Life beyond the shadows

By Taylor Mullaney

When Erendira Calderon graduated from high school as an undocumented student, she knew she would face an uphill battle to attend a university. Seven years, two states, five colleges, and thousands of dollars later, she is still working on her degree —unfortunately, her story is not unique.  

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Erendira Calderon.

Erendira Calderon packed her car until the back seat and trunk bulged with her belongings, and her old room bore no trace of the formative year she spent living in it. So much had improved when she moved into the back house of that wooden co-op on Piedmont Avenue. She met other students who shared her struggle. She started to feel at home. And yet, here she stood, trying to come up with another plan for what felt like the thousandth time. Her best friend, Stephanie, helped with the last of her things as Erendira prepared to head back to her parents’ house near San Francisco.

When she had arrived in Berkeley a year earlier, she thought maybe this time would be different. She would finally finish. After the years spent working, researching and seeking advice, watching her high school friends move seamlessly through their own college careers, she would finally receive her degree—one that would bear the name of California’s flagship public university, no less—and leave Berkeley to create a more stable life of her own. To be the person her parents could rely on as they aged.

But now, Erendira was leaving without a diploma. She had attended two California community colleges. She deferred admission for a year at the University of California at Berkeley to work two jobs, saving up to pay full out-of-state tuition—a way of financing college that most of Berkeley’s other nearly 26,000 undergraduate students would never have to resort to. At the university, Erendira excelled in her nutritional science classes. For the first time in her life, she focused on her studies full-time. No side job, no one else to take care of. But she couldn’t stay. She would have to adjust again. The financial burden was always too heavy because of her status: “Undocumented.”

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Each year, 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school in the United States and face an uncertain future, often without the ability to work, join the military, or obtain a federal loan in the U.S.

Erendira, 25, has been fighting that battle for seven years and counting. Her family brought her to the U.S. on a temporary visa when she was eight years old. Now living in Chicago, she has joined the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Fearless Undocumented Alliance (FUA), a group that is providing resources to undocumented students and making headlines for their activism.

In April, Loyola University Chicago’s students voted to raise student fees to fund a scholarship for undocumented students who cannot receive state or federal financial aid. Groups like Chicago’s Immigrant Youth Justice League are working to advance undocumented students’ rights, and systems like the City Colleges of Chicago are giving undocumented students more resources than ever before.

Still, student members of FUA remain unsatisfied with university and state policies regarding undocumented students. They have lobbied to support a bill in the Illinois House, HB3528, which they call the Student ACCESS (Access to College and Career Education for Statewide Success) Bill.

If passed, it would loosen requirements so that undocumented students could apply for scholarships, grants, waivers and other financial assistance at Illinois public universities. As written, the bill amends the laws of each Illinois public university so that undocumented students who meet certain requirements—like having attended and graduated from high school in Illinois—would be eligible for “any student aid or benefit funded or administered by the State, State agencies, public institutions, or the University.”

In April, FUA hosted an event called Coming out of the Shadows, where Erendira shared her own experiences. In May, multiple FUA members posed questions to UIC leaders at a Town Hall about the future of the University of Illinois system, prompting UIC President Timothy Killeen to call the alliance “an unstoppable force.”

And on November 11, FUA plans to hold a press conference demanding support for the Student ACCESS Bill, followed by a walk around UIC’s campus called “Walk in My Shoes.” The idea is to help community members understand what undocumented students face.

This is progress, Erendira and other advocates say.

Recent policy shifts, like state “Dream Acts” and the federal policy Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), have opened many doors for undocumented students to attend college in states like Illinois.

But Erendira’s story shows how complicated and difficult their situation can still be.

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Erendira and her mother.

Erendira remembers a point where every day she woke up crying. She lived with family then in the Melrose Park area of Chicago, and despite her aunts’ attempts to console her, her tears would not subside.

The 9-year-old walked down a long, dark staircase each morning, dreading the idea of another day at Rhodes Elementary School. Tears streamed down her face until she boarded the bus, traveling to classes where teachers spoke English all day—except in English as a Second Language class. ESL was her one reprieve. She felt like the two Latina teachers actually understood her. Their faces, she says, are still etched in her memory, because she cannot forget the people who eased that intense feeling of isolation for just a little while.

Erendira’s childhood experience is not unusual, according to Sandra Mattar, Psy.D., chair of the Committee on Ethnic and Minority Affairs of the American Psychological Association.

“These kids live in the shadows,” says Mattar, who specializes in immigration and trauma. “When you leave a country….you leave everything you were used to. And now you’re a stranger, you’re looked at as a stranger….So suddenly they feel discriminated against, they feel that they really are different. And that can cause a lot of anxiety and depression.”

Erendira did not endure the harrowing experience of many undocumented immigrants—dodging immigration officers, making a night-time dash for the border. Mattar says she’s one of the lucky ones. Mattar says she has worked with women who were raped, cheated, and taken advantage of by people as they crossed the border.

Add the difficulty of adapting to a new place, and many immigrants face severe mental health challenges including post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Acculturative stress is getting used to a new language, new food, new sites, new smells…a new order of things,” Mattar says. “Stress can be tremendous, even for people with resources. So you add people who don’t have any resources, and that can be very traumatic.”

Luckily for Erendira, her circumstances improved as she grew older. She became fluent in English, excelled in her classes –especially math—and became friends with a girl who lived in the apartment complex across the street.

“Hey! I’m Stephanie!” the neighbor asked one day. “What’s your name?!”

“Hi…I’m Eren,” Erendira responded, barely audibly.

Stephanie Garces, now 25, remembers Erendira’s timid nature and quiet kindness in those early days. In the coming years, the girls attended the same middle school and became best friends. By high school, both had ambitious dreams about college and their future careers.

The day before she was scheduled to take the ACT her junior year, Erendira sat with her friends eating her usual sandwich and yogurt. They chatted about prom dresses. It was spring, and the dance rapidly approached for Wheaton North High School juniors and seniors. Erendira looked down to check her phone and saw she had a missed call from her mother—strange for the middle of the day.

“Oh god,” she thought. She already knew.

Bringing her phone into the bathroom, Erendira called back her mother, who confirmed her fears. Her dad was in the hospital. His kidneys were failing, and he desperately needed a transplant.

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That phone call changed everything.

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Erendira with her father and brother.

Erendira rushed to the hospital to see her father and help translate. She still took the ACT the next morning. Her father began dialysis, making her mother, who typically worked factory jobs or cleaned houses, the primary breadwinner for the family. Although the law changed as of May 2015, Illinois law in 2007 prohibited Erendira’s dad from receiving a kidney transplant as an undocumented immigrant.

With an unsustainable situation in Illinois, the Calderons moved to California after Erendira graduated high school. There, Erendira’s dad could receive a transplant, and her family could live with her sister, brother-in-law, and their children, who already resided in the Bay Area.

But a new problem emerged: The move uprooted Erendira from the one state where she could qualify for in-state college tuition.

Laws about tuition and financial aid for undocumented students differ from state to state. Just over a decade ago, Illinois passed legislation that enabled undocumented students to receive in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities if they met certain requirements. According to the National Conference on State Legislatures, those laws generally require students to prove that they lived and attended high school in a state for a specific time period (usually 1-4 years) and that they graduated or earned a GED. Students must also sign an affidavit stating an intention to file for legal immigration status. Unlike in Illinois, undocumented students in California can receive state financial aid, if they attended high school in California.

However, Erendira did not qualify because she attended high school in Illinois.

Derek Strain, a Chicago immigration lawyer at Minsky, McCormick & Hallagan, P.C., often deals with DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. For Erendira, DACA is helpful, but it’s no panacea. The policy allows children who entered the U.S. before age 16 to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation.

According to Strain, current state and federal laws are insufficient. “Even DACA does not solve the situation of 12 million people,” Strain says. “It’s just kind of a temporary band aid. For kids…even if they’re able to get a lawful status, they’re facing these problems like tuition …So you may have a very top student that, for financial reasons, they’re just not able to go because they can’t find funding and they can’t access federal loans and things that otherwise would allow them to stay [in school].”

Erendira found herself in precisely that situation. But she researched constantly. She poured over websites about financial aid options and had countless conversations with college advisers. “I never took no for an answer,” she says. “I would always try to figure something out.”

She learned to wait for no one else’s help; if she wanted a better life, she had to take initiative herself. And there had to be a way. Some program, some grant she could use to pay for college. She had to be able to support her parents once her mother retired. That required a solid career, which required a degree. Period. She knew she was capable academically, but with no way to receive federal or state aid and no one to co-sign a private loan, the same barrier remained. It seemed like funding did not exist.

After several months, Erendira constructed a plan. She would audit courses while working, and then she would transfer to community college. In her first three years in California, she attended Ohlone College in Fremont and transferred to Cañada College in Redwood City and then to the College of San Mateo.

Erendira applied to seven California universities. She earned acceptances to five, including UC Berkeley, her dream school.

“Finally!” she thought. “This is it!”

But after consulting advisers, she realized she would still have to pay full out-of-state tuition at Berkeley– A whopping almost $40,000 per year.

She couldn’t stop now. Erendira began working 60 hours a week for an entire year in retail and waiting tables, living at home, to save up enough money to attend. She moved into the co-op on Piedmont in the fall of 2012. Nearly half of the students in the co-op were fellow undocumented students, and she embraced the group.

In November 2014, her father received a kidney transplant, and his health improved. But as the spring semester approached, Erendira knew her reality: She could not keep making tuition payments. Ahead of her stretched an unclear future once again. Stephanie, who had just finished her first year of law school at DePaul University, flew across the country to visit and helped Erendira move out for good.

But once Erendira left Berkeley, something was different. She persisted. She was no longer the bashful little girl Stephanie met nearly a decade earlier. She would figure this out, and when she did, she would speak out. She would somehow provide other kids with more resources than she had been given. No one should have to fight this hard for her own education.

The University of Illinois at Chicago accepted Erendira into its new undergraduate public health program. Finally, she had an epiphany she wished she had earlier: She could move back to Illinois to benefit from attending high school there. The state granted her in-state tuition at its colleges. But even with a less expensive bill, she still needed help. So a physician in California, a close family friend, agreed to co-sign a loan.

“Had it not been for him signing that loan, I wouldn’t be here right now,” she says. In a year, she will walk across the stage to receive a diploma she has spent eight years fighting for.

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Stephanie and her brother led Erendira around the campus the day before classes started. Green grass with concrete paths and a hodgepodge of academic buildings gave Erendira the feeling of being back on a college campus. The Student Center East, the Latino Cultural Center, and the School of Public Health would become her academic home within a few weeks.

Mattar says Erendira’s fierce determination is not uncommon. “America has been founded by immigrants, and we have a short-term memory there, unfortunately,” she says. “These undocumented students, they are very resilient. They have hope. They have optimism, and they are motivated because they want to prove themselves.”

For Erendira, a world that once presented endless obstacles is not so daunting these days. Instead, it has become wide open with possibilities. Last summer, she completed an internship through the University of Michigan at a clinic in southwest Detroit. This fall, she returned to UIC to complete her bachelors degree, and after graduation, she hopes to work in community health for Latino populations. She envisions a time when immigrants have better access to quality health care and education, and she wants to participate in that reform using her public health degree.

The Student ACCESS bill still has not been voted on. Erendira and her peers are busy setting the stage for this week’s press conference and workshop, where they will invite community members to decorate shoes and learn more about being undocumented in the U.S. They see the fight to support undocumented students as having no simple end, but rather it is a long journey. They’re forging ahead.

Update: The bill, now SB2196, was filed on Nov. 10 by State Sen. Iris Y. Martinez and referred to committee.