Sofia Campos thought she was an American citizen until she was 17 years old — when applying to college, she discovered she had no Social Security number.
“It was with very big and hesitant eyes that my mom had to share this deep and dark secret that my family was undocumented,” said Campos, an intern at the University of California Labor Center.
Campos said the shock of finding out she was undocumented made her feel lost and confused during the Rutgers University Student Assembly-sponsored event, “Undocumented and Unafraid,” yesterday in the Rutgers Student Center.
Despite being told to set lofty goals all her life, she now feels excluded and denied those opportunities.
She is co-chair of United We Dream, an organization that aims to strategize, organize and connect with immigrants on a national level.
Undocumented immigrants like Campos do not have the opportunity to drive, work legally or pay in-state tuition at local community colleges, she said.
“In 2008 we were able to create United We Dream, our national network of undocumented immigrant youth,” she said.
Campos said the fear of being taken away from her family and deported at any time was crippling, but the national connection empowered the network of undocumented youth like never before.
“[You] can be deported at any time,” she said. “You can be dragged out of your home and taken to a detention center and be treated like an animal. Like a criminal, in the place that you call home.”
Through communicating one another’s stories and allying with other national movements, like the LGBT movement, Campos said United We Dream became a united front.
“Based upon this love, support and potentially encouraging storytelling, we’ve been able to build power,” she said. “We’ve been able to build skills.”
Giancarlo Tello, a Rutgers-Newark student affiliated with the New Jersey Dream Act Coalition, said he shares Campos’s experience of growing up unknowingly undocumented.
Tello said his parents moved to the United States from Peru in 1996, when he was 6 years old, because there were few opportunities there.
He said he grew up like a normal American student living in Hackensack, N.J., and went to school locally through high school.
When he was 16-years-old, Tello wanted to apply for his learner’s permit but did not know his Social Security number.
When he asked his mother, she told him he was undocumented, Tello said. But he did not really understand the implications.
It was not until he needed to fill out college applications that the problem arose again and he asked his mother what to do.
“‘Mom, what do I put here’ — and she said, ‘I don’t know,’” Tello said. “‘Mom, can I go to college?’ and she said, ‘I don’t know.’”
Tello went to community college and never disclosed his Social Security number, but had to pay international tuition, three times the cost of regular tuition rates, he said.
“I started working through whatever means I could,” he said, “I can’t work legally — without a social you can’t work legally — but what I did was private tennis lessons [and] computer repair.”
Tello said he wanted in-county tuition rates because he works and pays taxes and the college told him his rates would be modified.
Even after his rate was changed, Tello said it made him think about how many undocumented students are too afraid to demand lower rates like he did, which inspired him to get involved with NJDAC and organize other undocumented youth to build a support network.
Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center of Labor Studies, works with organizations like NJDAC and United We Dream to organize undocumented students.
Wang said the 2 million undocumented immigrants in this country include students who feel like they grew up as American citizens until the time comes to apply for college.
“These students, under the law, the K-12 system treats them like regular students,” he said. “But like Giancarlo, like Sofia, once they graduate from high school their world abruptly turns upside down.”
Wang said “Underground Undergrads,” a book put together by his students at UCLA, was made up of pseudonyms and shaded photos because the atmosphere toward undocumented immigrants in 2008 was more negative.
“Undocumented and Unafraid,” a new book on undocumented youth out of UCLA, is more open and contains real names and stories, he said. A confidence directly derived from the growth of the undocumented youth movement.
“Many of the book events held on college campuses all over the country [were] the first time that undocumented movement students could come together in a safe place and identify each other and allies on campus who could support in building this movement,” he said.
Campos said the movement was empowering and the feeling of a safe haven was key in fighting for more progress.
“The power, that love and support that we’ve been able to build in our movement can produce real results and real change and real progress,” she said.