Born in Santa Ana Maya, Michoacán, Mexico
Came to Santa Paula undocumented at 4 years old in 1992
Undocumented from 1992 to 2015
Green card/permanent resident through spouse sponsor in 2015
Initiated Dreamers without Borders in Ventura County in 2008
B.A. in Spanish at CLU 
Former executive director for CLUE-VC
Independent consultant in Westlake Village

My parents made the difficult decision to move to California when my father’s accounting job was threatened by dirty politics. After a local election, the incoming mayor would be cleaning out city hall positions to fill them with friends and relatives. My father’s impending unemployment, combined with job scarcity, and my mother’s delicate health after three life-threatening pregnancies meant that my parents would soon find it extremely difficult to feed our little family. With the help of my maternal grandparents and without much time to prepare, I made my way to Santa Paula with my mother and 1-year-old sister. We crossed the border in Tijuana. My father stayed behind two more months to get his affairs in order and to say painful goodbyes to his entire family and lifelong friends before joining us. We were very lucky to have a support system and a place to rest as soon as we arrived. Everything was different, including the food, but there was no time to sit with doubts about our new life. We had to quickly integrate. I started kindergarten immediately, my father went to work in farm labor and my mother was suddenly responsible for a crowded household of 12. There was never a quiet place to do homework but I cherish memories of living in a full house. 

Juana, 3, in Santa Ana Maya, Mexico.

From Day 1, my mother made me memorize our address, our phone number, our family’s contact information and especially well-rehearsed answers to questions about my nationality and recent history. There were pop quizzes throughout the day. She taught me only to trust family and how to be aware of law enforcement and immigration officers. While she meant these to be lessons in safety, I inadvertently developed a deep-seated fear and suspicion of everyone around me. The feeling extended beyond uniformed authority figures to my neighbors, beloved teachers, classmates and friends. I did very little talking to avoid drawing attention to myself or I would otherwise stick to my rehearsed narrative. I became comfortable with lying about my identity and the more I lied, the more I believed my false persona to be true. It consequently drew me away from being able to accept myself. I was already experiencing an identity crisis in elementary school and, at the time, I didn’t understand that I had not committed any crime by living in the U.S. without legal status. My inability to understand this fact fostered more difficult feelings — guilt, shame, confusion, and more guilt.

I thought it best to focus all my energy on school in the hopes of making my parents proud and earning my place as a “worthy American.” I had a great academic experience throughout elementary school. I started the G.A.T.E. program in second grade, band in fourth grade, transitioned well into honors courses in middle school and high school. I filed an appeal for my release from the Santa Paula High School District and presented my case for admission into the Ventura Unified School District in order to finish my last two years of secondary education at Foothill Tech. By then, I realized that academic merit and heartfelt service to my community would not be enough to earn me the opportunity to change my legal status. Still, I tried my best, struggling against undiagnosed learning disabilities and being careful not to get too close to anyone who could be a potential threat to the safety and unity of my family. This was an extreme period of isolation and hopelessness as I feared facing the world as an adult without the ability to be legally employed or drive a car and lacking knowledge of DREAMer resources.

I started at Cal Lutheran University in 2005 . However, my second year was horribly tainted by disappointment when I learned that my undocumented status prevented me from taking the CBEST and the CSET tests to become a teacher. It was my dream to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps as an educator. Up to that point, I had convinced myself that immigration law was reasonable. I was determined to work hard with the expectation of being rewarded with permanent legal status or at least a work permit to create a fulfilling career and provide for my family. I didn’t hold that opinion for long. When I reached graduation day in three years, my Spanish degree wasn’t satisfying because I achieved it by default — I wanted to graduate with a bachelor’s degree as quickly as possible and avoid further college loan debt, so I upgraded Spanish from my minor to my major course of study. In the end, any subtle happiness I could have felt as a first-generation college graduate was taken hostage by anxiety as I soon embarked on the next phase of the unknown.

It took almost eight months to find a job, and the jobs I took were in Oxnard factories and food plants. It was frustrating not to be able to use my education or develop a professional career. Worse yet, it was infuriating to witness first-hand the wage injustice, discriminatory treatment and labor law violations to which my co-workers were subjected — my co-workers, my friends, who worked so hard to support their families, who never complained, never missed a day of work, and who had far less privilege than I did even though they were undocumented just like me. Throughout this time in the factories, I led a second life volunteering for local community groups and nonprofit organizations. I remember sleeping an average of four hours a night, making a mad dash to start my factory shift at 7 a.m., leaving work as quickly as possible to start the real work in my volunteering capacity, chauffeuring my friends and fellow DREAMers to events and meetings, making a quick pit stop at home in Santa Paula, and teaching adult ESL in Santa Paula before finally returning home to eat, catch up on emails and volunteer assignments and prepare for the following day. I was so happy again. Eventually, my work with CLUE-VC led to a paid position as a contracted community organizer. Years later, I served as the full-time executive director — a position I was able to accept thanks to the work permit I received through DACA.

The invaluable relationships I had the privilege of building in my community taught me to shake off any last bit of fear and shame. Immigrants just like me are here to live honestly, work hard and make vital contributions to the U.S. culture and economy. Unfortunately, the immigration system is not founded on much logic or respect for human life nor does it offer any “line” for us to stand in to “wait our turn.” Visa quotas, for example, are abundantly available for preferred countries with little demand and scarcely available for other countries with a greater number of citizens needing to migrate. Eurocentric favoritism plays a leading role rather than economic and political factors. A path toward legalization most often is unreasonably long, expensive, and without guarantee of the final outcome. Applying for lawful entry from your home country could mean having to wait decades before your application is even considered. The entire immigration system is in need of reform but our current administration calls for the unjustified, indiscriminate persecution of immigrants and encourages the further promulgation of false information when it should really be seeking just and humane solutions. Certain safeguards such as prosecutorial discretion, DACA and DAPA should be secured in place until that is accomplished.