I'm An Undocumented College Student. No Matter How Hard I Work, There's 1 Reality I Can't Escape.

"We’d happily 'get in line' for citizenship or documentation if such a line existed. It doesn’t."
The author
The author
Photo Courtesy of Maria Ortega

I’m a freshman at University of Texas, San Antonio, majoring in politics and law. Like my peers, I spend my time studying for prerequisite classes like mathematics and philosophy, eating in the dining hall, or studying by UTSA’s famous Sombrilla Plaza fountain on nice spring days. But there’s one major difference between me and most other UTSA students: I won’t be able to legally work after graduation.

I came to the U.S. from Mexico in 2008. Had I arrived just one year earlier, I’d qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which gives temporary legal authorization to immigrants who came here as children. Since I missed the cutoff, I don’t have a social security number, can’t get a driver’s license in the state of Texas, and don’t have a work permit or legal status.

Today, increasing numbers of undocumented students are facing these same issues. In 2021, a federal judge here in Texas ruled against the DACA program, halting all new applications. That means more than 100,000 undocumented immigrants across the nation are graduating high school without any kind of legal authorization or protection every year, including 17,000 from Texas high schools. Many of them will go on to attend Texas public colleges thanks to a 2001 state law signed by former Republican Governor Rick Perry that extends in-state tuition eligibility to undocumented students if they meet certain requirements. (Unfortunately, this wildly successful policy also remains under attack at the State Capitol and in the courts.)

Today, over 58,000 of Texas’ undocumented youth are enrolled in higher education. But once we graduate, most of us will enter the job market with a four-year degree and limited ways to use it.

I was born in Cuernavaca Morelos, Mexico, where my dad worked as a mechanic and my mom worked in retail. They had carved out a decent living, but crime permeated their day-to-day lives. One time, a gunman entered the public bus my mom was riding and assaulted the driver, demanded jewelry and money from passengers, and shot a passenger who tried to call for help. Another time, she was physically assaulted while walking down the street. When I was 4, they decided to leave the home they loved for their safety and mine.

The legal options for them were limited, requiring much more wealth than they had. My parents didn’t even know about the option of requesting asylum at the border, but that process can take years as well with no guarantees. Thus, we crossed the Rio Grande near Laredo, Texas ― my dad went first, and my mom and I followed a few months later.

We settled in Austin, where my parents got new jobs — my dad as a mechanic and small business owner, and my mom as a housecleaner and fast food worker. I enrolled in kindergarten and grew up loving school. I knew I was undocumented from an early age, but I didn’t tell many people for fear of the deportation of my entire family. My parents also couldn’t travel back home to see their families, and my dad lost his beloved brother and couldn’t attend the funeral in Mexico. Many times, I saw my mom denied for jobs that paid more because of her undocumented status.

At 12, I was connected to Breakthrough Central Texas, a local Texas organization that helps create a path to and through college for students who will become the first in their families to earn a college degree. Later, I was accepted into the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, a top-rated magnet high school. I didn’t truly understand what being undocumented meant for my future until my senior year. When I started searching for internships and part-time jobs, the reality of my situation came crashing down. Due to my immigration status, I faced enormous obstacles, far greater than my peers and friends, to achieving my dreams.

Without a social security number, most scholarships and loans were off the table. Without a work permit, part-time jobs to help me pay for school weren’t an option. And what would I do after I graduated without the ability to legally work? I was devastated to realize how much this limited my future.

This is an unfortunate reality for many undocumented young people, and it hurts the U.S. economy. Texas has major gaps in the workforce, especially in health care and education. The state suffers from a growing skilled labor shortage with nearly one million job openings unfilled as of November 2022. It makes no sense to block young people like me, who were educated in the American school system and obtained a college degree, from pathways to a career once they graduate.

We’d happily “get in line” for citizenship or documentation if such a line existed. It doesn’t. Even if one of us started a million-dollar company and created jobs for hundreds of Americans, we still wouldn’t have a direct pathway to citizenship.

Despite knowing all of this, I decided to attend college anyway. My mom often told me that “knowledge is something they can’t take away from you.” Many teachers also encouraged me to continue my education, in the hopes that the laws would change or opportunities would open up to me that I couldn’t yet see.

Today, I’m an advocacy fellow with Breakthrough Central Texas, where I have the opportunity to talk openly about my concerns, sometimes directly to lawmakers during our state’s legislative session. Recently, I submitted a personal testimony against dangerous and inhumane immigration bills that promote vigilantism, waste state taxpayers dollars, and increase criminal penalties for asylees and refugees. I speak on behalf of immigrant rights and against family separations (my three siblings were born in America, so my family would be torn apart if I or my parents were deported). I also advocate for minorities and undocumented students to have greater access to higher education, which can still provide valuable skills and connections regardless of status.

No matter my own status, I will not be living my life in the shadows. Of course the worry of deportation is still there, but I refuse to live my life in fear. If we don’t speak up about the injustices we face in this country, who will speak for us?

Only Congress can open a route to citizenship for me and other undocumented youth. This would create a world of possibilities for all us — opportunities that would ultimately benefit not just us, but ordinary Texans and our state’s economy.

I’m not sure how I’ll manage to build a career given current immigration policies. My dream is to work in law. In theory, I could go to law school and pass the bar, but still be unable to practice. I keep moving forward even though I cannot see what future is in front of me. I will keep working to find a way to illuminate the path.

Maria Ortega is a student at University of Texas, San Antonio.

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