Campus Life in your community

Young, ambitious, and undocumented at MIT

Discussing the complications of immigration and education

7069 undocumented
Jose A. Gomez ’17 is a Course 16 student who grew up in Texas, undocumented. He is part of DreaMIT, a group for undocumented students at MIT.
Christopher A. maynor—The Tech

Jose A. Gomez ’17 recalled sitting down his junior year of high school to contemplate his post-graduation plans. Like many now-undergraduates at the Institute, he had dreamed of applying to MIT for years but felt his chances of actually being able to attend were slim.

For Gomez, however, the largest obstacle he foresaw to getting to MIT had nothing to do with SAT scores, grades, or recommendations — it was actually literally, physically getting to the Institute.

Gomez had lived in McAllen, Texas since his parents immigrated to the U.S. from northern Mexico when he was five. He grew up knowing that he was undocumented, as were many other residents of his border hometown.

But Gomez was trapped indefinitely in the state’s southern tip. A series of U.S. Border Patrol interior checkpoints — permanent traffic stops throughout the southern parts of Texas effectively serving as a second layer of checks to catch undocumented immigrants near border towns — meant that any trip beyond a small region could result in arrest and deportation.

“You’re pretty much living in this bubble of where you can and cannot go… You’re sort of imprisoned within a certain part of the country,” Gomez said. His childhood was spatially confined by the checkpoints — the furthest he traveled during that time was a school field trip to San Antonio.

Gomez had always expected applying to colleges would be difficult, but realized that without the ability to leave his immediate area, let alone a Social Security number, his goals were out of reach. “I was like, ‘What am I going to do? I know where I want to go. I know what I can do… [but] I’m stuck.’ It was one of those hard times when it was just completely out of my control — what I could and could not do — and that’s a horrible place to put any person.”

Everything changed for Gomez when the Obama administration launched the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in the summer of 2012, just before he started his senior year of high school. Though not a law, the administration policy effectively protects accepted undocumented young people from deportation proceedings for two years and allows them to apply for work authorization and Social Security numbers.

No longer having to worry about deportation, which had been a constant fear throughout his childhood, Gomez said that DACA “pretty much… made the bubble go away.” At least now he could travel beyond southern Texas without fearing removal from the U.S.

Gomez considered entering the public university system in Texas (one of the few states which allows undocumented students to receive state financial aid and pay in-state tuition), where his status as a high school valedictorian would have also afforded him a scholarship.

But he also applied to MIT, his dream school. He wrote about his challenges being undocumented in one of his admissions essays and, he said, marked the “international” bubble for lack of an accurate descriptor on the residential status question. Though he still could not apply for federal financial aid through the FAFSA, he was able to apply for aid at MIT through the CSS PROFILE and his parents’ tax returns.

He was accepted, and need-based scholarships from MIT made it more affordable for him to attend than a state school and made his decision to attend the Institute an easy one.

Fighting for change

When Gomez started college, he met other undocumented students at MIT, of whom he said there are “roughly ten.” One of those students, Sofia Campos, is a graduate student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning who has been at the forefront of the national immigration reform movement since her undergraduate years.

Campos had fought for DACA throughout her time at UCLA as a leader of United We Dream, a national youth-led network focused on immigration policy reform and providing equal access to higher education.

Campos, unlike Gomez, did not grow up knowing that she was undocumented. Her family moved to California from Lima, Peru when she was six years old. Shining Path terrorism had left Peru’s economy in turmoil, and her father, a civil engineer, had lost his software business. Her parents knew that they would not be able to keep Campos and her two younger siblings in a good educational environment and therefore decided to take their chances and move to the U.S., settling in Highland Park in Los Angeles.

When she was 17 and in her senior year of high school, Campos tried to apply for federal financial aid through FAFSA. She asked her mom if she had a Social Security number, and her mom told her she did not — her family had overstayed their tourist visas, and she was undocumented. “I didn’t really know what that meant, but the look on her face told me that it was something bad,” Campos said. Her parents had tried to protect her and her younger siblings from the social stigma of being undocumented, but her status suddenly seemed likely to stifle her educational dreams.

Her counselor suggested that she would only be able to afford to go to community college, but her family was determined to send her to UCLA. After her parents used all their savings to pay for her first term, Campos alternated quarters studying and working to save up money for tuition. She took two-hour bus rides from Highland Park to UCLA every day during college and applied to hundreds of scholarships over the years (though many were off-limits to undocumented students). During this time, she found support from groups on campus like IDEAS (Improving Dreams, Equality, Access, and Success).

Throughout her college years, Campos was heavily involved in the Right to Dream campaign that undocumented youth across the country organized for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. They occupied Obama’s headquarters, held civil disobedience actions in Los Angeles and elsewhere, and communicated with both the Democratic and Republican parties.

On June 15, 2012, her UCLA graduation day, DACA was finally passed. Soon after, Campos received her first ID and driver’s license. When she was accepted to MIT for graduate school, her new Social Security number made it much simpler to work out logistics. In the fall of 2013, she began her DUSP studies with a work authorization that allows her to be paid for her research assistantship.

Looking to the future

Campos and Gomez recognize that DACA and MIT have afforded them many opportunities that just years before would have seemed out of reach but say there are still major challenges facing them and other undocumented students and also wish to call attention to other injustices caused by a lack of immigration reform. Campos, Gomez, and other undocumented students are part of DreaMIT, a new student group focused on these goals.

Undocumented students face many unique hardships during college. Getting internships and jobs can be much tougher than for others — most companies require citizenship, permanent residency, or employment authorization. One goal of DreaMIT is to find an advisor at MIT who can help address difficult questions about employment and documentation. “I fall in this gray area and there’s no one I can go to to ask if this is something I can or cannot do,” Gomez said.

Although Gomez has spent virtually his entire life in the U.S., without citizenship or permanent residency he cannot work on the projects he is most interested in at companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and SpaceX. As a Course 16 student, many of the places he would like to work have strict documentation requirements.

Though DACA is incredibly helpful to undocumented students, being accepted is not guaranteed or particularly simple, and those receiving the benefits must reapply every two years. DACA requests and renewals cost $465 each. DreaMIT aims to help guide students applying for DACA grants or renewals, without which undocumented students would not be able to travel or return home without risking deportation.

Gomez also worries about what will happen with DACA when Obama leaves office, since DACA is a temporary measure that only stands as long as the president is in office. Obama’s term ends before Gomez expects to graduate in 2017.

Additionally, since DACA only applies to those under the age of 30, older undocumented immigrants continue to live under precarious legal circumstances. Expansion of DACA has been hotly debated in Congress, but has yet to materialize.

Gomez said, “We want action, because every day that it doesn’t happen, [1,100] people are being deported. You take a thousand people and put a halt to their lives, and say, ‘Nope, it ends right now — you gotta start all over.’”

The choice to move to the US involves a trade-off that parents like Gomez’s often face for the sake of their children. Gomez said, “The region where we lived in northern Mexico is like drug cartel central, so this gave me better odds to live and be educated,” but also said that as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S., “You do the job that you have the opportunity to do, but you can’t do the job that you want to do. It’s a very difficult life for anybody who’s older and undocumented.” His father works as a manager at a car repair business, and like many older immigrants who have lived and worked in the U.S. for years, continues to struggle economically despite working nonstop.

Referring to undocumented agricultural workers, who make up a large portion of those in labor-intensive, low-wage jobs, Gomez added, “We depend on undocumented people, but we don’t want to grant them citizenship.”

In college, Gomez has become increasingly involved in advocacy for both undocumented students and the larger immigration reform movement.

Compared to while he lived in Texas, Gomez says that he feels safer and more empowered talking about his undocumented status at MIT. “People are more willing to listen to an MIT student who’s undocumented — which shouldn’t be the case — but I feel like I have a greater voice because I’m here, and because of that, I should definitely be speaking out more.”

Gomez has shared his undocumented status with friends in his living group in New House, as well as some members of the MIT administration, but said it is not something he has spoken about widely before now. “The fact that people see me as a regular MIT student should continue, because that is exactly what I am. Being undocumented does not make me any different. There’s just more bars on what I can do and more challenges I have to go through.”

In fact, he said, he thinks most MIT students who aren’t from an area with large undocumented populations may not even have a good understanding of what it means to be undocumented.

Campos has been very open about her status as an undocumented student since she first found out. She said, “I think for the most part, people just have never encountered somebody that’s undocumented, knowing so, because it can be an invisible part of our identity. If we choose not to say it, then you don’t have to acknowledge it.”

Daily life as a student at MIT is pretty typical for Gomez — Unified, problem sets, hanging out with friends, intramurals. Though the uncertainty of his future given his undocumented status is perpetually in the back of his mind, Gomez is determined to pursue his educational and career goals while remaining involved in advocacy.

Both Gomez and Campos will be speaking about their paths to MIT at a sold-out screening of the documentary Underwater Dreams (featuring a group of undocumented students as well as several MIT alumni and Edgerton Center staff) tonight, along with Professor Junot Díaz and director Mary Mazzio. Raising awareness about the challenges of undocumented students and their families is just one part of immigration reform, and Gomez and Campos are invested in working toward change with DreaMIT and the wider MIT community.

1 Comment
Anonymous almost 9 years ago

Thanks for sharing your story Jose!