Once upon a time there was a girl named Jenny*
First day of class Jenny sat in the front row. Her dark hair tied back in a tight pony tail. Small silver glasses, short framed, round face wearing a lumpy jacket. She dissolved into her seat, trying to be invisible. The first paper she submitted to me was amazing, a perfect A. The second paper, also a perfect A. Every morning I would would walk into class and with my most annoyingly perky voice ask, “How you doing Jenny?” She would shrug and go back to being invisible. She was academically perfect – a perfect A – every time. However, she said almost nothing. It became my mission to get her to smile. It never happened.
Next semester she turns up in my class again – different course. Again, perfect A and no smile. Third semester she turns up again. This time I’m adamant. What is this girl’s story? A perfect student but she doesn’t talk or smile – EVER! I make the decision that this semester she WILL smile and she WILL talk. I keep asking questions and I keep probing her.
I find out that she hates English. She’s actually a math major. She graduated from high school with honors. She’s a 4.0 Dean’s list student. Her dream is to be a math teacher. She loves math. She solves math equations when she’s bored or stressed out. This, of course is something with which I cannot relate. I’m boggled about how math could be that fun for anyone and I tell her that. She laughs. And when she laughs her face comes to life. Her eyes sparkle and voice tinkles and I know I’ve got her.
Jenny and I spend a lot of time over the next year or so talking. We talk about how her traditional Hispanic family wants her to get married and have babies. We talk about how all she wants is to go to school. She loves school. She is desperate to finish her college degree and teach. We talk a lot about her dreams but every conversation has a hidden cloud – a darkness in her voice, the source of which she refuses to share with me. I respect her privacy. I don’t prod, but something bigger lies underneath and I can sense it.
Some days when Jenny I talk she is very sad and the depression in her voice is heavy. The pain and sorrow washes over me and our conversation is like a rain cloud. I tease her and call her “my little Eeyore”. However, we both know it is bigger and more serious than that.
I receive a note. Her father, unexpectedly, dies in his sleep from a heart attack. Jenny is devastated. She doesn’t know what to do, where to turn, how to survive. Her normal rain cloud has grown into a storm, a typhoon of overwhelming loss and desperation. How will she survive? How will her family survive? I do my best to comfort her but at times I can tell I’m saying all the wrong things. She starts to grow frustrated with me and I’m getting frustrated because she isn’t telling me everything and after five years I feel like I’ve earned the right to know where the big sadness is coming from. I blurt out “you don’t tell me anything!” She realizes that she’s been unfair and here comes the truth “I’m an illegal”.
Jenny’s parents received visas to travel from Mexico to the US when Jenny was 5 years old. They came to the US to visit Jenny’s aunt – who IS legal. The family decided to stay. They start the process to become citizens but in the meantime their visas expire. The lawyer’s fees are expensive and her parents can only afford to work the system periodically when they have enough money. Her mother works as a cleaning lady. Her father works construction. Her mother pleads with Jenny to date and get married so she can become “legal” but Jenny can’t stand the idea and wants to stay in school.
Jenny is lucky because she lives in Texas where illegal residents can still attend college. The family was struggling but making it. Working with a lawyer on the waiting list, trying to do the right things when her father died.
They aren’t eligible for social services – no WIC, no welfare, no unemployment, no social security no medicaid. No income.
The desperation in Jenny’s voice scares me. She has no future. She can graduate from college and even become a certified teacher but she won’t ever be able to work as a teacher. Her brother, although excellent with computers and computer repair, cannot work. Her mother can only do so much. Jenny’s Spanish is horrible and Mexico is a dangerous place. There is no going back for her. She doesn’t even have family that lives there any longer.
The United States was founded by immigrants FOR immigrants. We are all immigrants or children of immigrants. The American dream is to work hard, get an education and pay it forward. If we lose sight of this dream we have lost sight of what makes the American experiment so amazing.
The hopes of my immigrant students and the hopes of these parents who have sacrificed EVERYTHING for their children lies with one piece of legislation: the DREAM Act.
Please, please, please write your legislator, contact your representatives and stress the importance of passing this Act – an Act that allows CHILDREN, who have NO CRIMINAL RECORD, and who have graduated high school and completed two years of college or military service the ability to become legal citizens. Let these CHILDREN give back – let these CHILDREN make the United States their home.
For more information go to The Dream Activist for links to your local rep and how to get involved
*not her real name