Lizbeth, 16, is only a junior in high school, but she’s very serious about her future.
She hopes to be a doctor or a nurse, and apply somewhere like Hunter College next year. What does she plan to do over the summer? “Study.” She says she feels “better in school than home” because she likes to learn, and likes to work.
She hopes to save money and amass a fortune someday.
“You don’t invest?” she asks an interviewer with alarm. She has been prepping for the SAT.
She is also an undocumented immigrant, navigating a path towards college and beyond in a political atmosphere where she and her peers are being portrayed by some as existential threats.
And there are concerns even without the specter of a President Trump: the round of raids being conducted by federal immigration authorities.
A long road
Lizbeth was born on a farm in Ecuador. (We’re only using her first name because of her age.)
It was very different from her current home in Queens, she says, particularly given the animals: cows, chickens, rabbits, pigs. When she was 8-years-old her family moved to Spain, where her parents were looking for work.
Her mother did farm work there, and her father worked in construction. When the economy went sour, he went to America in search of a job.
When she was 12, Lizbeth and the rest of her family joined him. They landed at JFK, which was shocking to Lizbeth, she says, because of the noise.
Her family lived for several months in the house of a family friend, she says. They shared a cordoned-off section of the kitchen, and she slept on an inflatable mattress. Her English improved, and when her family moved to their own place in Queens, it felt a little calmer.
Though she adjusted to the city, her immigration status did not change. She has no path to citizenship, and isn’t covered by any of President Barack Obama immigration executive orders because she arrived in 2012.
This puts her in the same category as the other 11 million undocumented immigrants living in a kind of limbo in America — going about their lives, watching over their shoulders for immigration authorities or the possibility of immigration reform.
In January, the Department of Homeland Security announced a round of immigration raids. More raids were announced in March. ICE stresses that these operations will target recent arrivals who had been apprehended at the border, received a deportation order and have no pending appeals.
Though some in New York’s undocumented community fear rumors of widespread raids, most will not be directly targeted. Lizbeth, for example, does not currently face a deportation order.
She says that news reports of the recent raids were disturbing, because they were “too near.” But she continues to go to school, where she says people are aware of her undocumented status and are trying to help her find college scholarships for non-citizens.
City bills passed in 2014 limit NYC agency cooperation with immigration officials, and have helped to assuage concern, though the potential for notice by federal agents is still there — through "collateral arrests," for example. Undocumented individuals around those who had been targeted could potentially be detained too.
Luba Cortes, a youth organizer who has worked with Lizbeth at the advocacy group Make the Road New York, says that Lizbeth and others like her move forward, though their situations can be precarious. “You are already taking a risk going to this country, so you're going to make the most of it — going to school, taking a job, building roots.”
That’s what the Constitution was made for
Lizbeth, who came to Make the Road New York through a school internship, did well there, according to members of the group, and will be staying for a summer internship with a small stipend.
The high school junior says she has become politicized through the group’s social justice programs. She now knows more of her rights as an undocumented immigrant.
She has been paying attention to the 2016 presidential contest, as a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Donald Trump seems “too extremist,” she says. And though he might have the “power to deport 11 million people,” Lizbeth says she has faith in the checks and balances of government that might halt such action. “That’s what the Constitution was made for,” she says.
She’s confident of a future in which she’ll be able to support her parents, who at this point work long hours and she only sees at dinner. She says she’d consider going into the Army if it might help her on the path to citizenship — not necessarily to fight, she says, but because it would give her a precious good: “the opportunity to study.”
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