Arianna Salgado was only six years old when her mother illegally brought her and her then two-year-old brother to Chicago from Mexico. "We came alone with my mom looking for a better future and better opportunities than the ones we had in Mexico," says Salgado, who is now 19. "Education was most important for my mom. She wanted to provide the best education, and she figured that bringing us to the U.S. would help."
Salgado is one of approximately 800,000 undocumented youth who would benefit from President Obama's recent announcement that young Dream Act-eligible immigrants would be allowed to stay in the United States without fear of deportation. Young people who came to the U.S. as children and grew up here will be allowed to apply for work permits even if the Dream Act, a bill that has never passed the Senate, never comes to fruition.
When President Obama made the announcement on June 15, he said of these young people (who have been dubbed DREAMers):
These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they're friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper. They were brought to this country by their parents -- sometimes even as infants -- and often have no idea that they're undocumented until they apply for a job or a driver's license, or a college scholarship.
Obama's words hit home for Arianna Salgado. The Salgado family eventually ended up in Melrose Park, a suburb of Chicago, where Salgado's mother found a factory job and enrolled her children in public school. From a young age, Salgado says she knew she shouldn't talk much about her status in the States. "My mom always made sure we did our best in school no matter what—she said it was important and that it was going to benefit our future," she says. "But at the same time, she would say we're undocumented and that we shouldn't tell a lot of people."
I hit a point where I almost gave up. I thought if I couldn't continue with education after high school, why keep going?
Salgado, a little girl who loved English and history, grew up working hard in school and fulfilling her mother's dreams of a child who would excel in her studies. She was little affected by the fact that she was undocumented, but that quickly changed when she reached high school. The first time she was confronted with this reality was her sophomore year in driver's ed class when she was asked for her social security number so she could apply for a driving permit. "I got nervous and didn't know what to write down," she says. Unlike her fellow students, Salgado could not follow through and get a driver's license.
The next hurdle was taking college tests and filling out preliminary college applications—all asking for her social security number. "I was starting to understand the difficulties I would have," she says, adding that this was a time of immense frustration. "I hit a point where I almost gave up. I thought if I couldn't continue with education after high school, why keep going?"
Fortunately, her mother sought help from various community groups that offered help to young people dealing with similar problems. Salgado eventually met a mentor and started feeling more comfortable confiding in her counselors and friends. Her junior year, she "came out," and even attended her first undocumented youth rally.
"It was great," she says, of meeting other DREAMers who have been a significant activist force leading up to Obama's announcement. "I got to listen to the stories of undocumented youth, talk about the issues with others like me, and finally learn that I'm not the only one. Before my junior year, I didn't know anyone else who was undocumented. After that, I started talking about my status and even meeting other undocumented youths in my own high school."
Salgado felt less alone after she started working with other young people who were facing the same problems. She joined two youth organizations that help young undocumented people—P.A.S.O (West Suburban Action Project) and Nuestra Voz. The other members buoyed her up, even when her high school counselors said there was no hope for her to go to college because of the difficulties obtaining financial aid without legal status. Salgado eventually realized she had to pursue her dream of higher education on her own, without the guidance most American kids receive prior to applying for college.
"I basically started doing my own research," Salgado says. She sent in applications to colleges and made appointments to speak candidly with administrators, especially those that other undocumented youths had recommended. Eventually, Salgado won a $20,000 scholarship to Dominican University in Illinois, a private school. (She says private colleges were more open to awarding her aid because they do not receive funding from the government.)
Today, Salgado is a college sophomore majoring in history. She hopes some day to become a professor. In addition to her studies, she works a steady job, although she is not willing to share the name of it for fear of getting her employer in trouble. She has never been able to get a driver's license.
Her undocumented younger brother is now 15, and she hopes President Obama's announcement will help him avoid some of the hurdles she faced getting into college. "It would be great if my brother could get financial aid," she says. "I'd be so happy my brother could have that opportunity."
It's a good thing, but it leaves out a lot of people, the same as with the Dream Act.
The announcement will allow DREAMers who arrived here under the age of 16, who have been here for five years and who are under the age of 30, to apply for deferred status for two years with the possibility of renewal. It does not promise legal status at any point, but for now, at least, it's something.
"The way I think about it is, if the announcement goes through, it is a good first step," Salgado says. "The other undocumented youth and I are just thinking this is great, but we should keep our guard up. Before we start celebrating too much, we need to make sure this is something that will happen. It's a good thing, but it leaves out a lot of people, the same as with the Dream Act."
She says she wishes the Dream Act would pass because legislation, of course, is far more final than an announcement. "We're not going to stop organizing. We will keep working for something that will benefit our communities, our parents and our friends. [Legislation] would be great for all of us."
Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and Forbes.com about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.