I’m a freshman at the University of Texas, San Antonio majoring in Politics and Law. Like my classmates, I spend my time studying for foundation courses like math and philosophy, eating in the dining room, or studying by UTSA’s famous Sombrilla Plaza fountain on beautiful spring days. But there’s one big difference between me and most other UTSA students: I won’t be able to work legally after I graduate.
I came to the US from Mexico in 2008. Had I arrived just a year earlier, I would have qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which grants temporary legal authorization to immigrants who came here as children. Because I missed the deadline, I don’t have a social security number, I can’t get a driver’s license in the state of Texas, and I don’t have a work permit or legal status.
Nowadays more and more undocumented students face the same problems. In 2021 a Federal judge here in Texas ruled against the DACA program and stopped all new applications. That means more than 100,000 undocumented immigrants across the country are graduating from high school without any legal authorization or protection every year, including 17,000 from Texas high schools. Many of them will later attend public colleges in Texas, thanks to a 2001 state law signed by former Republican Gov. Rick Perry that extends tuition entitlements in the state to undocumented students if they meet certain requirements. (Unfortunately, this extremely successful policy remains in place is attacked in the State Capitol And in the courts.)
Over today 58,000 undocumented youth in Texas are enrolled at a university. But after graduation, most of us will enter the job market with a four-year degree and limited opportunities.
I was born in Cuernavaca Morelos, Mexico where my father worked as a mechanic and my mother worked in retail. They had made a decent living, but crime was a ubiquitous part of their everyday lives. A gunman once entered the public bus my mother was riding, attacked the driver, demanded jewelry and money from the passengers, and shot a passenger who was trying to call for help. Another time she was physically attacked while walking down the street. When I was 4 years old they decided to leave the home they loved to protect themselves and me.
Legal options for them were limited, either requiring more assets than they possessed, or waiting years for a possible visa that might never materialize. My parents didn’t even know about the possibility of applying for asylum at the border, but this process can also take years and there are no guarantees. So we crossed the Rio Grande near Laredo, Texas – my father went first and my mother and I followed a few months later.
We settled in Austin, where my parents got new jobs—my father a mechanic and small business owner, and my mother a house cleaner and fast food worker. I went to kindergarten and grew up loving school. I knew from a young age that I had no papers, but I didn’t tell many people for fear of deportation to my entire family. My parents were also unable to travel home to visit their families and my father lost his beloved brother and was unable to attend the funeral in Mexico. I have often witnessed my mother being denied jobs that paid better because she was undocumented.
I was connected when I was 12 Breakthrough in Central Texas, a local Texas organization that helps pave the way to and through college for students who are the first in their families to graduate from college. I was later accepted into the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, a top-notch high school with attraction. It wasn’t until my senior year that I really understood what being undocumented meant for my future. As I began looking for internships and part-time jobs, the reality of my situation crumbled. Due to my immigration status, I faced enormous obstacles in achieving my dreams, far greater than those of my peers and friends.
Without a social security number, most grants and loans were off the table. Without a work permit, part-time jobs to pay my tuition were not an option. And what would I do after graduating without the opportunity to work legally? I was devastated when I realized how much this was limiting my future.
This is an unfortunate reality for many undocumented young people and is hurting the US economy. Texas has large labor shortages, particularly in healthcare and education. The country is suffering from a growing shortage of skilled workers with almost a million vacancies in November 2022. There is no point in barring young people like me, who were educated in the American school system and who have graduated from college, from pursuing a career after graduation.
We would happily queue for citizenship or documents if such an option existed. That’s not the case. Even if one of us started a multimillion-dollar company and created jobs for hundreds of Americans, we still wouldn’t have a direct path to citizenship.
Even though I knew all this, I still decided to go to college. My mother often told me, “Knowledge is something you can’t take away from you.” Many teachers also encouraged me to continue my education in hopes that the laws would change or that opportunities would open up for me that I hadn’t had before could see.
Today, I am an advocacy fellow at Breakthrough Central Texas, where I have the opportunity to speak openly about my concerns, sometimes directly with lawmakers during our state legislature. I recently filed a personal statement against it dangerous and inhumane immigration laws promote vigilantism, waste state taxpayers’ money and increase penalties for asylum seekers and refugees. I speak out for immigrant rights and against family separation (my three siblings were born in America, so my family would be torn apart if I or my parents were deported). I also advocate that minorities and undocumented students have better access to higher education, which can still provide valuable skills and contacts regardless of status.
Regardless of my own status, I will not live my life in the shadows. Of course the fear of deportation is still there, but I refuse to live my life in fear. If we don’t speak out about the injustices we face in this country, who will speak for us?
Only Congress can pave the way to citizenship for me and other undocumented youth. This would create a world of opportunities for all of us—opportunities that would ultimately benefit not only us, but ordinary Texans and our state’s economy.
I’m not sure how to build a career given current immigration policies. My dream is to work as a lawyer. In theory, I could go to law school and pass the bar exam, but still not be able to practice. I keep moving forward, even if I can’t see the future ahead of me. I will keep working to find a way to light the way.
Maria Ortega is a graduate student at the University of Texas, San Antonio.
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