Stories From Undocumented Young People

In the U.S., 2 million people were eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2016, and thousands of others who arrived here during or before their teenage years were not deemed eligible. I sat down with several young people who came to the U.S. undocumented to capture the range of stories on why they came to the U.S., what their dreams are and what they'll do if DACA no longer exist. Below, you'll find three of those stories. 

 Sandra Coronado, a manager at an acupuncture clinic, artist and DACA-recipient, poses with her artwork.

Sandra Coronado, a manager at an acupuncture clinic, artist and DACA-recipient, poses with her artwork.


Leaving Mexico: 

Sandra Coronado, 31, left Chiapas, Mexico when she was one and a half. She remembers a few things about Chiapas — cement houses, cloth diapers, her sisters and her mom selling gum in the street, and warm rain. She admits her memories are a mix of her own and those of her mother. But, she can’t disentangle the two anymore. 

She’s now the youngest of seven children. Sandy’s youngest sister was born with a cleft lip. She could barely see, or hear. Her father came to the U.S. to find a hospital where Sandy's sister could receive care that wasn't available in Chiapas. Once he found a hospital in Arizona, he sent for the entire family. Sandy and her family walked across the Arizona desert for two days. “We (her and her little sister) were even carried across,” she said laughing.  

Her oldest sister, who’s 15 years older, jokes that Sandy almost got them caught. Apparently, they were hiding behind bushes when a helicopter flew overhead. She had a ball in her hand that she dropped. It rolled out from underneath the bush, but they evaded any attention. “It sounds like it was from a movie,” Sandy said.

Growing up in the U.S.

When they arrived in Arizona, they stayed in a one bedroom with another family. Eventually, her younger sister, passed away, and the family moved to North Bay. Sandy describes her mom as very loving, but her mother couldn’t care for all of her children. Sandy’s father had a sister in the area, so Sandy moved in with her. Her aunt had four kids who’d passed away. She began hitting Sandy, and her uncle sexually abused her. Even after she moved back in with her mother, her father still wanted to leave her there. Her mom was working, couldn’t afford childcare, and was left with no other option. 

When she was 10, her father left and never came back. She started skipping school, hanging out with her friends whose siblings were in gangs, and finding herself in trouble. Her school  began notifying her mother that Sandy was skipping school. It was when she first ended up at juvenile hall that she realized she had no papers. “I always thought I had papers” Sandy said. 

A judge sent her to a group home where she repeatedly ran away. Sandy remembers how embarrassed she was that she didn’t have papers. “I just felt like I was less than the other girls that were there. And I felt that they would make fun of me.”  This is something she attributes to being an impressionable teenager. 

Over time, she missed her mom and began running away from the group home to her house. Eventually, the judge released her back into her mom’s custody. She hadn’t dissociated herself from her previous group of friends, but at 16 she found out she was pregnant. Her life completely turned around.  

“I was probably acting out because I wanted my dad’s attention,” Sandy said, She remembers her mom reaching out to her dad when she was in a group home, but he refused to see her. 

When her son was born, she went back to school to get her GED. This was in part out of necessity. 

“(I thought) I need to feed my child, so I’m getting a job. My mom was always there pushing me, and I just wanted to be a better person.” 

Learning about DACA:

In September 2012, her mom found out that her children had an opportunity to apply for DACA. “For my sisters, it was so easy. They had a clean past. For me, the lawyer had to look up this and that.” She even had to go back to juvenile hall. Although she didn’t feel sadness, she did feel like she’d reentered a past life that she’d left behind years ago. 

After several jobs as a nanny, at a a law firm, and after a difficult breakup, Sandy found a piece of herself in art. 

“I could always draw. When I was little I won creativity awards. One day, I did a painting for my son. It wasn’t very good. It was acrylic.” Her friends starting asking her to draw more.

Outside of her job managing an acupuncture clinic, she now spends most of her time drawing and on her son’s activities.

“I’m very happy because I have goals. My goal is to be a successful artist,” she said. 

If DACA isn’t Renewed: 

Sandy jokes that because DACA won’t exist in 6 months, she’ll have to marry an American. Although she found herself crying on and off for a week after the announcement, she’s ok now. “I have faith that things are going to turn out good.”  She recently sent in an application to renew her DACA status for two more years. She has no plans beyond that than to wait and see what happens. 

 Carlos Diaz, an auto repair shop owner and DACA-recipient, at a cafe in San Francisco

Carlos Diaz, an auto repair shop owner and DACA-recipient, at a cafe in San Francisco


Leaving Mexico:

Carlos Diaz’s dad was the first in the family to come to the U.S. He worked as an auto glass installer. Every week, he put aside money to send back to his wife in Mexico. She was pregnant, at the time. This stint was short term, but after having three kids - two sons and a daughter - he realized that he wanted a better life for his family. Carlos, now 29, left Mexico City, his birthplace, at the age of 15 to come to the U.S with his family.

“It was like an adventure honestly,” he said. “We didn’t take it seriously. I look back and do think we could have died.” 

In retrospect, Carlos said his parents understood the seriousness of the situation. They just didn’t want to show that to their kids. His memories of crossing the border are fuzzy. Someone drove his family over the border to LA where his extended family, who already lived in the U.S., picked them up. Eventually, his family moved to Fremont, CA. The only thing familiar to Carlos in Fremont was his cousin, who he'd been close to in Mexico. The cousin had started selling drugs back home. Eventually, he’d decided to get away from it all and come to the U.S. 

Growing up in the U.S.:

Once the thrill of moving waned, the negatives of Carlos's new life began to surface. He didn’t know English, and was extremely introverted. It was so hard initially, that he asked his dad if they could return to Mexico. Another big difference he noticed was that you had to drive to get anywhere. Since he didn't have documentation, he couldn't get a driver's license. Over time, he worked his way through these barriers. His school had an English language development class for people who’d just come from other countries. His face lit up as he talked about the opportunity this class gave him to meet people from around the world. 

When he finished high school, he was fearful to look for a job because he though someone might call the cops on him. He remembers isolating himself from other people. “It was my own fear, in my head,” he said. In time, he learned that many small businesses don’t check if you have documentation. As a precaution, his dad gave him some money, around $120, to get a fake green card. At that time, Carlos recalls a thriving black market for green cards in the Mission, a neighborhood in San Francisco. Guys on the street would be saying micas micas, street slang in Spanish for greencard, as you walked by. People in the community just knew that this was the place to go. 

He eventually got his first job at Togo’s, a sandwich shop. However, this meant he had to drive. His heart raced the three times he was pulled over by the cops. Each time, he said the cops gave him tenuous reasons for pulling him over. For example, the first time they told him he looked too young to drive. Carlos attributes this to a rumor that was going around at that time. The undocumented community speculated that the cops had a contract with a tow truck company. They were incentivized to pull over anyone who looked Mexican, because cops held the stereotype that they may be undocumented. If you got pulled over and had no license, your car would be impounded and you had to pay $2,000 to get it back. The whispers were that cops were getting a cut of this money.

Learning About DACA:

Then, DACA was passed. “It was a ray of light. There was a lot of hope. Everybody was so excited because Obama was going to do something for us,” Carlos said. He applied, and got his driver’s license.

“Before that, I felt like an outcast. It’s just a piece of plastic, but it makes you feel like you belong here,” he said. “This is home for me now.” 

He'd ideally like a pathway to citizenship. This would allow him to go back and see his grandparents in Mexico one day, although he doesn't believe there's much else for him there.

“In Mexico City, the situation there is really bad. Corruption, poverty, people killing other people... There’s nothing to go back to.”

If DACA isn’t Renewed:

When I met Carlos, he was renewing his DACA paperwork. Regardless of the administration’s decision, those who renew now will remain DACA recipients for two more years. Carlos came prepared, and had filled out his paperwork before he'd arrived at Mission High School, where volunteers were helping people with the renewal process. 

The next time we met, I understood why Carlos was eager to remain a DACA recipient. He'd recently started an auto repair business with him father. He handed me a recently printed business card. Because Carlos was a DACA recipient, they were able to legally register the company. 

“Honestly, I’ve never been the school kind of guy. I guess it’s not my thing. After my dad spent all this time working for someone, I feel so proud to be working with my dad (on this business),” Carlos said. 

Before, Carlos said he felt ashamed of telling people about his status. He thought he’d done something bad, and thought of himself as a criminal. Now, he feels his parents did nothing wrong, so he’s stopped worrying. He doesn't even worry about DACA being revoked. Instead, he chooses to live carefree and pursue what he cares about whether that means going out dancing with friends or working at the shop with his dad.

 Owen, a student at the University of California, Berkeley campus, poses.

Owen, a student at the University of California, Berkeley campus, poses.


Leaving Mexico: 

Owen Cardosa was born in Jalisco, Mexico. He jokes that people think of Jalisco as the land of tequila and mariachi. 

His grandma, a strong character in his family, felt her grandson's talent wasn’t being utilized. She convinced his mom to send him to the U.S. Originally, he came with the intent to learn English and return home. “English is a part of that if you want to be anyone in the world.” 

Growing Up in the U.S.

However, Owen had applied to an IB program for high school in Stockton where he was staying with his aunt and uncle. Despite his expectations, he'd been accepted. But, high school in the U.S. was not what he'd expected. The language barriers terrified him the most about being in high school. After a year, he achieved fluency in English. But, his undocumented status and home life forced him to grow up fast. 

He disagreed with his aunt and uncle because they were very conservative. He recalls that they wouldn’t even let him take naps in the middle of the day. Owen also remembers how alone he felt. “From beginning to end, college was my project.” He never had a mentor, or anyone else he could talk to about his status. 

Learning about DACA

So, when Owen's classmates started applying for college, he started googling. When he discovered DACA, he quickly learned that he didn’t qualify. Then, he learned about AB-540, a California state law that allows undocumented students in-state tuition. When he found out that he got into Berkeley, he felt a sense of pride. “Being undocumented it’s easy to write yourself off as insufficient. You have to work harder [than everyone else].” Despite the pressure, Owen says he has become a figure head for his family’s hopes and dreams. He beamed with pride when he saw a picture of his older brother in Mexico wearing a Berkeley sweatshirt. 

“Success started taking shape,” Owen said. Owen is studying mechanical engineering. He’s still exploring whether he should go on to get a Masters in Mechanical Engineering so that he can work on biomechanics and prosthetics, or if he should go to law school to work on immigration rights. He’s clear about one thing. “I want to leave a positive legacy behind.” He’s currently part of a program called DreamSF where he gets paid to intern at La Raza, an organization that focuses on protecting the rights of low-wage and legal workers. The job allows him to make an impact on lives. He’s already worked with asylum seekers and on deportation proceedings. This role has showed him that people are really suffering, and he wonders why the world isn't doing more about it. 

If DACA Isn’t Renewed:

Owen never felt a lack of belonging in the U.S., until the Trump administration came into power. As a child he grew up with American standards that he learned on TV. He feels he’s achieved the “quintessential American dream.” Now, he said it’s hard not to feel defeated. However, this is not the only country that has something to offer. “If they won’t let me contribute to this society, I’m going to take it and contribute elsewhere,” he said. Regardless, he doesn’t believe that going back to his birthplace is an option. His parents were in the police force, and he’s seen cartels kill their family friends who were high-ranking officials in the government. He’s worried about his safety if he returns, and worries about the safety of his parents because they still live in Mexico. 

Priya Iyer