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  • The American Dreamers

    I am sitting at a circular wooden table in my university’s student center, checking my phone every couple of minutes for a Facebook Messenger notification. To pass by the time, I stare at the frazzled students walking around me.

    They range from freshmen, who are still getting accustomed to their first month of college, to my fellow seniors, whose anxiety about the future has physically manifested in their heavy eyes. I’m busy empathizing when my phone buzzes and I see a woman walk up to me. It’s Toyosi.

    Even in the bustling activity of the student center, Toyosi’s presence demands attention. Flaunting voluminous curly black hair and resilient eyes, she sits down in front of me.

    Toyosi, who prefers I not use her last name, is a senior studying chemical engineering at The University of Texas at Austin (UT). She is graduating this December. Like many graduating seniors, she worries over finding a job. But unlike most, she may find any job beyond her reach and eventually face deportation.

    Toyosi is a “Dreamer,” a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. In 2012, President Barack Obama signed DACA into effect in order to provide temporary legal status for undocumented children who fit a stringent set of requirements.

    In Toyosi’s case, having DACA meant a pair of successful internships at an oil and gas company and the hope of fulltime employment. However, the now uncertain future of DACA significantly limits her opportunities—and brings on severe personal stress.

    When filling out job applications, she worries about one particular checkbox: the one applicants must check if they cannot work without company sponsorship.

    According to the American Immigration Council, the U.S. government only approves 85,000 work permits each year for “specialty occupations,” a small percentage of the applications they receive. Companies have to prove that the position they are offering cannot be filled by an American citizen or permanent resident. This added burden makes many companies hesitate before making a job offer, since so few work visas are granted.

    “I’m in this place where I wonder, do I tell them if I need sponsorship, or do I say I don’t to have more opportunity to apply for jobs? I can work technically until September of next year”—Toyosi shrugs—“so I’m in this weird limbo where I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

    She pauses for a moment, watching the faces of the students around us. She turns back to me slowly and begins to relate her experience of being black, undocumented, and a student, a narrative she says often gets lost in the national discourse.

    In 1998, Toyosi’s family emigrated from Nigeria to Houston, Texas, because her father wanted to further his education in information technology. At UT, Toyosi has been involved in numerous student organizations, including National Society of Black Engineers, the African Student Organization, and Texas Bluebonnets, a spirit organization.

    “Being in the South, people associate ‘undocumented’ with people coming from Latin and Central America. But a lot of black immigrants immigrate to Texas, and there’s a huge Nigerian population in Houston,” she says.

    Voices of Africa
    Photo courtesy of Toyosi
    Voices of Africa
    Photo courtesy of Toyosi

    Throughout Toyosi’s academic upbringing, being dark-skinned and a woman presented its own set of issues. In elementary school, kids would call her names, like “African booty scratcher.”

    “Back in Nigeria, everyone’s black, so I didn’t have to deal with racism in that way,” Toyosi says. “Even with the Black Lives Matter movement, my parents fell into this respectability politics and being a perfect victim. Like if you do have a run-in with the cops, just don’t do anything.”

    Growing up undocumented, Toyosi did not understand her legal status.

    “I didn’t realize how much it impacted my life until junior and senior year of high school. In junior year, we were taking our PSATs, and for that, you have to put in your social security number. And I didn’t know what that was, and so I told my advisor that I don’t have one—what do I do?” Toyosi laughs. “I didn’t realize that if you don’t have one that means you’re undocumented.”

    Her story brought me back to an earlier conversation, one I had with another undocumented immigrant student. Growing up, Cinthya Zapata could not drive nor get a job like everyone else. She too lacked a social security number.

    When we sat down together, it was surprisingly cool for a September day in Texas. The first thing that struck me about her were her tattoos. She has several, two large ones on her thighs, a couple on her wrists and hands, and others elsewhere.

    Cinthya Zapata
    Photo courtesy of Cinthya Zapata
    Cinthya Zapata
    Photo courtesy of Cinthya Zapata

    I asked Cinthya the meaning of the date on her left wrist. She told me that this was the date of her attempted suicide. 

    When she was two years old, her mom brought her from their hometown in Toluca, Mexico, across the border to Austin, Texas.

    When I asked Cinthya about whether her undocumented status had affected her growing up, she looked at me and nodded. Her mom worked as a nanny in Tarrytown, a higher-income community in Austin, so the families Cinthya was exposed to as a young girl were all in a different socioeconomic ladder.

    “I grew up with the kids and we were best friends. Anything their mom bought for them she would buy for me, but my mom would constantly remind me that we aren’t like them. ‘I can’t give you the same things.’ I grew up thinking, why can’t I be like them?” she explained, smiling humorlessly.

    In high school, before Obama signed DACA into effect, Cinthya dealt with depression and anxiety, making regular attendance at school difficult.  

    “I remember feeling like I didn’t know where I was going to end up. I was struggling with the fact that I was undocumented. I wanted to go to college, but would I even be able to go to college? Like, what’s the point of anything?”

    In junior year, Cinthya jumped from an intersection off a highway overpass, which landed her in the ICU with a broken pelvis. She paused. She took a long look at the tattoo on her wrist.

    “I thought to myself, well, I’m here for a reason. I decided to turn my experience around and see if I could help other people who were dealing with similar experiences. That’s where the social work thing came in,” Cinthya says, grinning.

    Cinthya realized how mental illness carries a stigma, so she got involved with Speak Your Mind Texas, an organization that created a public service announcement on mental illness and eating disorders. She was featured in a commercial in Spanish, which ended up airing on Univision, an American Spanish language broadcast television network.

    “I had this feeling, that, wow! I am making a difference. Even if it’s to a small group of people, it’s still a difference,” Cinthya said. “So kind of the same thing with this whole immigration issue, I’m all about having a voice, speaking up, and humanizing the issue.”

    Cinthya Zapata
    Four-year-old Cinthya with her mom.
    Photo courtesy of Cinthya Zapata

    When Cinthya was seventeen years old, she applied for DACA with her mom’s help.

    “I was mostly excited to work and be financially independent. I was seventeen and I was like, yay! I can pay bills!” Cinthya laughed. “I had this feeling of hope that I hadn’t had really. I would be able to have a social [security number] and have a driver’s license. I couldn’t vote, but I made my cousins vote. I finally felt like I wasn’t just a number.”

    Obama enacted DACA via executive action. About 800,000 immigrants who were children when they arrived in the United States illegally received two-year renewable protections from the program, including last priority deportation status and a social security number.

    Recipients pay taxes but are not eligible for federal assistance programs, such as welfare, food stamps, or FAFSA, federal student aid. The inability to apply for FAFSA precluded both Cinthya and Toyosi from applying for public scholarships or federal school loans. Even many private scholarships require their applicants to retain a permanent resident or citizen status.

    Though the program retains many stringent requirements and limited opportunities for recipients, it has allowed students like Cinthya and Toyosi to pursue their education: Cinthya at Austin Community College and Toyosi at UT. When President Donald Trump repealed DACA on September 5, 2017, the lives of approximately 800,000 recipients—including Cinthya and Toyosi—were at risk. Trump has called on Congress to act, arguing it is up to legislative action to continue this program.

    The tenuous nature of the program has caused mental health struggles for both Cinthya and Toyosi. Cinthya, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder earlier this year, spiraled last November right after the election.

    “I did the thing where I was like, I’m fine, I’m fine. I don’t need help. I’ve been through this before. But this time it was affecting the people around me, like my relationship with my mom and with my girlfriend,” Cinthya explained.

    When Trump made his decision to rescind DACA, Cinthya became hostage to a political and bureaucratic waiting game.

    “It was Fox News that said the Trump administration had made their decision. I was at home, laying on my couch, and before I even looked, I knew, so I just burst out crying,” Cinthya described. “It was this wave of hopelessness.”

    For Toyosi, the progression of the aggressive political rhetoric against immigration has also taken its toll.

    “Even that night [of the election], I cried the whole night. I didn’t go to classes. I was just like, what’s the point? I stayed in bed all week. I felt so defeated,” Toyosi recounts. “I eventually started seeing a counselor through the Counseling and Mental Health Center and focusing more on self-care and my creative side, like sewing clothes.”

    To mitigate the stress, Toyosi began embracing her Nigerian culture through sewing clothes using African fabric. Within the African Student Organization, she is a part of an a cappella group called the Voices of Africa, which sings traditional African songs as well as American songs. Last year, they competed in Texas Revue, UT’s annual talent show, and won. Toyosi had designed and created their outfits.

    Voices of Africa
    The Voices of Africa, dressed in outfits designed by Toyosi.
    Photo courtesy of Toyosi

    Despite a constant fear of uncertainty, both Toyosi and Cinthya state the importance of fighting for their futures in America and correcting misconceptions in the national narrative.

    “When DACA was rescinded, there was all this hype, like ‘oh we can’t let this happen, etc.’ but I feel like it’s died down,” Toyosi says. “We can’t let it because it’s still going and it’s still affecting us.”

    Even the narrative of “Dreamers” creates a division between the “good” illegal immigrants from the “bad.”

    “The way people are phrasing it is, ‘they didn’t come on their own. It’s not their fault. Their parents brought them here,’ so it criminalizes our parents,” Toyosi says, pursing her lips. “You’re trying to disconnect me from my parents. That’s not something we’re going to compromise on.”

    In being Nigerian and Mexican, respectively, Toyosi and Cinthya—along with immigrants all over America—bring the vitality and richness of their cultures and traditions to America.

    Toyosi recently launched her fashion website. Cinthya is working toward her dream of delving into the world of social work to improve psychiatric hospitals.

    “Because I know what it’s like to be in a place like that. It’s awful.”

    The so-called “American Dream” is the ideal that the government should protect each person’s opportunity to pursue their own happiness, regardless of race, gender, or any other categorization. Well, here are our Dreamers, and these are their dreams.

    Laura Zhang is studying neuroscience and Plan II Honors at The University of Texas at Austin. She is a former intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

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