Undocumented Dreamer

December 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

By Alessandra Potenza

In October 2010, Angy Rivera, now 21, an undocumented student and core member of the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSLYC), began writing an online column named “Ask Angy,” a place for undocumented youth to share their experiences and ask for help.

“What is the point of me trying so hard to make it through college when my diploma is not even going to be worth it?” asked Cat, an undocumented college sophomore, after she had to reveal her illegal status to explain to her school why she couldn’t get a student loan.

Sam, another undocumented youth who had problems finding a stable job because of his status, asked Angy whether he should stay in the United States or leave the country to fulfill himself. “The recent failure to pass the federal DREAM Act has made me realize that even though I love the U.S. Maybe I am not destined to be here,” he wrote in September 2011.

The “Ask Angy” column is the virtual alter ego of who Rivera is in real life: a source of comfort and inspiration for undocumented youth who have fears or are confused about their opportunities and limits.

“I try to provide that support they need, because I was once in their shoes, feeling like I was alone and there was nobody out there,” she said.

Rivera is one of a growing number of undocumented students coming out and actively helping others to do the same. She came here illegally from Colombia when she was 3. As an activist in the NYSYLC, Rivera supports the passage of the New York Dream Act and helps others cope with the struggles of being undocumented.

Although she had always known she is undocumented, Rivera had to learn little by little to be comfortable with it. And it’s not always been easy.

During her senior year in high school, while scanning her various college opportunities, Rivera went to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice open house in midtown Manhattan. All the paperwork in her hands, Rivera made her way to the financial aid office.

After trying to convince the administrator that she qualified for financial aid, Rivera was told that if she didn’t have the cash to pay for school, she was wasting her time there.

“I didn’t really believe it,” she recalled. “I thought that if you were raised here and you had good grades, that’s all that mattered.”

But something else mattered – a nine-digit number. The Social Security number Rivera has always lacked.

Little by little, as she grew up alongside her high school friends, Rivera found out she couldn’t do all sorts of things her citizen classmates did: donate blood, travel to foreign countries, get a driver’s license, vote, open a bank account, have a credit card, save her dog.

Her husky Luna was hit by a car after getting loose from the leash. Her mom’s friend put down her own credit card to pay for the dog’s surgery.

Rivera didn’t realize right away how being undocumented was going to impact her.

“It isn’t until high school that you feel different from other citizens,” she said.

Missing the various rites of passage made her feel “behind” and “left out.” But not being able to go to college was the real downturn.

“I remember feeling really defeated and sad,” she said.

But being stonewalled by the John Jay financial aid office didn’t stop Rivera from pursuing her goals. Although going through a moment of depression, Rivera learned to become a stronger person.

“She’s very persistent and driven, she never gives up,” her best friend Janella Valencia, 19, said of her.

Rivera’s brother, Luis Diaz, 16, U.S.-born, used the same exact words to describe his sister: “She never gives up.”

Through the help of her counselor at Francis Lewis High School, in Queens, and the encouragement of her mother, who always pushed her “to go to school and become someone,” Rivera kept searching for solutions. That is how she found the New York State Youth Leadership Council.

She attended a workshop about Latino youth in America and stumbled upon the immigrant youth organization. For the first time in her life, Rivera heard about the DREAM Act and she decided to sign up for their email list. Soon after, she received an email about a scholarship and fellowship program they offered and she applied.

“There are only a few scholarships for undocumented youth,” explained Jacki Cinto, 25, youth service coordinator and co-founder of the NYSLYC. “So we decided to create like a small fund for scholarships in order to provide that small support for students.”

Started in 2007, the scholarship program awards around 10 scholarships a year to undocumented students. A form of “encouragement,” according to Cinto, to prove them that “they have the potential to continue their education.”

Rivera received the financial aid and was able to pay for her first semester at John Jay. She was also required by the NYSLYC to intern at their office in the summer of 2009.

“That’s when I got involved and I’ve been here ever since basically,” Rivera said.

Discovering the NYSLYC opened a new world for Rivera. Not only did it allow her to begin her college education, but it also helped her accept her situation.

“It was very shocking the first time that I got to the get-active training,” she said.

Unlike in her high school, where Rivera was surrounded by citizen students, she found herself surrounded by undocumented youth who were openly speaking about their status.

“We all connected even though we didn’t know each other because of our struggles and our stories,” Rivera recalled. “And I felt like there was support, a group that understood me and I didn’t have to explain… because they already knew and they already understood.”

“It was liberating,” Cinto said of the first training Rivera attended, adding that she did notice a change in Rivera’s attitude. “Now telling her story is something normal.”

Since her summer internship, Rivera has never left the NYSLYC. She is a core member now and she works in the media outreach and arts and expression committees. She coordinates the Support Group and she keeps the “Ask Angy” column online, described as a “huge hit” by Norma Juarez, 22, NYSLYC core member and Support Group co-coordinator.

“She’s very active and she’s done an amazing work,” Juarez said of Rivera. Her caring and inspiring personality has helped her build relationships with other undocumented students who seek help, Juarez said.

Rivera’s contribution to the NYSLYC is best summarized by her online bio, where she is described as “a part time super hero trying to inspire and make a difference in someone’s life.” And this “someone” can be strangers reaching out to her on the web, via email or Twitter, or her own siblings.

Rivera has two younger brothers and one sister, all born in the United States and all citizens.

“They look up to her a lot,” said her best friend Valencia, adding that thanks to Rivera, her siblings “have a different mindset,” appreciating more what they have.

They also feel somewhat privileged, especially Rivera’s 16-year-old brother. “She deserves the papers more than me,” Diaz said of his sister. Like through the “Ask Angy” column, Rivera tries to inspire Diaz, pushing him to study for his driver’s license and think about college and scholarships.

But living a “normal” family life is sometimes hard, as the danger of deportation is always in the back of their minds.

“If something was to ever happen to me and my mom we could be deported. And then, what would happen to them? Who would take care of them?” Rivera said, adding that she fears especially for her mom. Rivera said  she is somewhat protected by public sympathy for the so-called “Dreamers,” but the parents are usually blamed as criminals.

Her mother Maria Yolanda Rivera, 41, said she was more scared a few years ago, but now she is OK.

“I’m prepared if the government sends me to my country,” she said. “I believe in God and I trust Him, no matter what. If they send me to my country, I go to my country. He’s with me.”

At the same time, she feels a sense of powerlessness. “How can you fight with the United States?” she asked. “The United States is a giant.”

Rivera said she feels overwhelmed sometimes.

She works part time at a publishing company to pay for her tuition. Every semester at John Jay, she wonders whether she will be able to take other classes or she will have to take another semester off to gain some more money. Her mother is currently unemployed and cannot help her with the expenses.

“Sometimes I felt like giving up, I felt like just tired and overwhelmed, depressed listening to everything that was going on and not being able to do enough,” Rivera said. “I feel like sometimes I just want to make everything better and I can’t.”

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