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A UVM Student Talks About Growing Up Undocumented

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Eloisa A. Romero - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • matthew thorsen
  • Eloisa A. Romero

When Eloisa A. Romero moved to Vermont from California last summer, she had two suitcases filled with books, pictures, clothes, her favorite plush toys and a small statue of the Virgin Mary. And she had a dream. "I'm here for two years, and I need to make the best of it," she remembered thinking.

Romero felt conflicted, she recalled, when she found out she'd been accepted into the University of Vermont master's program in higher education and student affairs administration and offered the position of assistant residence director of UVM's Trinity Campus. Leaving California would mean being away from her family for two years.

But Romero, an alumna of California State University, Fullerton, knew it would be foolish to pass up what she described as the "opportunity of a lifetime." Her high school guidance counselor had predicted that she wouldn't even make it to college. The odds were stacked against her, she pointed out.

Romero, a Latina, grew up as an undocumented immigrant. After marrying her high school sweetheart, a U.S. citizen, late last year, Romero applied for a green card. Less than a week ago while at home in California, she learned that her application had been approved.

The Pew Research Center estimates that, in 2015, 11 million unauthorized immigrants resided in the U.S. These immigrants, who had either entered without undergoing an inspection or stayed beyond their date of legal residency, composed 3.4 percent of the country's total population. In Vermont, according to Pew, undocumented immigrants represented 0.3 percent of the population in 2014.

Over this past semester, Romero related her story to Seven Days in her office on Trinity Campus. Above the name on her door hung a picture of a young woman in a green graduation gown labeled with the words "undocumented, unafraid and unapologetic." Her notice board was filled with mementos. Among them were a family photo taken at California's Big Bear Lake, a picture of Romero linking arms with a fellow activist as they blocked streets outside a Los Angeles detention center, and a mind map of her dreams and achievements.

Romero has always been candid about her immigration status. Besides juggling school, work and family, she's demonstrated a sustained commitment to educating the UVM community about undocumented students. For her advocacy efforts, Romero received the Outstanding Graduate Student Award at the Mosaic Center for Students of Color Spring Awards Banquet in April.

"I felt honored. I felt validated," Romero said. "I felt like a human being, like I mattered."

Eighteen years ago, when she was 9 years old, Romero and her mother left Mexico City and entered the U.S. on a tourist visa. Her father and two older brothers stayed behind. Romero's mother was a Mary Kay cosmetics representative in Mexico and had accumulated debts when she was unable to sell the products. When the two arrived in California, she got a job at a factory in Pomona, working the graveyard shift.

In the morning, while her mother slept, Romero attended a local elementary school. In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in a landmark case, Plyler v. Doe, that children in the country are guaranteed equal access to free K-12 education regardless of their immigration status.

Romero struggled with learning English, and she missed her father. Often, she recalled, she called him and cried. He had one piece of advice: "Play follow the leader, and eventually you'll get it. Whatever they do, you do."

Romero's mother cleared her debts after six months. At about the same time, Romero's father, a high school graduate, lost his job at a local bank. Romero's father and brothers later obtained U.S. tourist visas, and the family of five reunited in California soon after.

Romero's parents made ends meet with multiple jobs, including working in a bakery and cleaning houses, she related. Despite each working about 80 hours a week, they struggled to pay the bills. Sacrificing his education, Romero's oldest brother dropped out of high school to work in a warehouse.

In addition to the physical exhaustion of working long hours, Romero's family lived in constant fear of being deported. In the U.S., they did little more than travel to and from school or work. If one of them hadn't returned home by a certain time, someone in the family would go out looking, Romero said.

"Being undocumented, I've always had insecurity," she said in conversation with Seven Days this spring. "Trying to control whatever I can ... and I always worry about the future."

Her family's worst fears came true when Romero's oldest brother, then 22, was arrested and deported; she was 15. He went to live with relatives in Mexico City, while the rest of the family stayed in California.

After graduating from high school, Romero attended Cal State Fullerton. She was already a familiar face on campus. When she was in high school, her other brother — a student at Fullerton — had invited her to meetings organized by the university's undocumented-student club. She eventually became the club president in her fifth year there.

Members staged rallies, delivered presentations on the issues they faced, organized "coming out of the shadows" events and distributed "safe-zone" stickers. They also held fundraisers to raise money for college scholarships.

Undocumented college students are ineligible for Pell Grants and federally funded work-study programs, a federal policy that makes higher education inaccessible to an estimated 65,000 undocumented high school graduates each year. The American Immigration Council estimates that only 5 to 10 percent of this population attends college. Although policies vary by state, many public colleges treat such students who apply in their home states as out-of-state or international students who do not qualify for reduced in-state tuition.

On June 15, 2012, when Romero was in her fourth year of college, president Barack Obama instituted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which granted temporary relief from deportation to unauthorized youth who had been brought to the U.S. as children. A DACA applicant must have been younger than 31 years as of June 15, 2012; have entered the U.S. before the age of 16; have continuously resided in the U.S. since June 15, 2007; be currently in school, have graduated from high school, or have earned a GED or served in the military; and have no conviction for a felony or significant misdemeanors, among other criteria.

Renewable every two years, DACA status allows undocumented individuals to get a work permit and apply for a Social Security number. Recipients are still ineligible to receive federal benefits.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has so far granted DACA status to about 770,000 unauthorized immigrants. A quarter of them are, like Romero, from California. Vermont has 31 DACA recipients, the fewest in the country.

DACA neither confers lawful immigration status nor offers a path to citizenship. Had the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act been passed, it would have created such a pathway to citizenship for undocumented youth.

For her part, Romero is skeptical of DACA, calling it "just a Band-Aid to the whole immigration issue." Many immigrants didn't qualify for it, she pointed out: "I feel the [DREAMer] movement was paralyzed by DACA."

She noted a personally significant outcome of the program: The club at her undergraduate university no longer exists. "They don't feel the need to do advocacy work," she said of its members. "It's really, really unfortunate."

In Vermont during the past academic year, Romero continued her advocacy by sharing her experience as an undocumented student with her peers, residents, faculty members and the wider UVM community. "That puts her in a really vulnerable position emotionally and psychologically," noted Sarah Childs in April; Childs is assistant director of the Mosaic Center for Students of Color at UVM. "She doesn't know how people are going to act with the information, but she does it because she wants people to learn."

Romero said all she wants to do is share her story. "I'm not a criminal," she said. "Is it a crime to live a life, look for the American dream?"

Childs doesn't often nominate first-year students for the center's Spring Awards Banquet, because they need to demonstrate sustained commitment, she said. But Romero was an exception.

"Being undocumented and a master's student is not necessarily what makes Eloisa outstanding in my mind," wrote Childs in her nomination letter for Romero. "But rather, it is her tenacity to fight for her place in the academy as an undocumented student while so many in this country are actively working against her."

Magdalena Gracia, Romero's classmate, said she's witnessed people going silent when Romero announced her immigration status and advocated for herself and her community. "To see the impact that she has is very powerful," Gracia said in April. But, added the Chicago native, "It's hard when I see her going through basic [administrative] challenges [because] offices here [don't know] how to support undocumented students.

"She doesn't let that stop her from reaching her goals," Gracia continued. "Her resiliency is out of this world."

At the time of her interview, Childs said she didn't know any other undocumented students at UVM, but she wouldn't have been surprised if there were more. "Having worked in higher education now for nearly 10 years, on three different campuses in three different states, I know better than to assume that, just because I might not know an undocumented student, there aren't any around," she said.

"Where there's work, school, opportunities to put yourself in a better situation in life, to advance your life in any way — to take care of your needs, the needs of your family — people would go anywhere, even to Vermont," Childs went on.

Seven Days did contact and interview other DACA recipients, at Middlebury College, who requested anonymity. Although they felt somewhat protected by their institution, they said, their families remain vulnerable.

Despite the recognition she's received for her advocacy efforts, Romero said she sometimes has felt guilty for focusing on her studies at UVM instead of being "on the streets" and lobbying for legislative reforms.

"[Romero] has a strong sense of service to help others," noted her academic adviser, Tracy Arámbula Ballysingh. Her advice to Romero, she said, was "This is an investment in you, so that you can then be empowered to better serve [the community]."

Romero admitted that the past few months have been hard. She missed her family tremendously, particularly after one of her uncles died. And she went through a "dark moment" immediately following the presidential election.

"People have mentioned, 'Why don't you go home? Maybe this is not the right program for you,'" Romero said.

But thinking about her peers whose dreams were cut short motivated her to get back on her feet, Romero said. "No, [quitting] is not an option. I need to get over this hump and move forward," she resolved.

Although Romero is committed to advocacy, she'll be able to make a bigger impact at the decision-making table, she suggested: "I dream of going to law school, be[ing] an immigration lawyer or congresswoman." But more than anything, she wants to visit the Statue of Liberty as a U.S. citizen and "take lots of pictures."

When Seven Days met with Romero, she was taking a break from writing her final papers to clear her office, preparing to return to California for the summer. She took down mementos from her notice board and put away cards and knickknacks she had received from friends and residents.

Then she reached into her cabinet and handed a reporter a stack of other family photos. In one of them, Romero is surrounded by The Little Mermaid paraphernalia, gifts for her 22nd birthday. Ariel is one of her favorite Disney characters, Romero revealed.

"You know how she wants to be part of the world?" she said, referring to the song "Part of Your World." "I want to be part of the world."


The original print version of this article was headlined "Out of the Shadows"

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