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A DREAMer in Need: What Being Undocumented Means

By Eileen Truax

Immigration March, San Francisco, October 5, 2013.
Immigration March, San Francisco, October 5, 2013. Photo credit: Annette Bernhardt

The protests of this year’s May Day, International Workers’ Day, are promoting more causes in addition to labor justice. Activists of all stripes are also marching for environmental justice, indigenous sovereignty, and LGBTQ issues—just to name a few. In particular, crowds are expected to attract many protesters who oppose the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration. But organizers are saying that some would-be marchers are afraid to join the rallies because of their undocumented status. DREAMers, the undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children and grew up here, have learned recently that DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is not a guarantee against deportation.

In Dreamers: An Immigration Generation’s Fight for the American Dream, journalist Eileen Truax illuminates the stories of the men and women fighting for their right to live here legally. They are living proof of a complex and sometimes hidden political reality that calls into question what it truly means to be American. The following excerpt gives us a glimpse of the persistent struggles DREAMers face with the story of Elioenai Santos, a journalism student whose family migrated from Veracruz, Mexico to California in the early 1990s.


Elioenai Santos’s first memory is of himself as a little boy, crying, as an adult tries to give him a stuffed animal to soothe him. Elioenai associates this memory with coming to the United States at two years of age. Originally from Orizaba, in the eastern state of Veracruz, Mexico, his parents decided to migrate, as almost all migrants do, in search of a better future for their children. The first to make the journey was his father. Although he had wanted to be an engineer, he could not afford to go to school, and once he became a father he decided to try his luck in the United States. He arrived in California in the early 1990s and got a job working in a bodega. A few months later his wife joined him with Elioenai. Two years after they arrived, his parents gave Elioenai a little brother, a US citizen, and his mother worked taking care of other people’s children as her own grew up.

Tall and slim, with fair skin, black hair, and delicate features, Elioenai has a nostalgic air about him. Without sadness or bitterness, he tells me of his early childhood, when the culture shock upon arriving in the United States gradually gave way to a dawning realization of his undocumented status and what that meant. “My parents talked about Veracruz,” he says, “but I never felt like that was my place.”

At home the family spoke only Spanish, so when he went to school he had to take English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. Other parents of undocumented children tried to shield them from the harsh reality of their legal status in an attempt to protect them, but when Elioenai was ten and asked his mother if he could fill out an application that required documentation he did not have, his family told him plainly of the risks he faced and what his options were. “Every undocumented person has to be prepared for the worst,” his uncle told him. And “the worst” always meant being deported.

The approximately eleven million undocumented people living in the United States come from Mexico and other Latin American countries, as well as from Asia, Africa, and Europe. Undocumented people work without contracts and without worker protections, for salaries that are not always fair, at a distinct disadvantage compared with other workers, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation by their employers.

But the lack of legal residence has repercussions beyond the workplace. The life of an undocumented immigrant is affected in every facet because it must be lived in the shadows. Undocumented people cannot drive legally because they are not eligible to get a driver’s license. They cannot travel freely within the country because sooner or later, they will be asked for identification that they do not have. They cannot receive most social services, because as far as the public sector in the United States is concerned, they do not exist, with one notable exception: undocumented immigrants can apply for and receive a taxpayer identification number (TIN), which allows them to submit tax returns and tax payments to the government. The Internal Revenue Service is the one federal agency that welcomes the contributions of undocumented immigrants with open arms.

In spite of these legal limitations, we know that some undocumented immigrants do drive, traveling across the country in search of work, and they do find a way to somehow receive the most basic services necessary to go about their daily lives and provide for their families as best they can. At issue is when they are identified as undocumented by the authorities and are subject to deportation. Then the life they have built over the course of one, five, ten, or twenty years goes up in smoke, becoming a dream out of reach, viewed from the other side of the border fence or from a city they had last seen years ago disappearing from view from an airplane window.

DreamersAlthough during his 2008 presidential campaign Barack Obama clearly stated his intention to pass comprehensive immigration reform once elected and resolve the untenable situation of millions of undocumented immigrants—including, of course, the children of those families, the Dreamers—in practice, the Obama administration has been the most brutal in recent history. Since he arrived in the White House in January 2009, on average 400,000 undocumented immigrants have been deported each year, separating families and creating a climate of deep uncertainty in immigrant communities. Although the administration maintains that most of the people who have been deported had criminal records, and that those cases are given priority in deportation proceedings, Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data-research organization at Syracuse University, found that as of 2013 less than 12 percent of those deported had any kind of criminal record.

If life is hard for undocumented families, it is even more challenging for young undocumented people who live in mixed-status homes and see how other members of their family enjoy privileges that they do not have. For example, Elioenai cannot get a driver’s license, so while his friends from school or work can hop in their cars and take off on the freeways of Los Angeles, he depends on his younger brother to drive him around. Or, more often than not, he drives himself, knowing that if he gets pulled over, he runs the risk of being deported.

“The first time I got pulled over, I felt like my heart stopped,” he tells me, remembering his terror. It was a sunny morning, and we had arranged to meet on one of the lawns of California State University, Northridge, where Elioenai studied journalism. The university was on break then, so the campus was practically deserted. Elioenai took me to the building that housed the offices of El Nuevo Sol, the Spanish-language newspaper put out by the university’s journalism school and for which he served as the editor. We couldn’t go into the office because the paper was closed during the break, so we went back outside and walked through the campus as he looked for a good place for us to sit down and talk. Among the many patios, outdoor tables, and benches along walkways that he could have chosen, Elioenai settled on a cement esplanade bordered by slender trees in front of Recital Hall, an imposing glass building that is home to the Valley Performing Arts Center. With our backs to the impressive theater, he told me what it’s like to be undocumented, pulled over for a traffic stop, and found to be driving without a license.

“I felt like I was in a fog,” he says. “I was confused, scared. The police officer asked to see my license. I said I didn’t have one. He asked to see some other identification, and all I had was the matriculate [the form of identification the Mexican government administers through its consulates and embassies to Mexicans living abroad, which is accepted by US banks and agencies] from the Mexican consulate. Then he knew what was going on, and after making me sit there for a while, he asked me to call somebody who could drive the car for me.

“I was lucky that time,” he goes on. “But living like that is a problem. It’s a real blow to your self-esteem, because you always feel like you are somehow less. It’s awful to always feel like you’re inferior. You see your friends driving around, traveling to other countries, while I don’t have money to go to school; I can’t get any financial aid from the government. My parents support me, my friends support me, and I work, but every day is a financial struggle just to go to school.

“Sometimes people don’t understand what being undocumented means,” he says. “People don’t know who we are, and they think of us as criminals. We are more than that. I have friends who call me ‘wetback’ just as a joke and say, ‘Go back to your country.’ But I’m twenty-two years old, and I have been here for twenty. This is my country. If I could talk to the politicians, I would say, ‘Look us in the eye. We are not faceless people. We love this country.’”

Elioenai still had a year to go until graduation. I asked him what would happen after he graduated.

“I see two options,” he says. “If the DREAM Act passes in the next few months, then I have a future. It’s a ray of hope, and I believe in it. If it doesn’t pass, then I’ll have to fight for my future. It’s going to take more work and it will take longer, but I’m going to do it. It’s not a question of if, but when.”


About the Author 

Eileen TruaxOriginally from Mexico, Eileen Truax is a journalist and immigrant currently living in Los Angeles. She contributes regularly to Hoy Los Angeles and Unidos and writes for Latin American publications including Proceso, El Universal, and Gatopardo. Truax often speaks at colleges and universities about the Dreamer movement and immigration. Follow her on Twitter at @EileenTruax.