Meet Veronica Velasquez, an Undocumented Pilipina-American
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Earlier this week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that 45’s administration will repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy in 6 months if Congress cannot create a formidable solution to protect recipients. This decision has many implications for the 800,000 young undocumented immigrants who benefit from DACA. Why does this matter for the Pilipin@-American community? As of 2015, there are an about 2.1 million Pilipin@ immigrants in the US. The Department of Homeland Security estimates about 310,000 undocumented Pilipin@s, while others speculate there could be as many as 800,000. About 22,000 young Pilipin@-Americans were eligible to apply for DACA, but only some 6,000 applied. This low rate might be attributed to continued fear of disclosing immigration status, unawareness of the program, or a cultural tendency to sweep immigration dialogue (and other issues) under the rug. Nevertheless, undocumented Pilipin@s will be greatly affected by this change in policy. Some may know this segment of our community as TNTs, tagalog for “tago ng tago,” or “in perpetual hiding.”
What is DACA — the TL;DR version
DACA is not a pathway to citizenship, but a limited immigration benefit for those who qualify. There is a lengthy application process that thoroughly vets applicants and must be renewed every 2 years. The application costs $495 each time plus any lawyer fees for help in navigating the process. DACA provides a work permit, a social security card, a driver’s license (in most states), temporary relief from deportation, and a chance to pursue higher education. Recipients pay income taxes, but do not receive federal financial aid for education. They are ineligible to collect welfare benefits from the government.
Supporters can tout the economic benefits or that preserving DACA is simply the right thing to do. Critics may favor following current laws to the T or cite that the policy is unconstitutional. Between ideology, numbers, and statistics, the personal plights of those within the undocumented community can easily slip away.
Kubo sat down with Veronica Velasquez, who you may have heard of when she was denied admission to a graduate program, after the school found out she is a DACA recipient. She shared her story, the cultural struggles of being Pilipin@ and undocumented, and how we can empower ourselves and each other in this increasing hostile political climate.
Describe your childhood and what life was life growing up for you.
I was not born here in the States, obviously. My parents met in Saudi Arabia, actually. My mom was a nurse and then my dad just found a job at the American Embassy. My parents met there and that’s where I was born. I lived there from birth until 5th grade. And then my parents decided on moving the United States because we had a visitor’s visa. Our life got kind of messy in Saudi Arabia so we had to move away… the ultimate goal was the live in the United States. We came when I was about 10 and we stayed at my dad’s sister’s. We overstayed our visas and that’s how we became undocumented.
What did the adjustment look like?
It was a big culture shock. Going from Saudi Arabia, a predominantly Islamic state to here, which is pretty liberal. Back then all women wore abayas and here I could wear anything. The culture was completely different.
When did you find out you about your undocumented status and realize what that meant for you?
Senior year of high school was when it really hit me. That’s typical for a lot of undocumented students because that’s when we start thinking about college. I had these big dreams… UCLA, med school… Everyone tells you to “dream big.” I realized in the application process they were asking for social security, driver’s license… and I thought, “Wait, I actually don’t have any of these.” That’s when my parents told me I wasn’t like everyone else.
How did they explain that to you?
See, that’s the thing. In the Filipino community, we’re all about keeping things hush-hush. I think they had given me clues throughout our time here. When I was 10, they would say, “Don’t tell anyone about our story… when we got here and why.” I never questioned it. It was really senior year that we had a conversation… so I could apply to college. That’s when they said I needed to look for other options. They still wanted me to get an education and wondered, “Is there a way you can go without giving up this information?” It was devastating seeing cousins and friends tell me I’m going to such and such school and I told them I was going to community college. I did this route so I didn’t have to give up as much information.
What did it look like for your to take ownership of your undocumented status?
For a long, long time, it was just me keeping it quiet and being a “normal” college student. When I transferred to Cal State San Bernardino, I began to be more outspoken about it. I got this email from two of my mentors who were looking for undocumented students to have “just a meeting.” They wanted to know about our experiences and see what they could do for us. That’s when I got connected to other undocumented students, which was the first time that’s ever happened in my life. There were people who were unapologetic and for the cause and it inspired me. If I wanted change to happen, I had every ability to. Seeing all these other students empowered me, especially since I had DACA. I had a shield and protection to speak out because that was the promise of DACA — to keep me away from deportation.
What was the dynamic like at home and amongst family members with your decision to be more open about it?
To be honest, I don’t think my parents know how much I do. *laughs* It’s kind of embarrassing. I think it goes with how Filipinos want to be hush-hush. I don’t want any clash at home so I don’t tell them that much about what I do. The biggest thing they knew about was the Loma Linda thing because I had to go public. I don’t tell them how I’m still doing presentations and going out to rallies. My cousins and everyone around my age totally know what’s going on. I’m always posting on my Facebook… they know how involved I am. My aunts, uncles, and parents don’t know as much, so I guess that where the generation thing comes into play.
What was it like to apply for DACA for the first time?
I’m very blessed that my parents have lawyers. My lawyer filed everything on her own and I basically just waited. My other friends are not as privileged and have had to figure out the paperwork on their own and pay the fee. I know that’s really challenging with all this law lingo that any layperson doesn’t understand. My mom works three full-time jobs as a nurse so we can afford the lawyer, stayed informed, and get me to school.
With the current climate, what kind of conversations and preparations are you doing at home?
Like I said, my parents don’t talk about this kind of stuff, unless it’s super necessary. This whole week I’ve kind of been a mess… going on my phone, constantly checking what’s happening… and it’s been hard to focus in school. When my parents call me every night, it’s very superficial. I say, “Everything’s good!” and we don’t talk about it. If it’s a conversation, it’s just about filing new paperwork, not about how we are feeling.
What are some of your current personal and professional pursuits?
I’m a second year doctoral candidate of physical therapy. Other than that, I’m on Lakas Mentorship staff again this year. It’s an outlet for me to stay rooted in my culture. I want to do everything I can to empower and push forward the Filipino community. There isn’t this kind of outlet for me in graduate school, especially in health science. I also stay in touch with the DREAMers Resource and Success Center at Cal State San Bernardino. This coming Saturday, I’ll be doing a presentation for the “DREAMing of Graduate School Conference” on how an undocumented person can get into a healthcare profession.
The women I talked about earlier got together and we started a club and resource center in the student union of Cal State San Bernardino. There was a Pride Center, Women’s Resource Center, Interfaith Center… but there wasn’t a center for undocumented students. And we definitely need a lot of resources to get through college! Basically the center provides resources, emotional support, and a physical space for undocumented students on campus to feel safe and ask questions.
What experiences or people got you to where you are today?
Getting involved in the undocumented community pushed me to this point today. I don’t know who I’d be if I wasn’t this outspoken and involved — definitely a life-changing experience to meet people that understand my experience and have the same fears and anxiety, but also triumphs and accomplishments.
What does your support system look like?
My family. My mom — I tell everyone my mom is my hero. She works three full-time jobs to get me to school. I can’t apply for federal financial aid, so it limits us. I think about her when things get hard and I feel like giving up. She’s never stopped after all these years.
How can allies support you and the undocumented community, especially now?
Talk to your elected representatives! Let them know DACA is an important program. Tell them we need a path to citizenship that isn’t so messed up. Use your voice because we don’t have that privilege to tell people in power that this is what we want. We are here to stay and we are a vital part of society.
What would you like young Pilipin@-Americans to know?
Silence is detrimental to us. I felt freer and more myself when I was open about my status. If we as a community have that openness, we can have more dialogue and create change. At this point, we are so silent and the culture needs to change about immigration issues for Filipinos.
What do you do or where do you go to find joy?
Simple things like self-care! Binge-watching TV shows, hanging out with friends and family. Life can get really busy.
For Allies: As Veronica mentioned, the biggest thing we can do is use our privilege as citizens and permanent residents to give an additional voice to undocumented issues. Don’t know where to start? Check out this helpful list of what allies can do.
Changing the culture at home, starting dialogue with family and friends, and advocating for undocumented issues sounds overwhelming. We must remember to do what we can — there is something within each of our capacities that can foster positive change for undocumented Pilipin@s and the community at large. Keep your ear to the ground, stay engaged, and #DefendDACA.