Keeping Talented Youth in Nebraska

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By ACLU of Nebraska, Heartland Workers Center, and Nebraska Appleseed

In 2012 the president announced an important new policy to “defer action” on youth who grew up in this country since childhood but do not have a way to apply for immigration status until Congress fixes our outdated immigration laws. Called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program allows dynamic young immigrants who meet certain qualifications to remain in the country for a renewable two-year period, temporarily defers their deportation, and provides a temporary work permit.

The DACA program, while temporary, is a significant and positive step forward for youth who are American in every way except on paper. Because of the program, young people across the state can fully harness their skills, education, and entrepreneurial spirit by working and contributing to their communities. As a state, we benefit from the talents of future teachers, doctors, engineers, and small business owners who grew up in Nebraska.

However, in this state these youth face another challenge, because Nebraska is the only state in the country with a policy to deny driver’s licenses to DACA youth. As soon as a recent court decision striking down Arizona’s policy of denying licenses is implemented, forty-nine out of fifty states will allow DACA recipients to obtain driver’s licenses. The only state to single out immigrant DACA youth and refuse to furnish them driver’s licenses is, unfortunately, Nebraska.

A driver’s license is critically important both for these Nebraska youth and for the community businesses, schools, and organizations that utilize their talents. In order to fully contribute to their communities, DACA recipients need to travel to school and to a job. Driving is by far the most realistic method of travel for the vast majority of people in Nebraska. Without a license, youth face obstacles to work, education, and economic participation with lost opportunities that affect us all. The absence of a driver’s license also severely constrains their ability to seek and apply for jobs that are not within walking distance. And some who are interviewed are turned down for jobs because they don’t have a license. The same constraint on employment applies to education. Some may want to attend college and remain close enough to drive home, but the lack of a license may restrict that flexibility. Furthermore, a license also ensures the ability to engage in everyday tasks like shopping for groceries, filling a prescription for grandma, or volunteering at church. Nebraska’s current policy prevents these Nebraska youth from supporting themselves and their families, as well as contributing to our state’s economy and their communities.

Granting driver’s licenses to young, aspiring citizens is also sound and responsible public policy for the State of Nebraska. A responsible policy of providing licenses to DACA youth would expand state revenue and increase insurance savings for drivers. Because every motorist pays for a license and its eventual renewal, providing licenses to immigrant motorists increases revenue for the state. Moreover, having more licensed drivers on Nebraska’s roads means that the cost of covering motorists will decline and, therefore, insurance rates will drop for everyone.

Nebraska’s misguided policy has had a very real and distressing impact every day on the lives of DACA youth who call Nebraska home. Here are some of their stories.

‘America Is My Home and It’s Where I’ll Leave My Legacy’ by Maria Marquez Hernandez

I came to Omaha at the young age of five. I attended school in Omaha starting with first grade up until my graduation from Central High School. My parents brought me to this country to give my sister a better opportunity. They knew in Mexico I would not graduate because the cost of education is too high. I knew this was an opportunity that wasn’t offered to everyone. I was thankful to my parents and to this beautiful country that gave me the opportunity to continue my education. With this in mind, not only did I graduate high school, but I did so with honors.

During my school years in Omaha, I was given the chance to expand my comprehension in several subjects. I had dedicated teachers that challenged and supported me because they wanted to see me succeed. They knew I would face hardships as an undocumented student. Some of these would make it hard for me to graduate. I had to work hard. During my senior year, I was limited to colleges because of my legal status. Many did not accept me, and some wanted to charge me international tuition rates. There were plenty of times I wanted to quit and drop out.

Thankfully, I was given the wonderful opportunity of attending undergraduate school at the University of Nebraska at Omaha with the tuition rate of a Nebraskan resident. Because of my hard work, I earned a private scholarship that paid all of my tuition for the next five years.

I’ve explored a few different majors throughout my years at UNO, and I am now excited about studying psychology with a focus in education. As my graduation date is quickly approaching, I am asked if I will be attending graduate school. The fact is, I would have troubles paying for graduate school. However, I do not want to stop at my bachelor’s degree. I want to achieve my highest potential.

After the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was announced by President Obama in 2012, a weight was lifted off my shoulders. It was an immense feeling of relief and joy. I would be able to do what I have always wanted to do and do so without fear. I could finally achieve a career, fully give back to my community and my parents, and lastly—be independent.

The State of Nebraska, through Governor Heineman’s decision to deny me and other DREAMers a license, has made it difficult for me to acquire a job and pay for my expenses. For a while even the simplest things, like giving my younger sister, Itzel, a ride to school was incredibly difficult. I am fully dependent on other people. At the same time, Nebraska is my home, and it has provided me with so many opportunities to be successful.

Itzel and I decided to become plaintiffs in the ACLU of Nebraska’s lawsuit to overturn this policy. Nebraska has been so kind to my family for the last sixteen years. I want others to experience that kindness. Participating in this lawsuit to help other young Nebraskans is a way I can give back.

Since the ACLU lawsuit was filed last summer, my sister graduated from high school. She is excited to start classes at Metropolitan Community College. I studied abroad in Belize, and with that I was finally able to see my grandparents in Mexico whom I haven’t seen in sixteen years. I got a paid internship as a peer mentor, and I am volunteering with Partnership 4 Kids as a goal buddy to elementary students. Our family has also begun saving for our own home. In spite of the challenges of not having a license, my family has so much to be thankful for.

Omaha, Nebraska, is my home, and I intend to continue living here, creating my legacy, and giving back to my community.

Alejandra Ayotitla

My name is Alejandra Ayotitla, and I am a “DREAMer.” I came to the US ten years ago and settled in Nebraska. As every year went by I became more accustomed to the way of life here and felt welcomed by a friendly community. However, as I got older it was harder to grow up here because of my immigration status. I realized this during my sophomore year of high school when I started thinking about college, and I quickly became discouraged when I learned that I could not receive financial aid. It was frustrating and scary to think that my biggest dream, graduating from college, would not be possible. My parents supported my dream and encouraged me to focus on finishing high school and assured me that we would find the means to pay for my education on our own; I knew it was easier said than done because we could not afford paying $16,000 every year for four years. Throughout my high school career I focused on my academics and volunteer work. When my junior year came, I had found help from my teachers and others who guided me through the application and scholarship process. I graduated from Lincoln North Star High School with a 4.0 GPA and the Susan Buffet Scholarship to cover my four years of tuition at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I am currently a sophomore studying psychology, with a minor in Spanish and human rights.

Deferred action has made a significant difference in my life, allowing me to not worry about facing deportation and giving me the opportunity to work legally in two jobs that I enjoy and that are helping me gain skills. I have been working at UNL Children’s Center, where I assist full-time teachers in a preschool classroom. I am also working at with a nonprofit organization, El Centro de las Americas, as the assistant coordinator for the Spanish GED program. On Saturdays I also volunteer at my church preparing third-grade students to receive the sacrament of their first communion. However, it is frustrating and complicated when I cannot drive to two jobs, school, and volunteer work. I constantly have to depend on people to give me rides and to take the bus, which is not always reliable. Another problem is that I always think in the back of my mind that DACA is only temporary. If Congress does not pass comprehensive reform, I will finish my college career but still face constant uncertainty. However, I have hope that Nebraska, like all of the other states in the country will give dreamers the opportunity to drive, and Congress will fix our immigration laws so that we may keep giving back to the communities that welcomed us.

Dayana Lopez

Hello, my name is Dayana Lopez. I was born in Tulancingo, Hidalgo in Mexico.

I’m a recent Central High School graduate and am now attending the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

My father made the bold decision to migrate here in hope of better job opportunities to sustain my family, while my mother, siblings, and I stayed behind in Mexico. After a few years, my mother decided that we could no longer live as a separate family and left behind everything we had. With no actual knowledge of the culture, lack of understanding of the language, and new regulations and laws to abide, it was a very difficult transition for my family. I arrived in the United States at the age of four, only taking with me a blurred trail of memories and leaving behind a family I’d never get to see again.

Omaha, Nebraska, was my first and last stop. I remember growing up with the constant uncertainness of what it meant to be undocumented. It didn’t quite hit me how different I was from my peers until high school. Through a series of events, such as not being able to apply for a driver’s license or a job, I realized that I had to do things in another way. My whole life I had been told that I could be and do anything I wanted as long as I maintained good grades, stayed involved in school, and eventually I could go off to college and follow through with my career. Reality is, that’s not the case at all. I had to work twice as hard as my peers throughout high school to find financial aid, as I am not eligible to apply for federal aid, yet still ended the year with barely enough money to get me through my first year in college.

It has been a blessing to receive DACA, but even then, I still feel like I am being limited to present my full potential. Out of frustration, I became more involved within my community to seek potential solutions. That is when I came across the Heartland Workers Center. I started off as a volunteer, then was offered an internship, and after a few months started working there as their PR & Marketing Coordinator, and it has honestly changed my life. I found that I had a voice, a voice to make a difference. Despite the fact that I cannot vote, I stay politically active by going out to canvass, speaking to our representatives, and promoting the vote through my design work. I have become an advocate not only to help people in my same situation but also to advocate to those who are still uneducated about the DACA program and help them better understand what it is. This is my story, one of many being affected by a broken system that is yet to acknowledge all the hard work we, immigrants, put into living here. I hope that after today you won’t see me as the enemy.

Joel Lemus

Born in Monterrey, Mexico, as the second of four children, many would categorize our family as poor; I, however, would not. We may have lacked financial resources, but we were rich with parental love, an opportunity for an education, blessed with a roof over our head and healthy, able bodies. My parents came from a small ranching town in Michoacán, Mexico, a beautiful state filled with mountains and lots of natural beauty. They moved to Monterrey in search of more stable employment, which my dad found that in the famous maquiladoras—large plants that could be found all over that city.

Prior to my arrival, my parents had moved to southern California in the late ’70s where my older brother was born. Yet with the ever-present danger of being so close to the border and immigration officials, my mother was scared. On a handful of occasions, my dad would leave for work as a gardener, not arriving home until 5:00 a.m., only to go back to work at 6:00 a.m. Immigration officials apprehended him, would send him back to Mexico, just for him to turn right back around to make sure he was on time for work the next day. When my mother became pregnant with me, she became even more worried. What if something happened to my dad during one of his journeys back? What if she became a widow with a five-year-old and a newborn? Being five months’ pregnant, my parents made the hard decision to return to Mexico.

After spending a few years in Monterrey, the violence, poverty, and lack of regular work hours compelled my parents to return to the US. With that, we returned to California; I was now six years old and now had a younger brother. The only things I remember from our journey were: One, throwing a fit because I wanted to cross the border with my father and two, being crammed into a secret compartment of a large RV with my mother as we came across the border and crying because my legs fell asleep. Once we made it to California, we lived there for a year—in a three-bedroom apartment with three other families for a total of twelve people. Since we remained close to the border and fear remained, we eventually moved in with my uncle’s family in Nebraska in 1994.

Nebraska was a much more peaceful and quiet place. I remember hating it when I first got here. No one spoke Spanish, or at least it seemed that way. In California, all the teachers spoke Spanish; but in Nebraska, not a single one did. I remember struggling through classes in elementary school because of the language. But in fifth grade, something clicked. I moved from the lowest reading group to the second highest; it was rare that anyone moved at all. My teachers expressed how happy they were with my progress. I, of course, was happy that my parents heard that I was doing well. All I have ever strived for was to make them happy, to make them feel like their sacrifices and hard work did not happen without appreciation.

Once out of the awkward middle-school stage, I made it to high school. Because of my immigration status, I remember having to make up excuses as to why I wouldn’t participate in different events. I didn’t take driver’s education because “I didn’t really want to drive anyway.” Our high school soccer team formed a club team that went to a tournament in Minnesota for the summer. My coach asked me for a Social Security number for registration. I lied to him, saying I wasn’t going to play because my family and I were going to Mexico for the summer—something that we didn’t do and I haven’t been able to do for twenty-one years. I always had to have an excuse ready whenever something came up that required documentation. Throughout high school, I kept up with academics, knowing that I would not be able to go to college. Out of fear and because of my parents’ constant reminders, I kept the dark secret of being undocumented. Teachers mentioned the opportunities that I would have with college; I remember just smiling and saying, “Yeah, maybe.”

There was one teacher, my science teacher, who was very persistent. She insisted that she saw something in me and that’s why she wouldn’t leave me alone, almost annoying me. Now I thank “Ms. J” for never giving up on me. One day, I told her that I had no option for college because of my status. She was the first staff member that I had told, although I imagine now others may have already suspected. She wouldn’t let me give up. She wouldn’t let me settle on working alongside my father at the local meat packing plant, where he now has been for the last twenty years, breaking his back, scars all over his body, just to make ends meet. It’s because of him that I never gave up on my dreams. It’s because of all those that believed in me that I will be persistent with my own goals.

With “Ms. J’s” help, she was able to pass my name along to the second professional that made college happen for me. Juan Guzman, now the director of the Office of Multicultural Office at the University of Nebraska-Kearney, reached out to me. He explained how we were going to make it happen so I could fulfill my dream of college and one day be a teacher. I graduated from my high school in the top ten in my class. Private scholarships helped me obtain a full ride to UNK. Never in my life would I have imagined that that would happen.

I attended UNK in the fall of 2004, nervous like all the other freshmen. Nervous because I didn’t know if I was college ready. Nervous because I had such high expectations back home. I was the first one from my family to graduate from high school, and now I’m at a university in the United States! Four and a half years later, I found myself student teaching at a public middle school. I enjoyed every minute of being with those eighth graders. They were so random, and every day was so different. I put in twelve-plus hours every day to make sure that I could do the best the next day. Toward the end of my student teaching, the principal pulled me into his office. He wanted me to work for him. I was humbled and told him that I had to think about it. He then pulled me in a second time and said, “Joel, what is it going to take for you to sign this piece of paper? I need you here with our staff. You would be a great addition to our team.” I couldn’t hold out anymore. He had always been honest and caring toward me. I told him the real reason I couldn’t take the job—I didn’t have a valid Social Security number and could not obtain a teaching certificate in the state of Nebraska. Two other public schools offered me a job, not knowing that I couldn’t take them.

As my student teaching came to a close, I didn’t know where to turn. I moved back home through the summer and worked under the table. That was the only option. There I was with a bachelor’s degree, spent five years in college, and had nothing to show for it. Then, my phone rang. Juan Guzman called saying that the scholarship donor who had funded my undergraduate degree wanted to fund my master’s. Again, another blessing in my life. This lady, who I didn’t meet until I graduated with my master’s, knew my story and wanted to help me. She chose to stay anonymous. Per her request, I will continue to keep her name anonymous. Besides, if the big guy upstairs knows who she is, that’s all that matters.

Three years after going back to my master’s program, I had graduated with honors and a degree in counseling/mental health. Again, we were back to square one. No documentation, no work. At least not as a counselor. Then on June 15, 2012, President Barack Obama gave thousands of young people, including myself, an opportunity to become legal contributors to society. Through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, I was granted a work permit and a valid Social Security number.

Being the optimist that I am, I had a résumé ready to go and my eye on a few employment opportunities. I quickly interviewed and was hired by a public high school to be the school counselor. With a growing Hispanic population, I work with students and families to help them continue toward becoming more prepared citizens in our schools and community.

As a recipient of DACA in the state of Nebraska, life continues to be difficult because I cannot obtain a driver’s license. Although we have met the qualifications to obtain a work permit and a valid Social Security number, Governor Dave Heineman has continued to speak out against granting us driver’s licenses. Some argue that we should not be granted a taxpayer benefit. Yet my family and I have been paying taxes for years. It has become impossible to carpool every day to get to work thirty minutes away. As you can imagine, the schedules of professionals vary so much, and many days I am left in a tough circumstance of whether I don’t go to work or am forced to drive without a driver’s license. All that DACA recipients—and all immigrants want—is to be able to fully and legally contribute to this wonderful country. As an avid Husker fan like anyone else in our state, I want to be able to drive to a game, drive to work, or simply drive to get our groceries without having to live in constant worry of how we are going to get there or of being pulled over for a simple traffic infraction.

Reflecting back on all this as I wrote this for others to read, I can’t help but reflect back on all of the blessings that I have been undeservingly given. I know that I am in a good place, and there are many others in our country that are in a similar status as mine that are in much more difficult circumstances. I consider myself lucky and very blessed for all that has happened and all the people who have helped me along the way. I could not have asked for a better way to say thank you to those who have helped me than by helping others navigate through barriers and achieve their goals. Now as a school counselor, I am hopeful that I am providing the same help for our youth as has been provided for me throughout my life.

For more information on the authoring organizations, please visit their respective websites: ACLU of Nebraska at www.aclunebraska.org, Heartland Workers Center at www.heartlandworkerscenter.org, and Nebraska Appleseed at www.neappleseed.org.

Immigration in Nebraska