Undocumented at Dartmouth

by Mara Stewart | 4/26/17 2:25am

Anti-immigration speeches and immigration policy discussions flood the media, but the struggles of Dartmouth students are less publicized. Their experiences often occur behind closed doors and are not readily shared. Many undocumented students here choose to remain secretive about their status, since they often don’t know who to trust, are afraid of the stigma of being an undocumented student or want to avoid liability issues.

Alejandro Cuan-Martinez ’20, an immigrant from Mexico, did not tell anyone he was undocumented until he came to college. Here, he only told a few trusted friends. He discussed the stigma surrounding undocumented immigrants at Dartmouth.

“If you’re undocumented, you’re considered a bad person,” Cuan-Martinez said. “I have so much more to offer.”

He explained that when others discover your undocumented identity, they often overlook your values, your personality and your work ethic and solely focus on your undocumented status.

“I become ‘undocumented,’ and people don’t look past that [label] to see the whole person,” he said. “I am no longer Alejandro.”

Despite this stigma, Dartmouth students are typically thoroughly assimilated into American culture and have overcome difficulties associated with their undocumented identity just to apply to and attend college. Their struggles in the application process can include the inability to apply to many universities, inflated tuition costs and the threat of moving away from their families in danger. They are forced to prove that undocumented immigrants can work just as hard — and sometimes even harder — than documented Americans.

Valentina Garcia Gonzalez ’19, who is originally from Uruguay, also discussed the misconceptions surrounding undocumented students, especially with regard to the rumor that these students are supposedly only at Dartmouth due to affirmative action.

“We are in the same classes as [everyone else], we are working just as hard as they are,” Garcia Gonzalez said.

Cuan-Martinez echoed this sentiment.

“I wish people wouldn’t see undocumented immigrants as some feeble group that is dependent on others,” he said. “We are resilient, we are passionate, we are intellectuals. Some people think lowly of us because they see us as un-American. But we are very much American kids. We have thoroughly assimilated here.”

Barbara Olachea Lopez Portillo ’19 said she personally has not had any negative interactions with others related to her undocumented identity, but she does know many others who have.

“It’s already difficult adjusting to college when you are low-income and first-generation, and being undocumented adds another layer of complexity,” she said. “It’s hard to figure out who you can trust. I am very open, but not everybody has the same perspective.”

Garcia Gonzalez recalled the first incident of discrimination she experienced at Dartmouth.

“I put in the Facebook group before school started that I wanted to run for Student Council, and I got a message from a student threatening my deportation,” she said. “After that, I didn’t post in the Facebook group again because I was too scared.”

The Facebook comment wasn’t the only threat that Garcia Gonzalez has received. She described incidents in which people yelled anti-immigrant slurs from their cars, and she experienced a more direct affront in the form of a deportation threat from a fellow classmate.

Although the degree of comfortability in their undocumented identity varies, fear is often commonplace for undocumented students. Garcia Gonzalez explained that she lives in fear every day, especially with regard to her family at home.

“I can lose my family at every given moment,” Garcia Gonzalez said. “I call home seven to 10 times a day to make sure they are okay. I’m constantly worried.”

Cuan-Martinez said he did not realize he was undocumented until he was in high school. His family’s status caused stress and concern.

“I always heard my mom crying when I was growing up, but I never knew what was happening,” he said.

Often, undocumented students’ families have less protection than they do. Unlike most students, their parents are not protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy for minors. DACA gives many undocumented students at Dartmouth temporary relief in the form of a work permit, as well as the opportunity to travel or acquire a driver’s license. Undocumented students’ families are unable to obtain these benefits if they came to America as adults.

Garcia Gonzalez and her brother are protected by the DACA policy.

“During winter term, I went home and drove my family around because I have a driver’s license,” Garcia Gonzalez said. “When I’m not there, they risk getting deported by driving every single day. They try to get groceries twice a month rather than every other day to reduce the risk.”

If her family got deported, Garcia Gonzalez and her brother would be in the U.S. alone.

Olachea Lopez Portillo discussed the limitations she’s experienced as an undocumented student.

“I wish others would understand that there is so much that people take for granted,” she said. “I have limited rights, especially in the current political climate. I can’t study abroad in college because it’s not worth the risk.”

Garcia Gonzalez said that coming to Dartmouth and being able to speak candidly about her identity is revolutionary for her. Despite hardships, she stands proud in her undocumented identity. She refuses to assimilate to typical expectations of what’s “normal.”

“Now, I am pushing back against assimilating, and I am reclaiming my roots,” she said. “Immigration is not a bad thing. It is natural.”

Olachea Lopez Portillo reflected positively on Dartmouth’s attitude toward undocumented students.

“Here, people have been very welcoming,” she said.