, and then quoted civil rights activist Audre Lord: “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives… Our struggles are particular, but we are not alone.”