College students from immigrant families say they're living in scary new world

Cecilia Estevez, a U.S. citizen, works on a form N-400, an application for citizenship, in the offices of Immigration Advocacy and Support Center in New London on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. Estevez, a student at Connecticut College whose parents are undocumented immigrants, volunteers at the center. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Cecilia Estevez, a U.S. citizen, works on a form N-400, an application for citizenship, in the offices of Immigration Advocacy and Support Center in New London on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. Estevez, a student at Connecticut College whose parents are undocumented immigrants, volunteers at the center. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

From the outside, there may be nothing obviously different about college students from immigrant families since President Trump took office.

But to the students, the world feels like a much different place as they keep up with classes, family, friends and breaking news about immigration crackdowns.

Some of the students were born here, the children of undocumented parents, and are thus citizens. Others were born elsewhere but have been granted citizenship. And some, brought to this country illegally as youths, are registered under the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.

Under DACA, they pay a $495 registration fee every two years to maintain their status, must be fingerprinted and submit a photo, and then receive a special identification card. In Connecticut, about 8,500 youths have DACA status.

“DACA students are really nervous, because there’s been a lot of back and forth about what’s going to happen to them,” said Stamford lawyer Aleksandr Troyb, chairman of the Connecticut Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “At this moment, nothing’s been altered about DACA, but there are no guarantees that the program is still going to be there.”

Over the past three weeks, The Day interviewed seven college students from immigrant families to learn how the sudden focus on illegal immigration and new policy pronouncements is affecting them. Common to all their stories were profound feelings of dislocation, as the world that seemed safe changed overnight, leaving them worried for themselves and their families and friends.

“Every day I see cases of extreme anxiety and stress, with people imagining (immigration agents) are going to be showing up in the middle of the night and putting them or their families on a plane and deporting them,” said Rita Provatas, a New London attorney who works with many different types of immigrants.

On Wednesday, a 22-year-old resident of Jackson, Miss., with pending DACA status was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents after speaking out about her fears of deportation at a rally. Daniela Vargas, brought to this country from Argentina at age 7, had applied for DACA renewal, but her status had expired before her paperwork could be processed, according to her attorney.

Incidents like that only compound fears among the immigrant community. But at the same time, some students also are finding strength and a sense of empowerment in coming together in activist groups like Connecticut Students for a Dream. Immigration attorneys, while applauding the students' efforts, also urge them to take precautions.

“I do advise them to keep up to date on their DACA paperwork and other status documentation, and to keep it with them at all times if they need to show it,” said attorney Michelle Ross of Wilton, vice chairwoman of the immigration lawyers association. “The safe thing to do is not to put yourself out there, and not to put yourself in any situations where you could have contact with the police.”

Immigration attorneys also are urging college students to use their communication skills and education to help their undocumented parents.

“They need to take their parents for a consultation with an immigration attorney, to find out their options,” Provatas said. “Knowledge is power.”

Cecilia Estevez, 18
Connecticut College

Cecilia Estevez has a new sense of purpose.

“I’m a citizen, but as a daughter of immigrants, I need to fight for other students who aren’t citizens,” the freshman said during an interview last month. “It’s my responsibility to stand up for what I believe in.”

Three weeks ago, Estevez, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., to parents who came here illegally from Mexico, began volunteering with local immigration attorney Michael Doyle, helping out during weekly clinics at the Church of the City in downtown New London. There, she inputs information onto some of the complex arrays of federal forms submitted on behalf of immigrants seeking legal status, green cards or other provisions afforded them under federal immigration law, and prepares testimony on behalf of Doyle on bills pending in the state legislature, including one that would cancel the ability of undocumented state residents to obtain a driver's license.

Earlier, Estevez had decided on her own to submit testimony supporting a bill to allow state colleges and universities to provide financial aid to undocumented students from special campus funds.

“It’s really eye-opening to hear people's stories first-hand,” said Estevez, whose parents left Mexico for a better life for themselves and Cecilia and her 21-year-old brother, Leonel, also a college student. In Brooklyn, she said, because they live in a diverse community with extended family nearby, her parents aren’t living in fear of immediate deportation, though they don’t feel as secure as they did before the Trump administration launched its various initiatives targeting immigrants here illegally and others from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

“I talk to my parents almost every day,” she said, “and they think what’s going on is astonishing. It’s something they didn’t expect."

Motivated by what she sees as the harsh rhetoric and actions of the Trump administration toward immigrants, combined with her personal experience and learning about that of others through her volunteering, Estevez is looking to channel her newfound activist inclinations toward a career in social justice, hoping to help others who haven’t had the same access to the benefits of U.S. citizenship that she has had.

Diana Rodriguez, 44
Liberty University

Diana Rodriguez laments that immigrants like her don’t feel as welcome as they once did in their adopted country.

“I’m feeling sad, really, really sad,” the New London resident said during a break from her job as administrative assistant at the Church of the City. “At this moment, I’m in a good situation, but I have friends who don’t have good status to be here, and some people are losing their jobs because employers say they don’t want to have a problem from the government.”

Rodriguez, a mother of two, moved from Colombia 12 years ago, motivated by bleak employment prospects in her native country. Six years ago, she became a citizen and, three years after that, enrolled in online classes through Liberty University to earn a business degree.

Although she and her family are secure here, she said, the tone President Trump has set toward immigrants weighs on them all, leaving them anxious for all the families who aren’t citizens but came seeking a better life just like they did.

“The kids see what’s happening, and they’re affected by it,” she said. “When I came here, the country felt different.”

Joseline Tlacomulco, 19
University of Connecticut

Joseline Tlacomulco didn’t learn she was an undocumented immigrant until her freshman year of high school, when her parents had to explain why getting on a plane for a class trip wouldn’t be safe.

“Now, they’re afraid for me, because I’m so out there about my status,” said the sophomore at UConn’s main campus in Storrs. “It seems no one’s really protected now. DACA could get removed.”

DACA has shielded her and other youths brought to this country as children since 2012, but she fears President Trump could revoke it. She also fears for her parents, who came here illegally from Mexico — where the only schools for their children charged fees they couldn’t afford — to settle in the United States.

Tlacomulco was 9 months old when her parents carried her with the help of “coyotes” — immigrant smugglers — into Arizona, where they stayed until they could get a flight to Connecticut to join other family members in New Haven.

“Now, my parents both work two jobs” to help put her and her brothers through college, she said. “My mother works at McDonald's and cleans stores, and my father works in two cafeterias. I had to take care of my brothers when I was little. Now, I tell my parents their rights and how to protect themselves.”

Tlacomulco has received scholarships and saved money from a summer job as a paralegal to help pay for tuition, but became active in the fight in the state legislature for the financial aid for immigrants bill in the hopes that she and future undocumented students might one day have an easier time affording college.

As part of the Connecticut Students for a Dream organization, she has also been active on the Storrs campus at rallies in support of immigrants and urging the UConn administration to be more supportive of students like her.

“There is support from the administration, and that’s a relief,” she said.

But many regular citizens and lawmakers, she believes, have not been active enough in their government.

“It’s sad it has to get to this,” she said. “If there had been immigration reform a long time ago, maybe we wouldn’t be fighting for things now. U.S. citizens have so much political power that they’re not using.”

Eric Cruz Lopez, 21
University of Connecticut

Eric Cruz Lopez’s life changed after Election Day.

This past fall, he had been in his third year at UConn, studying to become a high school math teacher, when his priorities shifted with Trump’s win. He put school on hold.

“In this moment, it’s more important for me to be an organizer and be able to fight for my community,” he said.

The valedictorian of his high school class in Bridgeport, Cruz Lopez received a full scholarship to UConn that is now on hold as he spends the spring semester as the regional organizer for Connecticut Students for a Dream. He applied his skills as an organizer on election night, when the results spurred him to bring his peers together in a rally the next day on campus in support of immigrants.

“We had 500 students at the rally,” he said. “I have felt a lot of love and support, as people are realizing that this is affecting people at a deep level.”

Last month, he helped organize a rally at Bradley International Airport and dispatched a group to join another at JFK Airport after the now-canceled travel ban was enacted.

He first got involved in working for fellow immigrant students during his sophomore year, when he joined Connecticut Students for a Dream and arranged successful meetings with the campus administration that led to training programs for admissions staff in how to deal more compassionately with undocumented students, many of whom face financial hardships affording tuition. He also got involved in working for passage of the financial aid bill.

“We’ve trained undocumented youth to go and lobby their legislators,” he said. “They’re really putting themselves on the line.”

The election results also changed life for his family. While Cruz Lopez, brought to this country from Mexico at age 7, has DACA status, his parents are undocumented. He also has an 11-year-old sister who was born in this country and is a citizen, but has known since she was 8 years old what to do if their mother and father get taken by immigration officials.

“In the wake of the election, my mother lost the job she’s had for the last eight years at a day care center,” Cruz Lopez said. The owner of the center, he said, became concerned about getting into legal trouble if he continued to employ her.

The current political climate, he said, has “instilled a lot of fear in my community.”

In Mexico, he and his family lived in a sheet metal shack in the Oaxaca region as part of an indigenous community, until his father left for the United States and sent enough money home for them to build a small cinder-block house. He and his mother and an older cousin were captured and detained by U.S. Border Patrol on their first attempt to cross into the United States to join his father, but got through on the second try with fake documents, he said. His father had found a construction job in Bridgeport, so the rest of the family made their way to Las Vegas, where they boarded a plane to Connecticut to join him.

“I grew up on the west side of Bridgeport, in the ‘Little Asia’ neighborhood,” he said. “I grew up with a lot of undocumented friends.”

Even though he was a good student and stayed out of trouble, he was stopped several times by police who, he said, told him he looked suspicious and searched him.

“The black and brown communities are targeted,” he said. “I would never tell the police I was undocumented.”

Rather than be fearful like many of his fellow immigrants, Cruz Lopez said he now feels empowered to fight on his own and their behalf, confident that he possesses the survival skills of his Mixe and Mixteco ancestors, indigenous Mesoamericans who survived through centuries of oppression.

“I carry their resiliency with me,” he said.

Yenimar Cortez, 18
Eastern Connecticut State University

Yenimar Cortez has found strength in joining with other undocumented youths in Connecticut Students for a Dream.

“That’s the beauty of this whole madness,” she said. “We’ve been united together to fight for our rights.”

Born in Mexico, she came to the United States with her parents when she was 2 years old, and now has DACA status. Her parents are undocumented, as is her older sister, but her younger sister is a citizen thanks to being born here.

“We came here for better opportunities,” Cortez said of her family.

Growing up in New Haven, she knew she was undocumented, but that didn’t bother her until she started applying to college and found out she and her older sister were ineligible for state financial aid.

“My older sister is really struggling to pay for college,” she said. “I received a scholarship at Eastern that helps with my tuition. But it made me realize I got into this school by luck, and many other undocumented students didn’t. So I’m fighting for open access to institutional aid for undocumented students.”

Though disheartened by the crackdown on immigrants here illegally, Cortez said those like herself are too much a part of the fabric of this country to simply disappear into the shadows.

“After the election, more people seemed to have hatred in their hearts about our community and Muslims,” she said. “But we’re here and we’ve always been here. This backlash is not going to stop us.”

Stephanie Marquez, 23
University of Connecticut

Stephanie Marquez can’t imagine going back to the country she left when she was 5 years old.

“I don’t think I would fit in in Peru,” said the nursing student who recently obtained her green card after years as an undocumented immigrant. “I’ve lived most of my life here.”

With a green card, Marquez is now a legal permanent resident with permission to work. She remains active on behalf of other immigrants.

She grew up in Hartford and attended Catholic schools, where, she said, she never felt comfortable sharing her family’s story or her immigration status with peers. But when she started college at UConn’s Hartford campus, she joined Connecticut Students for A Dream and found other immigrant youths in similar situations.

“For the first time I felt there were other people like me,” she said.

Since transferring to the Storrs campus of UConn, she has continued in the group, crediting it with helping her obtain her green card and working to make the campus more welcoming to undocumented students by successfully lobbying for a portion of the UConn website to be dedicated specifically to them.

She and her family, though, have become more cautious in recent months, wary of traveling to Peru to visit family for fear they’d not be let back into the U.S.

Luna Romani, 24
University of Connecticut

Luna Romani appreciates the opportunities she’s had growing up in Wethersfield and attending UConn.

“I’m very grateful to this country,” said the senior political science major. “But there is more fear now, and I grew up with my parents always telling me not to be afraid.”

She came to this country from Peru when she was 3 years old and now has DACA status.

Joining Connecticut Students for a Dream, she said, has empowered her and given her confidence about speaking up for herself and other immigrants. The experience also has motivated her to pursue law school or graduate school for political science after graduation in the spring.

“I’d like to go into human rights work, or maybe become an immigration lawyer,” she said.

She also has a message for those who think undocumented immigrants are just flouting the law, or are all bad people who are harming this country.

“I would love to become a citizen and be legal, but there’s not a pathway to citizenship,” she said. “People just need to get to know us. We’re actually contributing more to this country than you think. We need to break down all the stereotypes and myths.”

j.benson@theday.com

Diana Rodriguez, a U.S. citizen, takes a phone call as she works as a receptionist at Immigration Advocacy and Support Center in New London on Thursday, March 2, 2017. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Diana Rodriguez, a U.S. citizen, takes a phone call as she works as a receptionist at Immigration Advocacy and Support Center in New London on Thursday, March 2, 2017. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
UConn sophomore Joseline Tlacomulco is seen at the UConn campus in Storrs on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. Tlacomulco is the campaign organizer for Connecticut Students for a Dream.  She is in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. (Tim Cook/The Day)
UConn sophomore Joseline Tlacomulco is seen at the UConn campus in Storrs on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. Tlacomulco is the campaign organizer for Connecticut Students for a Dream. She is in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. (Tim Cook/The Day)
Eric Cruz Lopez is seen at the UConn campus in Storrs on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. Cruz is taking a year off from his studies to focus his energy on being a community organizer and program coordinator for Connecticut Students for a Dream. He is in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. (Tim Cook/The Day)
Eric Cruz Lopez is seen at the UConn campus in Storrs on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. Cruz is taking a year off from his studies to focus his energy on being a community organizer and program coordinator for Connecticut Students for a Dream. He is in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. (Tim Cook/The Day)
Eastern Connecticut State University first-year student Yenimar Cortes is seen at the UConn campus in Storrs on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017.  She is in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. (Tim Cook/The Day)
Eastern Connecticut State University first-year student Yenimar Cortes is seen at the UConn campus in Storrs on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. She is in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. (Tim Cook/The Day)
UConn junior Stephanie Marquez is seen at the UConn campus in Storrs Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017.  She has a green card. (Tim Cook/The Day)
UConn junior Stephanie Marquez is seen at the UConn campus in Storrs Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. She has a green card. (Tim Cook/The Day)
UConn senior Luna Romani is seen at the UConn campus in Storrs on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017.  She is in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. (Tim Cook/The Day)
UConn senior Luna Romani is seen at the UConn campus in Storrs on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. She is in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. (Tim Cook/The Day)

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