Finding Home: Torn between two countries, student immigrants share their stories

Gaby Mendoza PO ‘12 drives exceptionally well. She has a license now. And a car. But if she had been pulled over three years ago, her biggest fear would not have been her parents or even the police; it would have been deportation officers.

When she was nine years old, Mendoza flew from Colonia Trinidad, Guatemala to Desert Hot Springs, Calif. with her parents, her little brother Carlitos and a temporary visa. The visa expired, and she did not return. After eight years of interviews and applications, she got her green card, just a few months before applying to Pomona.

She was lucky.

“A lot of undocumented students don’t even know they’re undocumented until their parents mention it when they start applying to college,” Mendoza said. “It never hit [me] that I wouldn’t have been able to go to college because of that.”

Mendoza no longer fears flashing lights in her rearview mirror. She appears to be a typical college student at first, sitting cross-legged on a couch in her common room apologizing for the scattered mess on her floor. And then she shares her experience, an experience unique from, yet undeniably similar to, the experiences of other immigrants on the campuses.

Mendoza is one of a handful of other 1.5-generation immigrant students across the 5Cs, documented and not, who moved to the U.S. as children or young teenagers. As these students move past culture shock and language difficulties to pursue higher education, they continue to face distinctive challenges.

When they graduate, undocumented immigrants, face an environment not nearly as coddling as Claremont. If they still have not obtained legal status, their gold-sealed degrees and glowing references do nothing to help them get jobs. They are stuck in what some call “professional purgatory.”

“It’s an additional burden [they bear],” said Pomona College Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum. “[These] are things that affect people’s lives in a daily way, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not also living life in really full ways at Pomona.”

Regardless of the struggles immigrants face, Feldblum thinks they bring an intellectual transformation to colleges. She said they ask questions that have not been asked, offer personal histories to shine light on analytical studies and bring the complex and current issue of immigration to the forefront.

“I think there’s so much richness and diversity and insight, and multiple perspectives that immigrant students, staff and faculty bring to the college,” Feldblum said. “It’s really exciting to see how having an increasing number of first and second generation students transforms the conversations that are had on college campuses [and] the intellectual pursuits for students.”

Many undocumented students do not realize higher education is in their grasp. Based on their current policies, that’s something some of the Claremont Colleges want to change. Pitzer provides one full scholarship for an undocumented immigrant each year; Pomona provides need-based school-funded financial aid for any admitted; and the other schools’ financial aid policies for non-residents vary. All of the colleges admit undocumented immigrants.

“It’s really important for schools and students to know which colleges and universities do offer [admission to undocumented students], because there are some students who think they don’t have the possibility to go on to college,” Feldblum said.

Documented immigrants like Emma Little PI ’12—who emigrated from Wellington, New Zealand when she was nine—do not have as many reasons to stress as undocumented immigrants do in the college application process, but they share many of the same experiences, including the troubles adjusting to life in a new country. When Little first moved to the U.S., she faked an American accent so she would not stand out. Now, her American accent is natural. She has adjusted, but her experience cultivated a passion for intercultural studies and made her more politically aware.

Having a green card was not enough: she wanted to become a citizen in order to vote, to have a say in the government and to protest without fear of deportation.

On Oct. 6, five years after getting her green card and nine years after moving to the U.S., Little became a citizen.

“I was sitting there waiting to get my naturalization certificate and I was already filling out my passport papers,” Little said. “I registered to vote the same day. [My mom and I] went to Starbucks to celebrate our citizenship. We thought that was very American.”

She still clings to her native country, self-identifying as a “kiwi,” the endearing nickname for New Zealanders. Though critical of her adopted country, she embraces the freedoms that come with citizenship.

However, like many other immigrants, she is torn between the country she originally called home and the one she has come to know more intimately.

“I know that sounds really cliché, but I feel like I’m very American in the way I’ve been an immigrant and come from a different place,” Little said. “That’s like the original America, you know? [My mom and I are] both proud to be New Zealanders, but now we have this whole new identity attached. I’m much more American than my mom. I don’t think she’ll ever be American. It’s loss of identity a little bit.”

Alan Lopez PO ’11, who left Colonia Nueva Vida, Guatemala when he was seven years old, also feels strongly connected to his country.

“If [immigrants] left behind the people who raised them, the family they knew first, they might always have that ‘I want to go back’ feeling,” Lopez said. “I had that feeling when I was little. I still want to go back.”

He wants to become a U.S. citizen—he currently only has residency—so he can get a well-paying job in law enforcement to support his family members in both the U.S. and Guatemala.

“Ever since I was little, I knew what I was going to do: I was going to do well so I could provide for my family, for my grandma,” Lopez said. “It’s made me more mature, having had to leave my family behind, because it’s forced me to make up my mind and decide I would do anything I could so I could help them when I got older and come back for them. Being away from them made me more determined to do it.”

Mendoza, too, still feels a sense of obligation to her family to make the most of her education. Though she beams when she thinks about it, a genuine, irresistible smile stretching across her face, she said the day she got into Pomona, she cried.

“My mom really misses her family in Guatemala and blames my dad for taking her away from them, but she says the one thing that makes it worthwhile is the fact that I’m going to school here,” she said.

Mendoza recounts memories of her home in Guatemala, which was within walking distance of her grandma’s house, and the prestigious private school she attended. Though her financial situation was actually better there, she does not plan on moving back. Like the others, she finds her identity split between the two countries.

“I grew up in Guatemala, but then I grew up here,” Mendoza said. “You land in this middle spot. It’s like you’re not from either place.”

Now that she has a green card, Mendoza works part-time on campus. She drives home to visit her family every month and smiles at the thought of a career in business entertainment.

Again, she is lucky. Somewhere between 7,000 and 13,000 undocumented immigrants are enrolled in college throughout the U.S., according to the Pew Hispanic Center and the Urban Institute. Forty percent of these live in California. Ultimately, for them, a college degree is not generally enough. Some graduate seeking a naturalization certificate instead of a diploma and a Social Security card instead of a college ID. After painstakingly long years, some get it. Others don’t.

Mendoza leans against the couch with her chin in her palm, eyes fierce with thought as she determines what lesson she has drawn from her experiences.

“Don’t take what you have for granted,” she said. “Everything that we’ve gone through with the immigration process makes me appreciate so much more what I have now.”

In the end, her identity seems more strongly rooted in herself and her family than in any particular country. She is driven, so to speak, by more than personal success.

“I’m here to do something, you know?” Mendoza said. “My parents didn’t move across an entire continent [just] to get me here. I’m here to make something of myself, and I’m not going to settle for being menial. In the end, it’s not only going to be for me; it’s going to be for my family.”

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