Coming Out of The Shadows: Students speak openly about being undocumented

By Shanshan Wang
Audio by Ya Zhou

For many years, Tamara Montes De Oca, a senior in communications at Northeastern Illinois University, never told others about her undocumented status.

“I hid it because I never wanted to be treated differently. I wanted to be given the same challenges and opportunities as everyone,” Montes De Oca said. “I don’t want to be excluded from things.”

Still, she could no longer keep that secret. Together with other undocumented students from NEIU and Arrupe College at Loyola University, Montes De Oca declared publicly that she is “undocumented and unafraid” by sharing her personal stories Thursday during the NEIU Coming Out of the Shadows. The event was organized by Undocumented Resilient and Organized (URO), an campus organization assisting the undocumented population about the issues affecting them and their families.

Montes De Oca’s mother escaped domestic violence in Mexico and brought her daughter to the United States when she was eight years old in 2001. The family has been struggling financially since then. To support the family, Montes De Oca’s single mother often had to work two to three jobs.

During the speech, Montes De Oca’s voice choked with emotion when she talked about the hardships her mother endured.

Speaking in public about being undocumented is a big step for Montes De Oca. She hopes to set an example for her brother, now also a university student, by embracing her identity. “My brother is now struggling with the same problems. I just wanna create an environment where he can come out himself and be open about it and not be afraid and [it] not be a big deal,” she said.

Tamara Montes De Oca, a senior in communications at Northeastern Illinois University, shared her story of being undocumented during the Coming Out of The Shadows event. (Ya Zhou/MEDILL)

There are two circumstances when students are categorized as undocumented. One is that they entered the United States without inspection or they entered legally but violated the terms of their status and remained in the United States without proper documentation.

According to the American Immigration Council, there are roughly 1.8 million immigrants in the United States who might be, or might become, eligible for the Obama Administration’s “deferred action” initiative for unauthorized youth who came to the United States as children.

The undocumented youth realized their different status when they could not obtain a driver’s license, apply for financial aid or study abroad. It is tough for them to deal with their identities as undocumented and takes tremendous courage to stand up and speak about it, since they are often stereotyped and criminalized by society at large.

“Growing up, society told me to be ashamed and to be scared about my status and to be scared about telling people about it,” said Carlos Luna, a student from Arrupe College.

Oscar Castro, now a senior at NEIU, said he almost gave up on school because of frustration due to his undocumented status. But now he can talk about it openly and considers coming out the shadows more “powerful”.

“Don’t be ashamed,” Castro said. “This isn’t anything that you chose. I came here when I was six months old and I was not capable of making decisions.”

The event attracted a sizable crowd of spectators. (Ya Zhou/MEDILL)

In Illinois, undocumented students qualify for in-state tuition rates but not for state financial aid like student loans, which creates many financial hurdles for them. Some even have to drop out of school or end up becoming non-traditional students, going through their first semester, then taking the second semester off to work and save money.

Not eligible to apply for financial aid and most scholarships, Montes De Oca, like most undocumented students, has to pay her college tuition herself. Throughout most of her semesters at NEIU, she could not afford textbooks and once even pawned her camera to register for classes. Now she takes five classes while working 35 hours a week in retail.

Overwhelmed by financial burdens and sometimes ashamed of their status, many undocumented students also have to face mental health issues.

The Student ACCESS Bill, if passed, can provide legal authority to four-year public universities in Illinois to dispense financial aid to enrolled undocumented students and allow them access to more grants, scholarships and tuition waivers on a competitive base. “We not asking for charity,” Herrera said in his speech. “We are just asking for equal opportunities.”

URO prepared for the event for two semesters. URO president Mariana Zapata said she persuaded a couple of members to come out and share their story.

“I told them that I understand you don’t like sharing your story, but we have to make our voices heard,” Zapata said. “We talked about the ACCESS bill. We want people to support us. Not a lot of people know that we don’t qualify for state financial aid. We have to create awareness to let people know.”

Photo at top: The undocumented students gathered outside Alumni Hall on NEIU campus for “Coming Out of the Shadows” event Thursday, sharing personal stories and calling for the support of the Student Access Bill. (Ya Zhou/MEDILL)