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Two City High students share their parallel stories of immigration to the United States and give insight into how they let their undocumented status define them
November 13, 2016
As a young child, Lazara Pittman lived in consistent, looming fear. Her family had little food or clothing to spare; she was barred from academic achievement and neglected by peers; there was always a possibility that her parents could be imprisoned or even killed.
“When you’re a little kid, those things matter,” she said.
The year was 1968, and Pittman and her family, citizens of Cuba, were in quiet resistance to Fidel Castro’s communist regime. Steadily, they built up the means—in the form of permission from the Cuban government—to immigrate to the United States to escape further persecution. To do this, her father worked for eight months as a free laborer to the Cuban government in what Pittman describes as the equivalent to a concentration camp while she and her mother waited. When her family seized the opportunity to move to Florida as refugees, Pittman was eight years old. They would all eventually become citizens of the United States.
But Pittman’s childhood of fear was not lost; rather, it is the basis for the empathy that her job, an immigration lawyer, requires today.
“I know what it’s like to live in a place where you’re afraid that your father’s going to be taken away and killed, that your mother is going to be taken away, that the government is going to storm into your house and kill you,” Pittman said.
Her deep rooted understanding is somewhat of a rarity in the practice of immigration law. Pittman described one instance in which a lawyer she worked with suggested that she not consider the cases of many clients. Pittman made the prompt decision not to work with this lawyer anymore.
“We had very different value systems, because I know what it is to live under persecution,” she said.
Pittman came to practice law through a fluid, hierarchical process, with her career beginning as a receptionist at a law firm in Miami at age 17 and culminating in her completion of law school and her subsequent practice of law. She has been working with immigrants since 1977, but, as immigration law has shifted, so has her practice of it. She describes her first clients in Miami as well-to-do, mostly from South America and Europe. Now, she works primarily with low income immigrants.
“[Along with my clients], immigration law has changed a lot [over time],” Pittman said. “You know, it’s really broken.”
Among her clients are families, often with children in elementary or secondary schools.
“Nobody wants to be here illegally,” Pittman said. “So the families come to see how they can all be legalized. They are very concerned for their children that are going to school.”
In 2012, Barack Obama enacted DACA (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) through Executive Order. The new law enabled undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States before their 16th birthday to apply for a work permit, obtain a social security number and a driver’s license. Like many immigrants, her* family saw America as a solaceful place filled with economic opportunity. She, a City High student, is undocumented.
Documentation isn’t a taboo topic for her, but it’s also a topic without much substance in friendly conversation. While her friends know of her not being documented, her classmates don’t–she asserts that there is no need for them to know; it’s not a definitive property of her character.
“The friends I hang out with everyday know [that I am undocumented], but since I just go to school with people it’s not like I’m telling them,” she said.
While she remains mostly unaffected by her undocumented status day-to-day, there are a couple special instances in which she is especially of aware of it.
“When it comes to not everyday things like getting your driver’s license or permit, voting, those things, [being undocumented] can get in the way,” she said.
She is able to work under DACA, and provides money for her family, herself, and her future goal of attending college.
“I think a lot of families or individuals have the motive to come here to have the opportunity to provide for their family and to give their family and themselves a better life,” she said.
Obama has also fought to pass the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act. The act was initially created in the Senate by President Pro-Tempore Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Senator Dick Durbin (D- Illinois), but has not been passed. The act would grant conditional residency provided that the undocumented immigrant proves they arrived before their 16th birthday, graduated high school or have a GED, enrolled in higher education or selective service, and were between the ages of 12-35 at the time the bill is passed. This would be an eventual road to permanent residency. The bill died in the Senate in 2010 after a GOP filibuster; however, some states such as California and Illinois have passed similar acts.
The main goals of both DACA and the DREAM Act are to help children and young adults brought along with their parents at a young to the United States achieve the same academic success as documented students, as well as providing a legal avenue for working. Though this does help many families financially, it does not provide a direct path to citizenship or protect adults and parents from being deported. Pittman sees many cases that involve deportation of a mother or father. A recent case involves an 11 year old boy born in the United States with an undocumented father subject to possible deportation.
“I have to tell you that one of the saddest things I see is what happens to the families, and to the children, when their parents are deported. And those are the hard parts,” Pittman said. “Where I see the kids that or born here, or the kids that are illegal but pretty much Americanized, and all of a sudden they lose their parents. That is the hardest thing.”
Pittman estimates that around 1% of her deportation cases end in success. Despite this, she remains hopeful, her law firm a picture of this: a hectic environment, strewn with documents but also adorned with plants. She’s known for not giving up.
“A lot of times when I talk to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), they say ‘why do you beg so much?’ It’s because I have no law on my side,” Pittman said. “I have no law; I’m always begging the human factor.”
Immigration laws have been hotly contested, and the topic itself has become even more polarizing in the current election. Republican President-Elect Donald Trump first engaged supporters with immigration policies involving the deportation of all of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants and a wall on the border of Mexico and the United States. This rhetoric, though highly improbable, has frightened many of Pittman’s clients.
“Whether it’s my white clients that are married to immigrants, or the children, everybody’s very concerned. We feel like the atomic bomb is going to be dropped on us,” Pittman said. “My biggest problem with him is that he talks about things that are unattainable. How [is he] going to round up everybody? Immigration services probably does suspect a lot of places that have illegal aliens but we do have something called the constitution, so they can’t just come up to you and ask to see your green card.”
Since Trump’s policies have been under constant fire and skepticism from both parties, not all undocumented immigrants feel as threatened.
“I don’t let [Trump’s threat of deportation] bother me, because so many people talk about it. What you have to do in order to do [deport all undocumented immigrants] is just such a long process,” she said. “I’ve lived here for so long that I am not really afraid [of being deported].”
Though she cannot vote, she still believes in the impact of democracy, but does not dwell on the impossibilities due to her undocumented status.
“I feel like so many people think that voting is not important, but I think it is. One vote counts,” she said. “I don’t think that [not being able to vote] bothers me because a lot of my family can’t vote, so they don’t really talk about voting. So, if I could vote, I would vote, but I can’t, so I guess in a way I don’t mind.”
She has learned not to let her circumstance hinder her familiar life, and does not think of it as a barrier, though there are still dreams that aren’t as easily obtainable.
“I try not to let [being undocumented] get in the way,” she said. “I am done with my 4 years of Spanish and I wish I could go to Spain, but obviously I can’t, but I have to accept that myself.”
She and her family are originally from Guerrero, Mexico, and came to America when she was around three years old. Guerrero is infamous for cartel run streets, drug trafficking, and unprecedented violence. Though she does not remember anything about her prior life in Mexico, to other undocumented students, like him*, violence in their own home town is still fresh in their minds.
In his poverty-stricken home country in Central America, simply stepping out into the street induces fear. Mafias and cartels run the streets, threaten businesses and supermarkets to get money, and even kill for cell phones. Corruption runs through the police force and government, leaving its citizens with little outlets for help.
“In my country, [life] is very difficult,” he wrote in a letter in Spanish at the start of his experience with the ELL program. “You will never overcome poverty and you will never achieve your dreams of becoming someone meaningful.”
Instead of living a life of fear, he chose to immigrate to the United States unaccompanied.
“I decided to immigrate because of the delinquency, and so I wouldn’t be afraid of someone being able to kill you or rob you at any corner,” he wrote.
He left his grandma and aunt who raised him, the gritty streets, and the violent life that he has only ever known at 9:30 in the morning. The sky reaching overhead broadcasted a trail of clouds that pointed in the direction of where he was so desperate to go: America.
A treacherous journey ensued through other Central American countries with the same cartel and mafia violence. He recalls being in the same trailer for 17 hours with 67 other immigrants, also desperately searching for opportunity, and only eating once during the ride.
“When we finally arrived in [our next destination], we couldn’t get up because we had cramps for being in a single position for so long,” he wrote.
Trailers became a familiar place for him during the endeavor. He took another strenuous 16 hour ride, but this time, it was spent in hiding.
“They put us where the driver was, and they covered us with sheets so if they were to check the trailer, they would think we were luggage,” he wrote.
Danger lurked outside of car doors as well. They were still nowhere near safety at this part of the journey. He details being turned into a local mafia and staying in a house that kept the mafia’s kidnapping victims held until their ransom had been delivered. 15 days were spent in the house, with only one meal a day.
Ultimately, he made it across the border to find himself in a trailer once again. This time, however, it was a mobile home. Though there was a small comfort of being in U.S. territory, his journey was still far from over, and his final dream of settling in the United States still hung in the balance. After five days of living in the trailer, he and his party were told to move on. They were pointed in the direction of mountains, with only a gallon of water and one backpack of food to support the 83 people now traveling alongside him. They walked during the night, and slept during the day. The trek was to last seven days, however by the fifth day, food was dwindling. Exhaustion, thirst, heat, and hunger were taking a toll.“That’s why I decided to immigrate: to change my life and help my family in [Central America].”
“Little by little the number of people decreased,” he wrote. “They would faint due to hunger and thirst. On the seventh day, only 48 of the 83 people made it.”
He is part of the trend of unaccompanied minors that have immigrated to the United States without any familiar family members or friends alongside them. In just this year alone, 60,000 unaccompanied minors have entered the United States through the Southern border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. There are thousands of similar, harrowing stories; however, his story exhibits a promising future. He was reunited with his mother who has been living in Iowa for quite some time, and is now getting an education, a notion that seemed impossible just a few months ago.
“It was really worth it because I’m studying,” he wrote. “I work as well and I’m helping my family in my country. It has changed my life.”
Laura Lala works with students like him everyday, alongside others with a variety of cultural backgrounds as an ELL (English Language Learners) teacher. Many of the students, however, share commonalities. They share a past that required immense perseverance through violent homelands and rigorous escapes, and a present that presents new challenges, such as fitting in with their new, safe environment.
“You’re now with all these other students who are now interested in Homecoming, and football and all these other things, where [the ELL students] themselves are coming from the standpoint of, ‘Am I going to live to see another day?’ It’s a very different perspective and having to adapt and try and fit in, when they’re coming from very different experiences [is difficult],” Lala said.
As undocumented students get to high school especially, they must more directly face their undocumented status. Privileges that come with citizenship such as a driver’s license, social security number, access to financial aid for postsecondary education, and the right to vote are not readily available for undocumented students. According to Pittman, these differences can, in effect, polarize undocumented students from their documented peers.
“When the kids come [to my law firm], they tell me that they feel as if they are less than the rest because of not being able to get a driver’s license,” Pittman said.
While being undocumented serves as a roadblock for her, she ultimately says it doesn’t define her character or interactions.
“Just like [other students], I can go to school and do my homework and work,” she said. “To me, [being undocumented] is not an obstacle that I feel I have to overcome.”
*Throughout the story, we use pronouns in place of a name as to protect the anonymity of both students referenced.