What qualifies as American history? I know that in my fourth grade classroom, we read about wigwams, Roanoke, and the Redwood Forest. It was a history crafted along the coastlines, tales intended to fit and fill my image of America.
“If you are born between Maine and California, you are American, and if you are American, you are exceptional.”
Borders are often imagined as geographical truths; they’re depicted in textbooks, maps, and atlases as indisputable and innate. Yet further research reveals that nearly all borders have been drawn. The misconception of nationhood as natural extends beyond geography and seeps into national identity. It is no longer merely borders that are considered inherent and unchanging, but also the identities which arise from within them. It is a short step from conceptual framework to prop up nationalist movements.
Models of White supremacy use a similar logic of inheritance to justify their claims. To be White is to be innately superior, just as to be American is to be innately “first-world” or “civilized.” Given that America is a predominantly White country, the distinction between these two frameworks very quickly becomes blurred, revealing that nationhood, like race, is socially constructed. Deconstructing the myth of natural borders requires a shift in perspective, asking that we tell a history of a nation’s borders rather than merely between them.
This border-centered approach to historical analysis is especially crucial when discussing Trump’s effort to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA was an executive order introduced by the Obama administration to protect DREAMers, Americans who had been brought to this country before the age of 16, by promised access to work permits and protection from deportation. Trump’s decision to rescind DACA is in line with his administration’s larger nationalist agenda. In excluding immigrants from American citizenship, Trump furthers the theory of Americanism is innate—and its correlate, that White is superior.
To better understand the impact of Trump’s agenda for undocumented Americans, I spoke with two students personally affected by the repeal of DACA: Ivanna Guerra Navarro, a second-year from a border-town in Arizona whose family members struggle to get citizenship; and Chris Chang, a second year from Queens, New York who was undocumented until a few months into his first year at Vassar. Below is the podcast I created from these interviews, along with the transcription.
Interview with Ivanna Guerra Navarro
Yase: Do you want to start out with… what’s your name?
Ivanna: I’m Ivanna Guerra, class of 2020, majoring in history.
Yase: I was wondering if you could talk about how the Trump administration’s decision to rescind DACA has affected you, your family, your community?
Ivanna: So, I am an immigrant. I am documented so I’m not a part of the DACA program. But yeah I have a lot of family members who migrated here from Mexico, and they are or were part of the DACA program so it is very important in my family. It has definitely created a change that we didn’t expect. It helped a lot of my cousins, and just overall family, to have an opportunity to keep their lives here in the United States.
My uncles came to the United States because they were looking for financial stability. Somewhere, I guess safer, or just better for their children. So they came from a young age and overstayed their VISA, obviously their VISA expired, and they were now undocumented in the country. They began their school and they continued until their VISA expired, which is usually around high school. One cousin was very devastated, and he just couldn’t continue with high school. He just didn’t see a future for himself, he saw himself having little jobs in Mexico and not being happy in the place he didn’t grow up in because in reality he grew up here in the United States. He didn’t have connections in the country so he wasn’t sure what to do. So he pretty much let himself live day by day, not knowing what he was going to do. Same thing with my other cousins: they were practically prepared to go back to Mexico and they didn’t know the language very well and if they knew it they were afraid of any retaliation or discrimination or prejudice against them because they grew up in the United States so they were really worried and they tried to overstay as much as possible.
Then the bill was passed and that was a very good news for everyone in the family who… we’ve always kept them in our minds. I think it’s a thing in Hispanic cultures or Latin American cultures that your extended family is practically your family, so we see them as brothers and sisters and we were always concerned for them. When 2012 came and we heard that they can stay and that they’re still allowed here we were just very happy, because that meant they were able to get an education and live their lives as just they have been living them since they came here. So it was very important for everyone.
Yase: You mentioned a little bit about the social dynamics of how your cousins would be treated if they were to go to Mexico and how they are treated in America, and I was wondering if you could expand on that more?
Ivanna: So I lived on the border my entire life, and the dynamic between Mexicans and Americans is very hostile. I was never from either place, I feel like I’m still in the limbo. I can’t say I’m American fully and I can’t say that I’m Mexican because I’m not really either/or fully, I’m just in the middle. That’s what it is for Mexicans, I can’t speak for any other group. [My cousins] grew up in the United States they were taught all their lives that they have certain rights including education—there are just a lot more opportunities here in the United States like I know it has its troubles and even today it’s very obvious it’s not a perfect country, but going back to Mexico you see what it really is to be poor or to not have any opportunities to progress. I think if students were to go back at least to Mexico, it would be a culture shock, like it is moving anywhere practically. Things work a lot differently, like there’s no trust to law enforcement, which is probably a common theme in the United States, but it’s most of the time there’s no security—like a burglar could go into your house like everyday and you could have nothing. There’s no opportunity to progress unless you already come from money. Class dynamic is probably the most important issue in Mexico right now, and it’s a huge problem, and there’s no government agency that can really help students or anyone. And then there’s discrimination. Mexican’s are very hostile towards Americans. They’re always like “gringo,” or someone that’s privileged or looks down upon us. There are young people who would go to the to the United States and have these ideas [about] just another way of living that another way of living, and would be like, “Why is this person, privileged, coming here and trying to take over my space.” So that’s something very important to look at.
Yase: I was wondering if you would feel comfortable reading that letter that you wrote? And also if you want to give context, or if you don’t want to give context, to the letter.
Ivanna: I could’ve been a Dreamer it was by slim chance that I was fortunate enough to have a parent that was born in the United States, that made me a natural-born citizen. I have documentation, but I’m not from here—I think I’ve made that very clear. I was born in Mexico, very into Mexico—if anyone goes to Guadalajara, Jalisco, that’s where I’m from. I came here to the United States because my dad and parents recognized that it just was a better place to have children in, it would give me opportunities, and I mean I’m here now, so I think I took advantage of those opportunities that they gave me and that’s why I write today. In the past few days it made me realize I could be someone benefiting from DACA, and just made me think that now I feel lost, and I can’t imagine what other students are feeling. I do have family members that are going through this and I feel the pain and I just wanted to kind of say something, and hopefully give comfort to someone to say you’re not alone, and that there’s people that support you and people that understand you.
This is my letter:
To all Vassar Dreamers:
The past few days must have been days filled with anguish, sadness, anger, anxiety, and confusion. I can only imagine what you are going through, because I am not one of you. I was fortunate enough to come to this country legally, but just because I have the documents to prove that I have a place in this country, it does not mean that I deserve to be here more than you do. Like you, my parents came to this country to give me the opportunity to grow up in a place where education in a basic human necessity and not a privilege. They gave me a life in the “land of the free.” Even if today freedom seems like a myth only told to naïve, little children, I still believe that the United States is a place of freedom. Education, at least, has given us a pathway to freedom. It’s a pathway to improve our lives, for the best, and most importantly, the lives of future generations.
During the last few days, your pathway to eventual prosperity was just taken away from you by an administration that has, day-in and day-out, told you that you do not belong here. It has told you that you are not good enough to have a place in this country, but, as you have read and heard for the last few days, you do belong here.
You are the prime example of what it truly means to be an American and to have lived the American Dream.
Ah, the infamous American Dream that everyone talks about. It is real and you are it. Despite your circumstances and the countless hours you’ve spent in fear of deportation, you’ve managed to get this far. And “this far” is farther than most people, including citizens of this country, have ever been before. Just as you’ve proved that fear cannot stop you from accomplishing anything, I hope that fear and anger fuels resistance against this administration.
MAKE NOISE! I hope that you take this time to heal in whatever way is best for you. Talk and spend time with your family. Grieve with them and come back even stronger from the ashes. Ask questions and take advantage of the support you have. Take the proper measures to ensure your future prosperity, whether that be talking to a lawyer and getting proper documentation in place. If you still have anger and sadness to spare, and you are up to it, go out and protest. This is your land, no matter what a piece a paper says, and you have the right to demand justice.
For everyone documented, be an ally. This means reaching out to your representatives and asking them to stop this. Do not take up the space that DACA/Dreamers desperately need. Instead, be a friend. Be supportive and help in any way you can. As you are documented and do not risk deportation, ALSO MAKE NOISE! Go out and protest (but always be safe).
No one deserves this, far less an innocent group of people who only want a better life.
* * *
Interview with Chris Chang
Yase: So want to start off with an introduction—maybe what your name is, your year, pronouns…
Chris: My name is Chris, I’m a sophomore, and I use he/him/his.
Yase: This podcast is about DACA, and I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how Trump’s announcement to repeal DACA has affected you?
Chris: Sure. I guess in a way it affected me because I used to be what you would call an undocumented student. I came to the U.S. when I was 6 in 2004. It’s been almost 14 years since I’ve been here, but I’ve only received my green card, the status for permanent residency, not even a year ago—October of last year. The 13 years I’ve been here without my green card, 10 of those would be what you would call “illegally,” because my VISA expired. I went through high school undocumented, I applied to college undocumented, I went through the financial aid process undocumented, so I went through the stuff that students are going through who are under DACA. I know what it’s like to both go through the college process, apply, but also to live on campus. Albeit short, I was on this campus 3 months as an undocumented student, so I kind of have some of idea of what it’s like in the past 10 years I’ve been undocumented. It hits home hard because often I think if I didn’t have my Green Card today, where would I stand? I have a lot of friends who I got to know personally because of my status who are under DACA, who are still under DACA or people who are “illegal,” but were denied their green cards or citizenship, so they kind of can’t do anything. It’s scary for me because I often picture myself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t have a Green Card and I worry about the repercussions of it.
Obviously it’s terrible because with the announcement of DACA being repealed, nearly a million people who were under DACA are now under danger of deportation, and the threat becomes even more real because under DACA you had to go through a screening process. You had to give out your address, your name, your email, your phone number, etc. Now the government has all that information and start targeting this people if they desire to do so and it becomes that more dangerous for people. It affected me because I’m someone on this campus who’s been working since last year to get this campus more friendly towards undocumented students, and the biggest first step to do that is just rally people who are undocumented or who have been undocumented or who have family who are undocumented. With the announcement of DACA, it’s becoming a [greater] danger for people to come up and speak that they’re undocumented. It becomes much harder to make such an initiative on campus. The obvious way it affects me is that I have immediate friends and family who are now in danger of deportation, and it’s been rough.
Yase: If you’re comfortable, could you talk a bit more about the lived experience of being an undocumented student for the period that you were?
Chris: Some background first on DACA: It protects minors, right? Who came to the states illegally, because the whole thing states that if you’re a minor came here illegally you do not have any power or knowledge to make the decision on your own, so you’re safe from deportation. That’s very true, because oftentimes what happens is kids from families who travel here become undocumented not because they cross the border illegally or had intentions to become illegal. Oftentimes families come to America to start a new life, a new journey and they come here with the intention to become legal, go through the Green Card process, and they enter here with a VISA. What happens is that they often fall victim to the system that is very broken, very understaffed, and very inefficient. Oftentimes their Green Card process takes a lot longer than their VISA period, so what happens is their VISA runs out but they’re in the process of getting a Green Card so now they’re stuck here. They had two options now: to go back home—but home is where they made it in the U.S. so they can’t go back—or to stay illegally and wait for the Green Card—which is often what the majority does, which is what I and my family did.
So I actually did not know I was “illegal” until high school. All throughout my life I lived a normal life, I was sheltered from it, no one asked about it. In the Common Application I did not have a category to check undocumented, but it wasn’t a concern for me because I didn’t know I was undocumented, right? Obviously I wasn’t a citizen, I had a Korean passport, so I asked my parents, I guess I must be a permanent resident, and if you are one they ask you for your alien number because every Green Card has a number that they’re assigned. So I asked my mom, “Hey what’s my number?” And she was like, “Oh we don’t have one.” I didn’t understand the repercussions of that, so I was like, “Oh what do you mean?” and then in the application it was like put your social security number, and I asked for that, and she was like, “We don’t have one either.” So I remember putting in 10 zeros for that slot because I didn’t have a number. That’s when I realized, wait I’m not in this country “legally,” and that’s when I found out that I’m undocumented.
I didn’t realize how much of a struggle that would be—I figured that out throughout the college process, mostly. For example, students who are undocumented cannot go under most schools as “need-blind,” so for many undocumented students, money becomes a factor in their application, so oftentimes they feel burdened to check that financial aid box or sometimes don’t even check that box, because they’re afraid they might not get in because of their poor financial situations. And oftentimes, not to generalize, but you know people who are undocumented are unfortunate people who work very hard, who are in the lower or middle-class families. And oftentimes they need all the help they can get for college, because college is so expensive. Now you have all these families applying to college who can’t really afford it, but are almost forced to check “I don’t need financial aid” because they’re afraid that it might affect their acceptance process. Which happened to me, like I didn’t check it because I was afraid I might not get into college, which is a very scary thing to do. And it was very tough in that aspect, because I remember I got into these colleges but I realized I can’t or I don’t want to go to these colleges because I wouldn’t be getting aid, and I didn’t want to burden my family of a quarter-million dollars for my education, that was ridiculous.
Actually, when I got into Vassar, I thought I’d be paying full tuition too. But I was very fortunate enough that I received my Green Card early in the year so I was covered for my freshman year and so forth. The reality is that there are students like me who have gone through the process as undocumented students who have pressed the “I don’t need aid” option because they’re scared and are paying incredible amounts of money—which they should not be doing—because they were or are undocumented. There’s a lot of closed doors for these students, and people don’t realize that until they’re actually in their shoes, and I’ve been in the position to experience that and first-hand, it’s just been very rough on the academic portion.
Socially, like I said I was on this campus for a few months as undocumented before my Green Card came through. Socially it’s tough too because there isn’t a space, or rather there wasn’t a space before this whole DACA repeal thing came up for people like me who are or were undocumented, to go. Because while on campuses, while there may be different groups for minorities, for people of color, for people of different orientations, no one is going to stand-up for undocumented students. One, because simply they’re not visible, because no one is going to raise their hand and go, “I’m undocumented.” Being undocumented has never been and I don’t think it ever will be a symbol of pride, obviously. There’s no pluses to it, there’s a terrible connotation for people who are undocumented. It’s just been rough socially because I felt like for a long time, I didn’t belong anywhere. That would be the same no matter what college I attended, because there isn’t enough representation of undocumented students and illegal immigrants in any college campus, and I feel like that’s the same for many people who are undocumented or under DACA: there just simply isn’t a place to go, it just feels like there’s no one supporting us.
I try to hide it, too. For example, because I was undocumented, or more formally by the institution’s language, I did not have a permanent residency card or didn’t have a citizenship, I was considered a “non-domestic student.” My fellow group, whoever was international had a globe on their door, soI was among the many in my fellow group who had the globe, because I had a lot of international kids in my fellow group. I remember the first day I came to school I ripped that globe off the door because I didn’t want to seem different or I didn’t want to seem I was international when I really wasn’t. I felt that the college was putting this identity on me which I wasn’t. They’re calling me a non-domestic student when I’ve lived here for 14 years. That seemed kind of wrong to me and I didn’t like that. There was stuff like that I did to hide my status. The only reason I’m here talking to you know is because I have my Green Card so I’m “safe.” There’s no way I would’ve done this interview or would’ve came out and said, “I’m undocumented” or “I’m under DACA” had I still been like that today, because simply, it’s scary. Even if someone comes out as undocumented or under DACA, there’s no visibility of people who seem to support us, so there’s no environment for us to come out to. It’s been hard, academically and socially, but I’m just glad that with this tragedy comes now, I think, a start to a more responsive environment in not just Vassar but in general.
I want to kill some generalization of illegal immigrants and I say “quote-unquote illegal” because again they’re not illegal by choice, they fall victim. I worked with Luis Inoa a lot last year, unfortunately he’s gone, but I worked with him a lot concerning this issue. He was very passionate also about killing those generalization. So I think in a way it’s my way of continuing his work on Vassar. First thing is that there’s an extreme generalization that most illegal immigrants and undocumented students are of Latino origin, and that is so not true. There is equally as many if not more people who are undocumented students or who are quote-unquote illegal immigrants who are from Asia, South America and Europe. People who look like they were born here, people who look like they were here their entire lives, for all you know they could be undocumented, you don’t know that.
Secondly, I mentioned this before, but we never came with the intention to become illegal. We came here obviously, well the majority of us came here, with the intention to be legal. We came here to start a new life, we came here understanding the application and we all file for the application process. It’s important to realize the majority of people who are undocumented or are “illegal” become illegal after they have been legal in the beginning. That means that they overstay their VISA because they didn’t know how long the process would take, because the process can take anywhere from 2 years to, in my case, 10 years, and you have no foresight on that. Oftentimes they become illegal not by choice.
Other people become illegal because they simply do not have the means to support their pursuit of citizenship or Green Card. It costs a lot of money, you need lawyers. People who are unfamiliar with the English language have a hard time because the application is very thorough and long and entirely in English, full of jargon, so it’s hard to apply in the first place. There’s economic factors, there’s the language barrier that happens, and simply a lack of information for people who come to the states to become legal residents.
It’s a multi-faceted issue that really stems from a broken, inefficient, immigration system we have in the U.S.
That’s one thing I also want to kill, that people don’t cross the border to become illegal. No, oftentimes its regular, lawful people, non-criminals, who come here with the intention to be legal but fall victim to the process and become illegal. Just in general, we’re no different. I’ve lived here for 14 years, I consider myself Korean-American.
I guess more than anything I just want to say that I hope when people take initiative to make campus more friendly for these people, for DACA students and “illegal” immigrants, that they realize these things first, that they become educated first, and, in a way, they also educate others, too. I think what I would most appreciate as someone who has been undocumented is that people get educated, because I think that’s the best step for people to realize, “Oh, people who are undocumented are not how the media portrays,” and I think it’s the first step that people need to take to shed their generalizations about undocumented people. BP