Sergio Cortes thought he was doing everything right.
He maintained a high GPA, graduated among the top of his high school class and received scholarships.
But the scholarships were revoked before he could cash them in.
“I knew that I was undocumented, but I didn’t really understand what it meant until I started applying for college,” Cortes said. “From grade school they’re telling you that you have to go to college to make it. They take you on tours of universities. You see your friends going to the schools they want. You’re being encouraged this entire time to pursue higher education, and then reality hits and it really just takes a chunk of your soul.”
Cortes, who now owns his own business in downtown Fresno – Agape Creative Studios – is among thousands of people living in the San Joaquin Valley who came to the U.S. illegally as children and face extra obstacles in the pursuit of a college degree.
Fresno State will unveil a new Dream Outreach Center soon, which aims to provide a clearer path for the more than 600 undocumented students currently attending the university. Most of those students were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. The university also provides special services to an additional 400 students who were born in the U.S., but are children of immigrant farmworkers.
The consolidated center will provide guidance for students on the financial aid process and assist with paperwork that becomes complicated amid ever-changing immigration laws.
About 65,000 undocumented students in the U.S. graduate from high school each year, according to the College Board. Those students are referred to as “Dreamers” because they would benefit from the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act – legislation first proposed more than a decade ago that would allow certain undocumented people who came to the U.S. as children to qualify for permanent residency and receive benefits like financial aid.
The federal legislation has failed to pass several times, but President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012, which temporarily defers deportation of eligible undocumented youths and allows them to receive a work permit and a Social Security number.
California approved its own Dream Act in 2011, allowing undocumented students access to publicly funded financial aid for college. California also passed AB 540 in 2001, which allows most undocumented students who have attended California high schools to qualify for in-state tuition.
No federal laws prevent undocumented students from being accepted into college, leaving the decision up to individual states and schools, but students cannot receive any federal financial aid. In many cases across the country, undocumented students also do not have access to cheaper in-state tuition fees, even if they have lived in that state most of their life.
“This particular group of Dreamers, they have what I would say are unique challenges – even within our community,” Fresno State President Joseph Castro said. “Not only are they generally the first in their families to go to college, but often they have even more pronounced income challenges and may be less prepared than other students, even though they meet all the requirements. So what we’re trying to do is to make sure there’s a place for them to get all the support they need and to graduate and go out and become leaders in our community.”
‘A dark cloud that won’t go away’
Cortes graduated from Fresno State in 2010, but it wasn’t easy.
The four-year degree took him six years, while he worked in the fields under the scorching Valley sun and picked up random landscaping jobs to cover the costs. He took evening classes and was ashamed to walk in covered in dirt from a hard day’s work.
Ineligible for most financial aid options because of his undocumented status, Cortes paid for nearly everything out of his pocket. A family friend offered to pay his final year’s tuition when he almost dropped out because he couldn’t afford it any longer.
While Cortes, 30, now is part of the DACA program, it wasn’t available during his college years – neither were the state’s Dream Act benefits.
For Cortes, who moved to California from Colima, Mexico, when he was 5, everything feels like a temporary fix, with immigration laws continuing to be a hot-button political issue.
DACA allows him to feel some sense of security, but he still has to check “no” when asked if he’s a U.S. citizen.
“Right now, I’m not undocumented. I’m part of the DACA program. But I’m still not recognized as a resident. You get a Social Security number and you can work legally – that’s much better than nothing,” Cortes said. “But that too will change, depending on who the next president is.”
Cortes says every day he lives with “a dark cloud that won’t go away.”
“We’re not out of the woods yet. Everything is still very uncertain. You still have that fear in the back of your mind that you’ll be deported. I’m always like, what if something happens with the government? What if something gets pushed through to Congress that affects me?”
‘I had no clue’
Gerardo Espinoza had a lot of questions when he attended college for the first time – but he wasn’t quick to ask them.
“People don’t want to talk about it a lot. I think sometimes it’s a matter of being embarrassed,” he said. “I remember a speaker was (at school) to talk about programs for undocumented students and asked who was undocumented and no one raised their hand, even though I knew they were.”
Espinoza, now a junior at Fresno State studying psychology, said when he first attended a community college near his home in Monterey County, he had no idea he had access to any financial aid as an undocumented student.
He came to the U.S. from Mexico about 10 years ago when he was 16 and knew he wanted to go to college but was unsure whether it was achievable.
“All I knew was that I didn’t have the means to pay for it,” Espinoza said.
For Espinoza, the Dream Center, which provides services already, offers a place where undocumented students’ issues are a priority and not considered taboo. He qualifies for in-state tuition and has received scholarships through Fresno State.
He hopes to use his degree to work with the Mexican consulate to help college-bound students like himself from Salinas Valley, which he considers his home.
“It’s hard to apply to college no matter who you are, but for someone like me, it’s twice as difficult,” he said. “I know how much I struggled, and I want to make a difference and try to give back where I come from.”
When Grisanti Valencia was brought to the U.S. as a 5-year-old from her indigenous community of Oaxaca, Mexico, it was an especially risky trip.
Valencia’s father was abusing her, her sister and her mother, and the U.S. was their hope for escape.
“The criminal justice system is not the same there as it is here obviously,” Valencia said. “Here in the U.S., [we] have protection. In Oaxaca, women get murdered all the time. Women’s bodies just keep popping up. That’s the reality.”
Valencia, who plans to start at Fresno State next semester, received a U Visa about a year ago, which is granted to immigrants who have been victims of substantial abuse.
“It’s a bittersweet kind of feeling,” she said. “Yeah, we get a visa, but it’s because we were emotionally, physically and sexually abused by my father.”
Valencia’s sister also received a U Visa, but their mother remains undocumented because she didn’t have enough evidence to prove she had been a victim years ago.
“There’s this everyday feeling she has – a fear of deportation, of having to return to the place where my father is,” Valencia said. “I think more than anything, people like my mom are the reason why we should keep fighting for something that is not temporary – for something that is permanent.”
Upon getting their visas, the Valencia sisters, 25 and 27, rushed to the DMV to get their driver’s licenses – something they watched their friends do many years before them. They got to go to a bar and not be embarrassed when the bouncer turned their Mexican passports away at the door. It started to feel like college life in America.
Valencia started the college application process, though, before she received a U Visa. When she first successfully applied to Fresno City College, she had her older sister to lean on when she had questions, but others aren’t as lucky.
“For a lot of people, this is the first time you’re on your own without your parents. And their parents never went to school – so it’s not like they can help them. Some people don’t even realize they’re undocumented until they’re applying to colleges and ask their parents for things like a Social Security card and a birth certificate,” she said. “How do you have that conversation with someone that young when they think they’re American? You’re a part of that culture; you believe you’re American in your heart with everything that you do.
“In our family, it was something we always knew but didn’t talk about,” she said. “It’s an internal struggle – trying to figure out who you really are. There’s that trauma of explaining it to people over and over again.”
Valencia, who writes poetry, has helped plan “coming out” open-mic nights in Fresno, where people are asked to use their art as a way of proclaiming that they’re undocumented.
Her favorite poem she’s written is titled “Flor de Oro,” or “Golden Flower.”
“I feel trapped in a world of the common questions – who are you? What’s your identify?…I say I’m American and they laugh,” she writes. “I am a flower of gold. My skin is the color of dirt. People see me and all they see is another Mexicana. I am an exception to the rule. I will continue to fight. I will continue to resist and exist.”