Widgets Magazine

A dream deferred

The DREAM Act hits especially close to home for Fermín Mendoza '11, an undocumented immigrant living with his family in the United States. (Courtesy of Fermín Mendoza)

Fermín Mendoza ’11 comes from what he calls a “mixed-status family.” His youngest brother was born in the United States and is a citizen by birth. His older sister, a teacher who recently married, is a permanent resident. Meanwhile, Mendoza, his parents and his other brother, a sophomore in college, are not legal residents.

The U.S. Senate’s blockage of the DREAM Act late last year keeps people like Mendoza in legal limbo. The legislation would have provided a path to citizenship for young, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. Its failure leaves Mendoza, a public policy major, looking ahead to future activism, graduation and where he goes from there.

Mendoza was born in Mexico and came to the United States with his family when he was 4 years old, going on to attend middle and high school in Texas. His parents had come to the U.S. on a three-month tourist visa and indefinitely extended their stay. They moved for better job security and to help their children pursue better educations, they emphasized to their son.

Mendoza’s parents told him at an early age that he wasn’t an American citizen, and he was told never to speak about his immigration status because he “did not have papers.” Nonetheless, Mendoza grew up, went to school and got involved in extracurricular activities much like any other American—with his legal status in what felt like the distant background.

“I didn’t feel different at all growing up,” Mendoza said. “I had the same access to public education in the United States. My immigrant identity only pushed me to do better in classes.”

Mendoza considers himself lucky. His father has worked roofing houses for the past 16 years, and his mother recently changed jobs from dry cleaning to house cleaning. They made sure Mendoza and his siblings never worried about finances and that their primary focus was schoolwork.

Mendoza did not want to work a manual-labor job like his parents, which motivated him further to excel in the classroom.

“Even when I started attaining a level of education that was higher than theirs, I still convinced myself that what I was doing was not as hard as what they were doing,” he said about his parents.

Mendoza took his schoolwork seriously and, in middle school, was encouraged to apply to a program for gifted students. The application for the program required documentation of his parents’ income, which, as unauthorized immigrants, they had difficulty providing. His counselors and other administrators at the school were supportive and helped him work around these obstacles, he said. He began to feel more comfortable with his immigration status.

A few years after gaining support from his school, Mendoza felt comfortable opening up to his peers. In 10th grade, several of his projects in school focused on immigration and the DREAM Act. Because his school was 98 percent Latino, many people were familiar and concerned with immigration issues.

“I didn’t see any reason to hide it,” said Mendoza. “I was protected by educators at my school.”

Refining a Worldview

For Mendoza, the transition to Stanford was difficult because he was in a radically different environment. There were fewer Latino students, and he found people here less focused on immigration issues. Insecurities about his immigration status sprung up again. Meanwhile, he wrestled with being gay. He felt different than other Stanford students and hid those parts of his identity from his peers during his freshman year.

But after a fellow student made jokes about undocumented immigrants and pointed out that Mendoza couldn’t vote, Mendoza felt it was time to assert himself against what he felt were ignorant views on immigration at Stanford and nationwide. He tried to be more honest about his background with himself and others.

“I struggled with thinking of myself as a person,” Mendoza said. “What does it mean to be human? People are calling me illegal. I don’t have any rights.”

His sophomore year, he joined the Stanford Immigrants Rights Project, where the DREAM Act became the group’s focus as it facilitated President Hennessy’s public support of the legislation. His junior year, he collaborated with the group to plan Immigration Week, which featured a series of immigrant-rights demonstrations.

Last summer, Mendoza won a Haas Center for Public Service fellowship to work at Educators for Fair Consideration, which works to advance the educations of low-income (and often undocumented) immigrant students. When his fellowship ended, Mendoza was ready to enter his senior year and prepared to fight for the DREAM Act’s passage. After watching the House vote in favor of the bill this fall, he was encouraged.

“It was definitely something new,” Mendoza said. “The DREAM Act had never passed in any chamber of Congress. It was a great symbol of support for undocumented students at the government level.”

But watching the Senate block the bill soon afterward, he realized it was not going to pass.

“I was sitting with my sister and I almost cried,” Mendoza said. “But I had to hold it back.”

Although Mendoza was disappointed, he said the vote was re-energizing and that he and other proponents of the bill couldn’t afford to be pessimistic. He believes there is much more work to be done and feels sad for those less fortunate.

“I am privileged,” he said. “I’m at Stanford. Other people don’t have that as a support.”

Although Mendoza can’t legally work in the United States upon graduation, he aspires to attend law school. His experiences have inspired him to help advance gay rights and immigration reform.

“At the end of it all, I feel really lucky to be who I am,” Mendoza said.

  • Joe

    He sounds like a telented focuse and smart kid. Too bad his folks are not. 98% latino school is probably 98% illegal and 100% free lunches. The dream act does nothing to solve the root problem of illegal immigration and should be deferred until the problem is solved or we just have millions more of these oh so sad tales.

  • john

    I feel sorry for students like this but the DREAM ACT as written was not the answer. Any person illegally in the country who graduated from high school could apply for this “amnesty” and claim they would go to college or the military in the next six years. This would only exacerbate the tidal wave of people around the world who feel they don’t have to respect our borders or our laws.

    Also, what I find offensive is his parents couldn’t document their income which means they are NOT PAYING TAXES, yet the U.S. taxpayer is footing the bill for their children to attend K-12. That is an outrage.

  • jack

    there are more illegal immigrants (2/3) who pay taxes than there are those who do not.

  • HernandezUSA

    A smart kid like this should have no problem adapting to his home country and getting into a local college there, where he can make life better for this people in his country.

    In the mean time we need to focus 100% on our American Citizens (children and unemployed) to help them get ahead in the their education and NOT diverting any taxes and school resources to illegals.

  • Education for all

    Fermin, your work and perserverance are an inspiration! Those leaving such negative comments clearly do not realize the fundamenal injustices of our system. How can we stand to have so much wasted talent in this country? Undocumented students are just as American as any of us, perhaps not in name, but most definetly in spirit. I hope people realize through this article what a privilege it is to be born a citizen of the US and how unfair it is to be denied so many human rights when the “crime” committed was not of your doing.

  • Vincent

    He is already and American in his heart. Keep working hard and your Dreams will come true.Well writtien article.

  • Liz

    Thank you, Fermin, for sharing your story! I admire you for your courage and wish you nothing but the best!

    All disparaging and negative comments only serve to further inspire all those in support of the DREAM Act.

    @HernandezUSA: What do you mean by “his country?” The United States is HIS country. Even though he was not born in the US, Fermin has lived here most of his entire life.

    Despite his young age, Fermin has already demonstrated he has the motivation to succeed and follow his dreams, unlike many students/families who (sadly) don’t take school seriously. We need more students like Fermin, who in spite of the challenges they face, are resilient! And, we need more parents like Fermin’s parents, who love and support their children and instill in them a love for education and achievement, no matter how many obstacles are placed in their childrens’ path. A big hug to you and your parents, Fermin.

    We need to look to the future and ensure that all talented and bright students, like Fermin, have a chance to realize their full potential.

  • SAM

    Reasons American are losing schools and having teacher strikes and other taxes is due to paying illegal immigrations cost. It wont take trillons to deport all illegals. It will take every American to call the cops and have the cops remove them by force. They dont deserve our rights since they dont even want to pay their way to this Country the right way. Try going to their boder and ask their president or government for citizenship…(get it you ask for it) what a joke, no one will give you it because they dont see you as one of them. So while you spend time being tortured in their prisons you will realize America is for free legal Americans period. Stop defending those who spit on who you are daily, and using their kids, exploiting them saying America please feel sorry for my child, they had nothing to do with this..Well tell me when your kid comes home in a body bag by one of these illegal idiots and then you will see why the system should be working harder and forcing these illegals out… Think did your school have all the elective programs like sports, job training etc …no it did not because 600million dollars(LA county alone) per county with illegals are taking that money from welfare and schools so they can sprout more illegal kids. Tell me when you wake up. See that school isn’t even acting American anymore. We are required to learn their language more than we are to learn proper English. Did you know that you cannot fly your American flag in class on your desk. When illegal kids wear every other country flags everyday. What is America coming to when we can’t even show pride in our Red White and Blue. For those who think America should give everyone a chance then why not everyone who support giving these illegal kids a chance put their kids up for adoption and raise the illegals, it’s no different than watching your tax dollars go to the criminals. this is a clear cut case, but some Americans can’t see thru the fog because they are blinded by the children. Stop the exploitation of these kids by forcing their parents and them to return to their own country and apply the right way, so now they can teach their kids like we teach ours to do the right thing. No one hates if all Mexico or Hondurans comes here but they have to do it legally period.

  • Zev

    Stay strong, Fermin. Si se puede!

  • Mark

    Fermin, you’re an incredible guy. There ARE people rooting for your success…and future citizenship!

  • jennifer

    beautiful. you leave tears in my eyes. Fermin, keep it at!!! Thank you for sharing.