Laura Aguilar is one of an estimated 11 million people who live the United States illegally. As a child she wasn’t given a choice about whether she wanted to move to California from Mexico. But after nearly 20 years here, Laura says she’s an American and she intends to make her life in the United States and give back to her community.
Laura Aguilar and Eddie Fernandez hike through the hills above Oakland. Though the trail is steep, the young couple hold hands as they climb. They’re about to mark the sixth anniversary of their relationship. They met the summer between high school and college.
They’re 23 years old and dealing with circumstances that would test older, more established couples.
“How did he know my secret?” Laura wondered when she and Eddie started dating. They were talking, as teenagers do, about their driver’s licenses. Eddie never bothered to get his. Laura didn’t have a license, but she badly wanted one. She had passed all the tests and knew how to drive. But still, she didn’t have a license. Eddie soon guessed the reason: Laura was an undocumented immigrant.
RAINDROPS KEEP FALLING ON MY HEAD
Laura has a bubbly personality and an endlessly positive attitude. She says when she was little and feeling sad or anxious, she used to sing a Burt Bacharach song.
Raindrops keep falling on my head
But that doesn't mean my eyes
Will soon be turning red
Crying's not for me 'cause,
I'm never gonna stop the rain
Because I'm free
Nothing's worrying me
Laura’s family came to the United States nearly 20 years ago on a tourist visa when she was four and her sister, Karina, was two. Back in Mexico, her father Javier Aguilar owned several clothing import businesses. When the value of the peso plummeted, he suddenly found himself in debt. Even though he sold everything he had, he couldn’t pay off what he owed.
A relative in Napa offered the family a place to stay. There was good work in California.
“What happened is, it took me like three or four years” to pay off the debt her dad says. “And [the girls] are like already two or three years in elementary schools and the friends, and the activities and they have dance classes. We were already involved, especially the girls. And I didn’t want to yank them out of [their] social life.”
Laura’s mother got a job as a computer and systems analyst and says she applied for an H-1B visa through her employer.
“When we came here I didn’t want to be an illegal resident,” mom Laura Sanchez says. “It wasn’t on my mind and I never wanted it for me or for my daughters.”
Her mom was hoping the family would be able to obtain permanent legal status through her employer.
But, she says, the man who was helping her died and her new boss did not want to sponsor her. The family was left in legal limbo. But Laura and her sister didn’t know it. Then Laura passed all the exams for her driver’s license.
“When I went to get my driver’s license they told me they couldn’t give it to me because my visa was going to expire in the next couple of months,” she says. “So I was 16 and in the next couple of months I would become undocumented. And I didn’t know what that meant.”
If Laura‘s family did not leave the US, they would enter an illegal status. It’s a common situation for millions of immigrants. UC Davis School of Law Dean Kevin Johnson says about half of the roughly 11 million people living in the country illegally have overstayed their visas.
“They came on business visas or tourist visas or student visas and they overstayed the terms of their visas,” he says. The other half entered “without inspection,” meaning they crossed the border illegally.
“All of a sudden I became sort of an illegal immigrant. I couldn’t tell anybody,” Laura Aguilar says. “And it was really hard because up to that point I had considered myself a very normal, very American girl because I had lived here the majority of my life.”
Laura’s temporary, but legal immigration status had been an invisible part of her life. Now she was living in the US illegally. When Eddie guessed the secret of her undocumented status he just shrugged.
“I guess I just never thought of it as like that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things,” Eddie says.
THE COLLEGE DREAM BECOMES REAL
The bigger deal was whether they would stay together in the fall when they both left Napa for colleges in southern California. Eddie was going to Pitzer College in Claremont while Laura was going to UC Riverside.
They decided to try. They only saw each other once every month or two during each school year, but they always kept in touch.
The relationship provided Laura with support during what would be a stressful four years. Like many middle-class kids dreaming of college Laura needed to apply for federal financial aid.
“I remember talking to my (high school) counselor at school and I was asking her about FAFSA,” Laura says. “I was like, ‘How do I fill this out? I don’t have a Social Security (number). What steps do I need to take?’ She was just like, ‘Oh you don’t get FAFSA.’”
When Laura graduated from high school in 2009, the landscape for undocumented immigrants looked much different. Back then California allowed non-resident students who had gone to high school in the state for at least three years to pay in-state tuition at public state universities. But students who were in the country illegally were very careful about disclosing their immigration status. Despite California’s progressive policies, there was no access to federal financial aid.
Still Laura’s parents were determined that she go to college. They both had degrees from Mexican colleges and insisted their daughters graduate as well, whatever it took.
Laura’s father, an ardent Disney fan, likes to quote a line from the movie Finding Nemo.
“Just keep swimming, don’t look back,” he says. “Just keep swimming and see what happens.”
Whatever the costs, the family supported Laura’s college plans.
“Of course it was stressful,” her mom says. “Some days I gave her everything and nothing for me. But I think education is the most valuable gift that you can give to your daughters or your son.”
And Laura worked hard to make sure she was worthy of the gift.
“I just feel like my parents really put a lot of their dreams in drawers for us,” Laura says. “They just really kind of put them aside to give my sister and I a really good life. And I think I’m trying to definitely make the most out of it and make sure all that didn’t go to waste.”
“I think one of the hardest parts about being undocumented is you can’t tell anybody,” she says. “It’s extremely isolating.”
She found it emotionally draining to keep her secret from everyone but Eddie.
She enrolled in a Chicano Studies class, which included an online student discussion group. Laura’s friend began posting harsh criticisms of people living in the country illegally.
“She would be saying things like, ‘Undocumented students don’t deserve to go to school. They don’t deserve to be here,” Laura says. The comments hurt but they spurred Laura to “come out” to a group of close friends.
“If I told the group I was undocumented… it would give them a face for them to know who undocumented students really were,” she says. “I’m not sure what person they had in their mind, but I wanted them to know that it’s me, their friend, they were talking about.”
As Laura found her voice as a campus activist, she started volunteering at community dental clinics.
“I can remember the moment when I realized this is my calling,” she says. Laura was working at a health fair offering free dental procedures. The spaces filled up quickly and Laura’s job was to tell the largely-Latino crowd waiting in line that they wouldn’t be seen that day.
“I just saw the need for a Spanish-speaking dentist and someone to just relate to them,” she says. “And so that was sort of when I realized I have this amazing gift where I can become a dentist. I’m smart enough to become a dentist, so I’m going to share my gift with my community that urgently needs more Latino dentists.”
LOVE, MARRIAGE, DACA
After graduation from UC Riverside Laura decide to apply for dental school. But without a legal resident status, Laura was ineligible for federal low-interest student loans. Most grad students need them to cover costs that could add up to more a quarter million dollars. Securing private loans, and even some scholarships, was almost impossible for undocumented immigrants.
But on June 15, 2012 President Barack Obama announced a federal reform intended to stabilize the lives of young immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, opened doors for undocumented youth. Those who qualified could get work permits and apply for Social Security numbers. Laura got DACA in October of 2012 and was finally able to get her driver’s license. And she was free of the fear of deportation.
“There’s a huge burden taken off my chest and I think for my parents as well,” she says. “And with that comes a lot of new strength because I’m able to talk more freely about my status. Nobody can send ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to my house, which is really great.”
Becoming “DACA-mented” eased some relationship pressure for Laura and Eddie too. They had been talking about whether they should get married. Marriage would give her a path to permanent legal status. UC Davis Law School Dean Johnson says marriage is the most common way undocumented residents adjust their status. But he says even that process can be drawn out.
“In 1986 Congress passed some limitations on marriage visas because the concern was there was massive marriage fraud going on,” Johnson says. “Now you have conditional lawful permanent resident status if you marry a citizen for two years. And then you have to file the paper work after those two years to become a lawfully permanent resident unconditionally.”
Neither Laura nor Eddie wants to rush into marriage.
“Our marriage is going to be based on love,” Eddie says.
And while DACA provides some relief, it doesn’t give Laura access to federal student loans. And that’s a big deal. Laura has been accepted to the University of California, San Francisco School of Dentistry. It will cost her more than $80,000 a year. But Laura remained optimistic that she would qualify for the institutional loans that UCSF offers at interest rates similar to federal loans.
Laura is one of the first three undocumented immigrants admitted to the dental school.
Late in the summer Laura was still waiting for news of her financial aid packet.
“A lot is riding on my financial aid packet,” Laura says. “If I don’t get a good packet then that will put more pressure on us, because I’ll have to get a private loan, which will carry significant debt, a lot more.”
HAPPINESS IN A CONE
Word came toward the end of the summer, while she and Eddie were on a long-planned road trip. They were in Seattle, eating ice cream.
“I have pictures,” Laura says later. “My last picture was just happiness in a cone.”
She got a text message to check her email. Her financial aid packet included two scholarships, an institutional loan for $5,000 and a suggestion she take out nearly $36,000 in private loans each year.
“I was just so bummed,” Laura says. “I thought I was going to be like a normal student. I thought I wasn’t going to have to deal with this. I thought the biggest burdens were over.”
And because Laura isn’t a legal resident, she’ll need a co-signer who is. Since her parents are also undocumented, that leaves Eddie.
“I feel pretty bad about having Eddie co-sign it,” Laura says. “Just because I feel like I’m dragging him into this debt and it makes me sick.”
The large financial obligation has caused both to reconsider whether they should get married sooner than they had planned.
“I think some of the reasoning of us waiting, at least a piece of it, is trying to be more established. But having this on top of it is kind of counter-intuitive,” Eddie says.
Laura breaks into tears as she talks.
“I feel like us waiting was me holding back and waiting and not wanting my status to define me,” she says. “But now it’s kind of taking over.”
Eddie holds Laura’s hand as she cries. And tells her it will be OK.
“I think that’s always my first concern, how is she doing,” he says. “It’s not bad news, but it’s not great news either.”
I FEEL LIKE AN AMERICAN
Adding to the frustration, Laura can’t vote for the politicians she thinks could improve her situation. And she has an impassioned response to those who think she doesn’t belong in the United States.
“I’m American,” Laura says. “It’s a huge part of my identity. I feel like an American kid with a Mexican heritage. I was raised here. My life is here.”
And Laura intends to keep making her life here. She received her traditional clinical “white coat” on September 18. The night before her classes began she was so excited she didn’t know if she would sleep.
“I’m a little nervous, but mostly excited," she says. "There’s so much to look forward to tomorrow. And I can’t wait.”
And as she walked into her first class at the School of Dentistry at UC San Francisco, she sounded like an excited 23-year-old.
“It’s awesome," she says. "And I’m here!"