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Here’s What it Looks Like to Grow Up Undocumented in America

Jessica Colotl and her mom
Jessica Colotl and her mom
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June 1, 2017

Jessica Colotl came to the United States from Mexico with her family when she was 11 and grew up undocumented in the U.S. She was arrested in 2010 for driving without a license on her college campus near Atlanta and threatened with deportation. But when the national media reported her story, she was freed from the immigration detention facility. Instantly, Jessica became the face for the movement for status for undocumented young people.

In June 2012, President Obama created a new program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA, to help young undocumented people like Jessica live and work in the U.S. She graduated from college and began work as a paralegal in an immigration law firm. Nothing about Jessica’s situation has changed, but the Trump administration just revoked her DACA. We are fighting for Jessica and the 750,000 young people living with DACA.

Jessica Colotl as a child with family at a birthday party

This is a picture of me at a family birthday party not long after we got to Atlanta. I’m the second one from right, standing up. I came to Atlanta when I was 11, and at first, I didn’t understand there was something different about my family’s status. I just noticed that my dad, who had been a truck driver in Mexico, was nervous about driving and getting stopped. Later, my parents told me it was because he didn’t have a Social Security number.

Jessica with a friend in middle school

Here’s a picture of me in the school yard with one of my friends in middle school. I felt like every other kid in school. I had no understanding whatsoever of what it meant to be without status.

Jessica at a bowling alley

This picture is right after I graduated from high school, at a bowling alley with a group of close friends. I was really bad at bowling, so I just sat and watched. I had figured out I was undocumented during the process of applying to college. Being undocumented was one of those things you don’t really share, even with your friends, unless you know for sure they are, too. I told one of my closest friends when I found out she was also undocumented. She was really smart, and she wanted so badly to go to college, but she couldn’t afford to pay for it without financial aid. I was the only one of this close group of friends to go to college.

Jessica Colotl and her mom

This is me and my mother at a surprise party she threw for me when I turned 20. My mom organized the whole thing: She invited our relatives, made a cake, decorated the place. When I walked in the door, they all jumped out and yelled, “Sorpresa!” I started laughing. My mom is an incredible, hard-working woman — she’s my role model. She’s the type of person who says, “If you’re going to do something, do it with passion, put your heart in whatever it is that you’re doing.”

Jessica being interviewed on CNN

After I was arrested for driving without a license in 2010, I was held in an immigration detention facility in Alabama. One day I was watching TV there when I saw my face on CNN. A few days later, after more than a month in detention, I was released. A movement was growing and pressing for a solution for people like me, who came to the U.S. as kids and grew up with no legal status. When President Obama created DACA in 2012, I told reporters and the world why this program is so important.

Jessica and family at her college graduation

When I graduated from college, my family, including my aunt and uncle and cousins, came to the ceremony to watch me get my diploma. It was the happiest day of my life. I was the first person in my entire family to finish high school and go to college. My parents, who worked cleaning offices, always told me that education would bring me something better.

Jessica at a rally

Until recently, I was working as a paralegal in an immigration law firm and saving money for law school. But after my DACA was revoked, everything changed. I had to stop driving and working. I knew I was at risk for deportation, and I felt scared. But this time, I also knew how to fight, because I’ve seen how powerful our voices can be. Groups organized a rally on my behalf in Atlanta in May, and my sorority sisters attended to show their support. We are committed to fighting for all the 750,000 people with DACA whose status is fragile but whose voices are strong.

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