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USD student Paola Carrasco


Like most teenagers, Paola Carrasco eagerly anticipated the day that she’d have true freedom. She was a high school sophomore, and a lot of her friends were starting to get their licenses. Now it was her turn.

She recalls casually asking her mom when she could start taking driver’s ed and get her driver’s license. Not surprising, really, that the answer is etched in her memory, as it reverberated like an earthquake: “Mija … no podemos hacer eso. Somos indocumentados.” (“Mija … we can’t do that. We are undocumented.”)

The list of things she couldn’t do grew from there: No, she couldn’t vote when she turned 18. No, she couldn’t have a real job; maybe she could babysit. No, she couldn’t travel abroad, because she wouldn’t be able to return to the U.S. And college? Not likely.

But because of USD’s long-standing commitment to ensuring fair and equal treatment for undocumented youth to pursue their education, Carrasco is not just the first in her family to attend college, but is involved at the very heart of the university’s push for comprehensive immigration reform.

Born in the Mexican city of Chihuahua, Carrasco’s father came to Chandler, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix, when she was just a baby. Once he’d established that he’d be able to find enough house painting and construction work to support his family, he sent for the others to join him. It didn’t take long for the family’s quality of life to dramatically improve.

“Everyone worked hard and saved money so that we could have a decent life,” she says.

But once the bomb dropped about her undocumented status, Carrasco realized for the first time that while she may have felt privileged all those years — at least compared to those left behind in Chihuahua — her options in the U.S. were limited.

“My school counselors basically told me there was no way I’d be able to go to college, that getting a job would be impossible.” The stress kept building, especially given the hard line policies of Maricopa County Sherrif Joe Arpaio, a longtime advocate of strong enforcement of immigration law.

“Anyone could report you,” recalls Carrasco. “It was bad enough that when I told my friends at school, and they started joking around and calling me ‘beaner’ and ‘wetback,’ but it really got to a point that just going to the grocery store was terrifying. If I saw a police car, I’d start to sweat.”

But Carrasco — who as a high-school senior, was holding a 4.32 GPA even as she carried a full load of Advanced Placement courses — was determined to find a way to a better life for herself. Neither of her parents had finished high school, so when it came to planning for college, she was on her own.

She eventually connected with the Arizona Ivy League Project, a college preparatory program. Concurrently she was able to navigate the steps necessary to get a work permit through the then-new executive presidential order, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allowed her to work legally without risking deportation.

The money she earned in part-time jobs at a restaurant and a retirement home allowed her to pay the necessary fees to apply to 16 private colleges, but in reality, she knew that no matter what, she’d need a lot of financial help to make it work.

The University of San Diego was the only one of the 16 that came through with a full-ride scholarship. Exciting, yes. But she still had no way to pay for housing and other expenses. “When I came out for a campus visit, I walked the halls of Admissions knocking on doors, telling them how much I wanted to attend USD and explaining my predicament,” she recalls.

“They talked to me as a human being,” she says. “The people here at USD all put in the effort to make it a priority to help me.” A few weeks later, she got a call from Admissions Counselor Eric Felix letting her know that her housing costs would be covered through the USD Special Fund.

It’s been a whirlwind, but Carrasco, a freshman, is starting to get acclimated to her new life in San Diego. She’s found some groups where she feels at home on campus, and was asked to join USD’s newly formed Immigration Reform Task Force.

As for the future, she hopes to one day help others the way the USD community has helped her. As a DREAMer — a student who meets AB 540 criteria in California — she’ll qualify for conditional resident status upon completion of two years of college. Of course, a more permanent solution would be nice, but the federal legislation that would allow conditional permanent resident status to students upon acceptance to college, graduation from a U.S. high school or being awarded a GED in the U.S. remains uncertain.

“The Dream Act and comprehensive immigration reform are my only hopes right now.”

The debate over immigration reform can quickly move from heated to boiling over, but the empirical evidence is clear: Immigrants have a beneficial effect on our economy, are a critical part of the U.S. workforce, and the long-run fiscal effects of immigration on the economy as a whole are positive. This is not breaking news, it’s the conclusion of a 2007 report issued by then-President George Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors.

“In the current moment, we are seeing the highest level of immigration enforcement that we’ve ever seen in our history,” explains Assistant Professor of Sociology Greg Prieto. “This is based on a number of different measures. The immigrant death rate and number of deportations are the highest they’ve ever been.”

For the estimated 11 million undocumented workers currently in the United States, the unrelenting crackdown has immediate, daily consequences. “People live their daily lives in fear of running into a police officer who might turn them over to immigration,” says Prieto. “They live in fear to the extent that they won’t report crime because they’re afraid of drawing attention to themselves. This is a particularly acute problem for immigrant domestic violence survivors, who are even less likely than their native counterparts to report because they’re afraid of being deported.”

Man holding sign at protest for immigration rightsFamilies are being destroyed in record numbers. In just over two years, the federal government deported more than 200,000 parents who said their children were U.S. citizens, leaving those children behind to fend for themselves.

“Sometimes their kids are passed onto other family members, but often they go into foster care. The disruption that occurs for children and families when someone is deported is enormous,” says Prieto.

“You hear stories about this from teachers, who’ve seen their pupils’ parents deported. The child is listless, can’t focus, is depressed, cries all the time. The effects ripple out.”

Senior Ernesto Reyes-Hernandez got involved with the issue in part because he sees the path to citizenship as inherently unfair.

“I was born in Cuba and came to the United States when I was 15,” he says “My father had been living here for eight years, and because he was a Cuban citizen, he was able to obtain permanent resident status within a year of his illegal entry to the U.S. In 2009, he became a U.S. citizen. I was able to do so as well because I was a minor.”

It’s not that easy for others. “Current immigration law has a per country quota on most categories of immigrants, so if you’re coming from a country like Belgium, the line’s not very long, but if you’re coming from Mexico, the line is almost 20 years long,” explains Prieto. “So to say, ‘You just need to get in line like everybody else did,’ ignores the fundamental disadvantage of people looking to come here legally from places like Mexico, China and the Philippines.”

Reyes-Hernandez, a theology and international relations double major, would like to be part of the solution. “People want to come to the United States to feed their families. I can’t think of anything more crucial or more important than feeding your children.

“Through that belief, and my personal faith as a Catholic, I came to the realization that the system in our country today puts people in a position of having to choose between feeding their family members and risking being arrested and deported, when they are here for the sole reason of improving their lives or the lives of their children.“

Attempts to reform U.S. immigration policies in a comprehensive way have been stymied by partisan political turmoil amid national and global crises for a number of years. In October 2013, a group of House Democrats, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, unveiled a comprehensive immigration bill that attempted to find some level of bipartisan common ground. Although a majority of Democrats and Republicans appear to favor a path to citizenship for DREAMers, that seems to be the extent of agreement. President Barack Obama has called on Congress to renew its bipartisan efforts to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

The USD community has long been concerned about the fair and equal treatment of undocumented youth, particularly when it comes to ensuring that educational services and financial aid benefits are available to all students, regardless of their legal status.

Further concrete examples over the years include: USD’s advocacy for the successful passage of the California Dream Act, which enables undocumented students to receive Cal Grant scholarship aid; student eligibility for merit scholarships regardless of their legal status; and a strategic partnership with the Diocese of San Diego, the San Diego Organizing Project and Catholic Charities of San Diego to help facilitate information sessions for legislative advocacy, community organizing and immigrant processing.

These and other examples were cited in an April 2013 statement that reaffirmed the school’s belief that the values of Catholic social teaching should echo those voiced in a joint 2003 pastoral letter from the Catholic Bishops of Mexico and the U.S.

USD Student holds sign at immigration protest“The time to act is now,” said the statement, which was released by the university’s full Executive Council. “We remind ourselves again of the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual and the human imperative to care for our world and for one another.” USD’s support of comprehensive immigration reform is two-fold: both to ensure the equality of education opportunities for all students, and because the school’s commitment to Catholic values demands it.

Toward that end, in the summer of 2013, USD President Mary E. Lyons joined more than 90 other presidents of Catholic institutions of higher learning in calling on Congress to pass immigration reform.

“Together we represent universities that educate more than 260,000 students. Our broken immigration system, which tears parents from children, traps aspiring Americans in the shadows, and undermines the best values of this nation, is morally indefensible,” said Lyons.

While Roman Catholic bishops had been lobbying for some time for a bill that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, the involvement of college presidents on such a large scale is a new development.

In Fall 2013, the USD Comprehensive Reform Task Force was formed, with an initial double-pronged emphasis on education and action. The educational component, co-chaired by Assistant Vice President for University Ministry Michael Lovette-Colyer and Community Service-Learning Director Chris Nayve, aimed to bring together a wide variety of campus entities already working on the issue, as well as to hold a September prayer vigil and Mass for Peace, and to plan forums and town hall meetings.

The action team — helmed by Prieto and Assistant Dean of Students Marie Minnick — got USD students involved with the October 2013 National Day of Action March for Dignity and Respect. Dozens of USD students gathered on campus before boarding trams that brought them to the march and rally that began in Balboa Park and culminated at the County Administration building. That boots-on-the ground effort was a resounding success, in no small part due to Carrasco, who was heavily involved in getting the word out on campus.

“The energy and commitment of the students was absolutely infectious,” Prieto recalls. “We stood in a circle before we boarded our tram, and Ernesto Reyes-Hernandez led us in a prayer. Then I asked them to share why they were here today. They said, ‘I’m here for my cousin.’ ‘I want my uncle to be able to leave the house without living in fear.’ ‘I want my mom to be able to pursue her education so she can get a better job than the one she has now.’”

Prieto says those messages reinforce just how close the issue is to home: “As you hear more from undocumented students, but also citizen students who have undocumented family members, you realize how pressing this issue is. Not just for the state, not just for the nation, but for our USD community as a whole.” — Julene Snyder

For more about USD’s work on this issue, go to www.sandiego.edu/cir.

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