Undocumented but Undaunted

Marco Cervantes sits down in the armchair in front of the window, where sunlight is streaming in through crooked blinds. The fake plant beside him, its leaves unnaturally green, brushes his face. He frowns.

“This is bad feng shui,” he says.

He picks up the plant by the pot’s rim, moves it several inches over and turns back to face the group.

Amayrani Calvario, sitting on the couch to his left, laughs, high and airy.

“We were giving parents personalized help, like what grade is your child in, and they would answer, and depending on that response, alright, this is what you need to do, now, and we’d ask them, you know, was your kid born here or was he born outside the country, ” Cruz Núñez, an 18-year-old with spiked hair and an orange T-shirt, explains.

Cruz is talking to a group of peers. They’re all undocumented immigrants, like him, and they’re gathered this week, like every week, for a meeting of the Immigrant Youth Forum, a student-created and -led nonprofit that works with the Hispanic and Latino communities in Orange County and Durham.

Cruz, who graduated from Chapel Hill High School in June, is the group’s research powerhouse. He spends hours trawling the Internet for facts on undocumented immigrants — facts he hands out to Latino parents at events, facts he’s used in speeches. Cruz’s research helps the group with one of its main functions — helping undocumented students and their parents navigate the college admissions process.

The previous week, Cruz and two other group members, both UNC students, set up a table at a Mi Éxito la Universidad, an event at North Carolina Central University to inform Hispanic students and their parents about the college application process.

It’s common to find a handful of members of this group at Latino community events. Some they’ve organized themselves, like a Know Your Rights training at Franklin Street’s St. Thomas More Catholic Church to help Spanish-speaking parents prevent police from taking advantage of the language barrier.

Sometimes they’re elsewhere on Franklin, rallying outside the courthouse with microphones and signs that say things such as “No More Fear” and “Undocumented and Unafraid.”

Or sometimes they’re in Raleigh, waiting outside offices with their backpacks on for hours just to talk immigration policy for a few minutes with legislators as they pass.

And now? It’s a little after 1 p.m. on a Saturday in Carrboro’s Lloyd Street Office Center, and the weekly meeting is about to be in session.

Called IYF — or simply, “group” by its members — the Immigrant Youth Forum is the self-made offspring of El Centro Hispano, a nonprofit that works with Hispanic and Latino communities in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Durham. El Centro’s youth programs, which focused on issues such as gang violence, didn’t quite fit the Latino youth of Chapel Hill.

They didn’t quite fit kids such as Marco, who was, in his words, the only brown kid taking math classes at his own grade level throughout elementary school — other kids were performing below grade level — and would grow up to take honors and AP classes in high school.

He’d think seriously about going to college, becoming, if he made it, part of the 5 percent to 10 percent of undocumented high school graduates in the United States who continue their education.

“There he is,” says Marco, as the door swings open. José Santoyo, a tall and soft-spoken high school sophomore with a Chapel Hill High T-shirt and two fingers in a splint, enters.

“You made it!” Amayrani says, beaming.

“I wanna test out an ice-breaker that I came up with like two days ago,” Marco says.

“Nuh-uh,” Cruz says, amused.

“Yeah, test it out, see where it goes,” Marco answers.

Marco’s tone is only half-serious, but there’s a good chance he’s going to put that ice-breaker to work at the group’s next events — Latino Parent Nights at two local high schools.

“Sup José?”

“What’s good, Cruz?” José answers, taking a seat in the corner.

“What’s up, man?” says Marco. “I didn’t see you on the way over here, dude.”

“I went through the back of the woods.”

“The back of the woods? Oh, O.K.,” Marco says, nodding, as Amayrani laughs. “At least you’re here.”

Cruz Núñez, Juan Jesus Gasca and Ulises Perez chat as the meeting wraps up. Photo by Johanna Ferebee

Cruz Núñez, Juan Jesus Gasca and Ulises Perez chat as the meeting wraps up. Photo by Johanna Ferebee

When Marco and a few friends realized an organization created to support them wasn’t aiming as high as they were, they decided to start their own. Their aim was to help other undocumented students with the same things they struggled through. Most of these challenges were applications — for college, for work permits, for driver’s licenses.

They pulled in classmates and kids such as Cruz, who saw group members speak at an event at a Latino parent meeting. This was in 2011, the summer before Marco’s senior year of high school. Now, the group has a core of about 10 active members. Most were in high school when they joined; some, such as Marco and Cruz, have graduated and are trying to recruit new high schoolers.

Marco, 20, is the leader and the oldest member.

He’d gone to school in Chapel Hill since he was 4. As a junior, like most other Chapel Hill High School students, he started thinking about what would come after.

When he approached his counselor, it was the first time he’d talked with anyone about college. He started asking questions: Where could he get in? How would he afford it?

She told him that because of his immigration status — he was born in Mexico — he would have to apply as an international student. He’d always gotten good grades, but he imagined himself working to compete against applicants from places such as Germany and having to pay out-of-state tuition, a steep price triple what his UNC-bound classmates would pay.

But all of his memories took place in Chapel Hill. His status as a foreigner, he felt, didn’t add up.

An hour earlier, messages pinged into the IYF’s Facebook group chat, titled “Down to boosie-ness.” “Who can make it today?” Marco asked.

“Does anyone need a ride?”

“Who has the key?”

Now, other members drift in. Madison Bennett, a senior at Durham’s Carolina Friends School, stands in the doorway for a few seconds to survey the room before taking off her aviator sunglasses and picking a seat next to Cruz. Ulises Perez, a 19-year-old with thick-rimmed glasses and a fresh yinyang tattoo on his wrist, takes a seat next to José. Erika Franco Quiroz, who goes by her middle name, Rubi, comes in with her younger and taller brother, Alberto, and shares the couch with Amayrani.

Rubi flips open her laptop and squeals — Real Madrid is winning, 3-1. She and Amayrani look at Google images of Cristiano Ronaldo on the screen, laughing.

The room fills with chatter: who’s going to take meeting notes, Jose’s latest football injury, the billboards protesting Kay Hagan’s lack of support for immigrants.

“Did you hear, she kind of responded to that,” Marco says.

“What’d she say?” Rubi and Amayrani ask in unison, suddenly focused.

“She basically just said we’re friends.”

Rubi shrieks. Others are laughing.

“What, no we’re not!” Rubi exclaims. “I hate her, oh my gosh! I literally hate her with a passion. Like she’s — what, no we’re not friends. I will tell her that, like no, we are not friends.”

Her hands are shaking.

Cruz calmly lists the causes of the group’s discontent with the North Carolina senator, who previously served in the state legislature. The first strike, he says, was when she voted to take away driver’s license privileges for undocumented immigrants in 2006.

Marco remembers being a junior in high school and hearing the announcement for drivers’ education classes in homeroom, but knowing it wasn’t worth it if he couldn’t get his license at the end like his friends would.

Thanks to a 2012 law, undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children can get licenses marked with their unlawful status. Cruz’s parents, like other group members’, have been driving illegally for years.

Hagan also voted against the DREAM Act, which gives undocumented students in-state tuition at public colleges, in 2010. This year, she said no to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program which protects undocumented young adults from deportation.

“She’s always doing something, like every four years,” Cruz says, rubbing his hands. “She says she’s a Democrat, but she’s doing all these anti-immigrant movements.” He shakes his head.

At the time of the meeting, midterm elections are a little over a week away. Being undocumented, none of the group members can vote, but they try to make their voices heard in other ways. They’ve marched and rallied on Franklin Street; they’ve lobbied legislators in Raleigh.

Mostly, they reach out to other Latino students and their families — helping them apply for drivers’ licenses, leading Know Your Rights trainings to avoid police discrimination. Many of them advise college applicants, hoping to keep others from feeling as lost as Marco and Rubi did, not so long ago.

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Rubi, with a swinging ponytail and mouthful of quick replies, is always in motion, like she hasn’t stopped once since her junior year of high school. Back then, she was an East Chapel Hill High School cheerleading captain getting As in her three Advanced Placement classes. She ran an after-school tutoring club and worked as many hours as she could at a restaurant in between, with long shifts on the weekends. She barely slept.

Her friends and her mom tried to reassure her — Oh, look at you, you’re gonna get in wherever you want, they told her. It’s not going to be a problem.

She knew she would get in somewhere — whether it was UNC, where she would be considered for admission as an out-of-state student, or one of the private colleges she applied to. But what good would it do? She wouldn’t be able to pay those out-of-state or private-school fees without a hefty scholarship. She hoped everything she did would pay off, but nothing was guaranteed.

It made her sad to know that someone working as hard as she was could still be afraid.

Her parents brought her and her two younger siblings from Mexico when she was 6, driving through the Texas desert with fake Visas and staying at the home of a “coyote,” someone who helps immigrants cross the border for a fee.

Now, she’s a UNC freshman on a full scholarship.

Neither UNC nor Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools track the number of undocumented students enrolled. Last spring, now-senior Emilio Vicente drew national attention to UNC’s small undocumented student population when he ran for student body president.

Rubi and Emilio are success stories, but they’re exceptions. Cruz was denied from UNC when admissions said they couldn’t take another undocumented student. Other group members have opted to work instead. These days, Marco, who chose not to apply to college because of the cost, spends much of his time on 8-foot ladders running Internet cables for his job with a small network service business. Cruz and Ulises work at Vin Rouge, a French restaurant in Durham.

“Does anyone wanna play soccer at four?” Rubi asks at the Saturday meeting. “Our team is kinda short.”

The Carrboro community nonprofit Volunteers for Youth provides the group with funding and a place to meet — a boxy brick office building down the street from Cat’s Cradle — but IYF sets its own agenda. Group members decide what they do and how they do it, and each member has a role.

Ulises helps undocumented students fill out their DACA applications. DACA, an Obama administration policy adopted in June 2012, allows people who immigrated to the United States before they were 16 years old to stay in the country without becoming citizens. It doesn’t give them lawful status, but it protects them from deportation for three years.

It takes 16 years to become a United States citizen, so DACA is what many undocumented immigrants rely on. It gives them a Social Security number and allows them to work.

With his executive actions on Nov. 20, President Barack Obama expanded DACA’s protection from two years to three. He also gave DACA-like protections to parents of United States citizens — but since the group members were born outside the country, that doesn’t help their families.

Their parents have International Taxpayer Identification Numbers — ITINs — which they use to pay income taxes. But without Social Security numbers, they can’t get money back or receive benefits.

They work low-income jobs at small businesses that don’t use eVerify, an Internet service that allows employers to check the eligibility of their employees to work in the United States. Rubi’s father is working to become a co-manager at a small restaurant.

This spring, Rubi will pay $500 to renew her DACA status.

Alberto, a East Chapel Hill High junior, is talking to school administrators to set up a Latino parent nights. Jose is doing the same thing at Chapel Hill High.

Marco, with help from Cruz and Jose, is working on a piece of Spoken Word poetry about why families immigrate to the United States.

“I can make you guys a beat,” Rubi says, laughing.

Marco and Rubi’s parents, like thousands of others, came to the States for similar reasons — the promise of work for them, of opportunities for their families.

Rubi remembers sleeping under the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling of the “coyote’s” home.

Now, she’s studying communications at UNC, which she hopes will help her achieve her goal of working with hospitals and helping undocumented immigrants get the medical care they need.

Amayrani is in her second year on the pre-med track at Durham Technical Community College. Next year, she wants to transfer to UNC, then go to medical school in California — where, unlike North Carolina, she’ll be able to get a professional license to practice medicine and become a doctor.

And Marco? He’s pretty sure college isn’t in his future, or at least not a four-year institution. But he wants to get more high school students involved in the group, and help as many people as he can get to where he couldn’t.

“They’re taking leadership, they’re taking the responsibility of trying to make their community better,” he says. “The time I didn’t spend in school wasn’t badly spent because I was with them.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the amount that Rubi Quiroz will pay to renew her DACA status. She will pay $500. It also incorrectly reported the year a law was passed that allowed undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children could get driver’s licenses marked with their unlawful status. That was passed in 2012. The story has been amended to reflect these changes.