A dream deferred

Feb. 4, 2011, 3:02 a.m.
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.

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