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What It's Like To Be College-Bound And Worried About Your Immigration Status

Larissa Martinez and Mayte Lara Ibarra had just finished their senior year of high school when they each decided to go public with their immigration status.
Chelsea Beck
Larissa Martinez and Mayte Lara Ibarra had just finished their senior year of high school when they each decided to go public with their immigration status.

Mayte Lara Ibarra and Larissa Martinez had just finished their senior year of high school when they each decided to go public with their immigration status. Both Texas students came to the U.S. illegally, and they didn't want to keep that fact a secret any longer.

Ibarra identified herself on Twitter as one of the 65,000 undocumented youth who graduate high school in the U.S. Martinez revealed her status in the commencement speech she delivered at graduation.

Their actions sparked support and pointed criticism. That was more than a month ago.

Now, with the media frenzy behind them, they both say they don't regret the choice they made to speak up.

Next month, Ibarra heads to the University of Texas-Austin and Larissa to Yale University. That's no small feat, considering only about half of the 65,000 undocumented high school graduates go on to higher education. Even fewer end up earning a degree.

The NPR Ed team connected with them via video chat so they could talk about the challenges they're facing on the road to college. Our hour-long conversation touched on a host of issues — including the Supreme Court's ruling on the Obama administration's program to expand Deferred Action for Early Childhood Arrivals and the economic roadblocks facing some who are in the U.S. illegally.

Larissa Martinez: What's been the worst experience you've ever had because you're undocumented, what has been the biggest challenge?

Mayte Lara Ibarra: For me, it's basically seeing my parents struggle because they work long hours, they don't get paid enough, they can't really move up. So seeing that has definitely affected me and made me more motivated. Personally, someone attacking me in person, I haven't really seen it in front of my face. It has happened behind my back because I saw it through social media, but no one's ever said anything to my face.

Martinez: It's interesting to see the dynamic of how it works because most people who have bad things to say, they won't come and say it to your face, they'll hide behind their screen and they'll say it there. I feel like the reason why they do that is because it's so much easier to see people as sub-human when you're not looking them in the eye, when you're not actually thinking this is a human being with a life and a family and a person with dreams whose whole life could be turned around if I keep having this ideology of mine.

Martinez: How did you feel about the decision that came out from the Supreme Court? [A ruling that stalled Obama's immigration actions]

Ibarra: I was really disappointed because I was keeping up with it. And although my parents wouldn't qualify for DACA, I do know some people who would have really benefitted from the DACA expansion.

I remember when DACA came out, and I was 14, and I know you have to be 15, so my mom was always reminding me about how when I turn 15, I have to start applying. I remember telling her, "Oh I don't want to apply. What's the point? " She made me apply, and I learned it entitles me to some things, and I'm secured from deportations, but at the same time, it's not much.

I'm grateful I have it because I know people want to at least have a Social Security number, but it's not what I'm looking for, it's not something that's going to help me too much. I know it's different for a lot of people.

How about you?

Martinez: I don't have it, I don't qualify for it because I came into the country too late, and even with the DACA extension, I still don't qualify and my parents don't qualify for DACA either. Really the [Supreme Court] decision itself didn't impact my life directly, it wasn't going to change either way, but I mean obviously I was disappointed because that's the life of 5 million people who could have felt that sense of security. At the same time it's sort of a false security because [the] next president could come and take it away.

Ibarra: So how are you feeling about tuition?

Martinez: Yale offered me a full ride, which included tuition, room and board, meals, travel. There's a student contribution that everyone's required to pay, but they know I can't work on campus, so I went and talked to them. I went to ask, "Am I going to be able to work?" I just needed to know, and they ended up raising my scholarship to pay for student contribution, so I'm set.

NPR: So that's something a lot of people don't think about, that work study isn't an option for a lot of people?

Martinez: Yeah, it's difficult. They asked me how will you pay for student contribution and I told them my mom said she'd work longer hours, that she'd work more to get the money. Obviously the student contribution is like $5,000 a year, which I mean for the education I'm receiving, it's like nothing in comparison, but it is a burden for my mom. Not a burden in a bad way, but it is a heavy load to put on her because it's just her working. It is difficult because I know she'd be willing to sacrifice that for me, but it's the fact that I have to keep asking for more. I can't do anything for myself, it feels, really, you feel a lot of sense of frustration.

Even though you have DACA, your parents obviously aren't protected. How does that affect the way you think about things?

Ibarra: It makes me a little bit cautious just because I remember when I first tweeted it out, and I saw all the reactions. I didn't tell my mom until like three days later because I figured she'd see it on TV eventually. She was extremely worried, she was so worried, and my mom, she already worries a lot. So when she saw that, she was just freaking out, she was just thinking the worst. "We're going to have to go back to Mexico," so just seeing the worry that my parents have, it makes me cautious to not just say my status to just anyone. At the same time, I shouldn't hide this from someone, like if anything, it doesn't define me, it makes me stronger, it makes me motivated. But seeing them like that, I don't like it, so it makes me feel guilty for coming out.

Martinez: I completely understand, it's a difficult situation to be in because it's like, yeah you're protected, but it's silly. They're not thinking about the fact that, if they were to deport your parents, you're protected, but you're gonna be here with no one. No one really thinks about that. I just don't comprehend how humans cannot feel compassion toward the situation of separating families. I don't understand that. It's sad to think that's the way this world works.

NPR: Do you have extra anxiety about going away to college when a lot of these issues related to your family are still very much up in the air?

Ibarra: My tuition is completely covered, however everything else I would have to pay out of pocket, like room and board. I thought I would be able to make up enough scholarship money, but scholarships in general are really hard to find. I didn't make up as much as I needed so I just thought I'll just live at home. I can't really take out loans or work and I wasn't going to place that burden on my family, you know. I already have another older sister that goes to school and that would just be another thing to worry about.

So I don't have to worry about leaving my parents, but if I do end up living on campus it's only 15, 20 minutes. It will still worry me because I know my parents will worry about me. My mom constantly tells me how worried she is, that people at school are going to know who I am, they're not going to like me, they're going to bully me, and you know, she's just like any other mother.

Martinez: For me, it's different. I'm worried in the sense that I don't have my family right with me. And if something was to happen to them, I can't get there fast enough to do something about it myself. So I mean, it is hard to think, what if they get deported, what am I going to do about it. I feel a bit of guilt of leaving them after revealing this. But at the same time, I'm leaving them with all of the support I have from my friends' family, from family friends we've made over the years. I know there are enough good people that protect them and will watch out for them while I'm not there. The way I see it, if there are people who don't accept me due to my documentation, they're probably people I wouldn't want to be around anyone. But I have realized that most people are interested in knowing more. Like they'll approach me and say, "hey Larissa, can we talk? Can I ask you a couple questions?" And I'm like, sure. It's actually like the opposite. I'm here to help people understand, to show them the other side.

Ibarra: Yeah, definitely. I had orientation just a few weeks ago and I had a lot of people come up to me and ask questions. They were so interested and they're actually supportive. It was just really nice to see how interested people were, and now that they have this information, I can clarify a lot of stereotypes about people like us.

Martinez: What have you learned from this experience? How has it changed the way you view the world?

Ibarra: Good question. It's taught me that sometimes it's really easy to just focus on what you're going through and not think about the other millions of undocumented people. And I had always been like that, I had always just focused on my family, which is normal and okay, but the people that I've met from all of this, that are in the same situation, it definitely made me feel more passion. Kind of a sense of responsibility to help these people or do something that's gonna help them, because the majority of them are adults and they tend to be quiet because they're scared. The last generation was always taught to keep it quiet, never say where you're from, don't mention it. But this new generation definitely has more of a voice, so if anything, it's taught me that I have a voice and I need to use it efficiently so I can help people in the same situation.

Martinez: Since I moved here [the U.S.] when I was 13, I know what life is like in a different country, so I always had this idea of America being this place where everyone would accept you. Where you had an equal chance, an equal opportunity to be someone in life. And I think that slowly as I began seeing issues, and not just toward undocumented immigrants, but issues of inequality toward women, toward minorities, toward a lot of things, I realized this country is far from being perfect. But that's not to say I'm not grateful for everything it's given me, I just realized that there is a lot of change that still needs to happen.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.