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The Jaime Lucero Mexican Studies Institute Blog

Blog Post by Lorena Cariño (Queens College, 2015 Becaria)

After realizing graduation from high school was approaching, fear, anxiety and confusion began to grow. I wasn’t sure what my plans would be once I received my diploma. Although I was receiving acceptances from many colleges, my financial need brought questions about whether college was a good option for me. When finally making a decision to attend school, I chose the one that tuition seem to be easier to pay at the time, Queens College. At first I wasn’t too happy with my choice, but soon I learned that my transition into college sparked an interest and many questions about my status.

Dealing with my immigration status in my freshman year led me to search for answers. It was then that I learned about the Queens College Dream Team. This was the space where eventually my fears became empowerment. My passion to help my community grew. I started to become involved not just in the Dream Team but also in the New York State Youth Leadership Council helping immigrant youth. Little by little I noticed how strong each of our voices were to create changes in our communities. Those stories and voices reassured me that I wasn’t the only one having to worry about tuition every semester.

While becoming involved, I was introduced to many scholarship opportunities; one of these was the CUNY Becas Scholarship. After being awarded the scholarship on my second time applying, I was given the push I needed to end my senior year without tuition worries. However, soon I found that this opportunity not only help me financially but also allowed to reconnect with my culture. I came into the United States from Mexico when I was eight-years-old.  Although, my family and the community I help are from my country, there were parts I was unaware were missing. After spending a weekend with the Becari@s, I noticed that they brought out a part of me I was losing when dealing with my status. There was a connection with the language, culture, education and history that I didn’t have with any of my friends in a long time. I was discovering a part of me that reminded me of my background. There was a long time in my life in the US that I felt I didn’t belong. I didn’t think that I was from either here or Mexico. Making these friendships created a new interest in embracing my culture more than what I thought I was doing before. The CUNY Becas did not only give me an opportunity to financial, professional and educational help but also to reconnect with a big part of me I needed back in my life.

Blog Post by Jesus Barrios (Hunter College, 2015 Becario)

Queer Public Health & Immigration Detention

Over the past twenty years the United States’ response to the mass migration of individuals seeking to establish a new life within its borders, has failed in allowing them to fully integrate into U.S. society. By prioritizing border militarization, implementing xenophobic laws targeting immigrants, and structuring a legal system, which only those with most privilege successfully navigate, immigrant health becomes a significant public policy discussion. In addition, as hundreds of thousands of immigrants are left vulnerable to be funneled into the U.S.’ draconian immigration detention system, pertinent issues in health care are even more critical to study given the repeated human rights violations occurring inside these centers. However, due to limited detention center oversight of centers located in remote areas, detainees endure conditions that compromise their physical health and mental health. Lacking support of both congressional parties, immigration detention poses a great public health concern, but more specifically there is a narrative that has yet to garner significant exposure and that is the narrative of LGBT detained immigrants.

Immigration detention centers were less of a priority in past U.S. history: in the 1890's, Ellis Island served as a public health hospital to monitor and evaluate the health of immigrants deemed eligible to enter. Over the years, policy implementation such as the Immigration Nationality Act in 1952 had an impact on the closure of many detention centers. The effect of multiple closures caused a shift in who became a priority for prosecution from individuals who historically were part of U.S. waves of migration to those whom now posed a high risk to U.S. society. However, as migration into the U.S. increased in the 1980s and 1990s, new policies were implemented to respond to the high influx of individuals entering the U.S. In 1996 the implementation of the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), broadened criteria for non-citizens to be targeted, detained and deported, which meant having unlawful presence in the U.S. was enough to trigger a deportation proceeding. The effects of the implementation of IIRIRA are catastrophic. For example, the daily number of detained individuals increased from 19,000 in 2001 to 33,000 in 2010. Approximately 91,000 individuals were detained in 2001 and by 2010 the number of annual individuals detained increased to 390,000. In previous years leaked documents showed, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE - branch of Department of Homeland Security) stated that its goal each year is to deport 400,000 individuals. ICE’s ambitious goal has been measured in the two million individuals who have been deported from the U.S. since 2008 many whom live with chronic illnesses, have escaped persecution in their country of origin, have significant familial ties in the U.S., and far too often are non-criminal. One may only imagine the human rights violations that have occurred in order to meet such a quota.

Gaining access to immigration detention facilities to document human rights violations is one of the many obstacles community members, activists, and researchers face. However, radical approaches have been taken in order to document the narratives of detained immigrants. In 2011, two activists infiltrated the Broward Transitional Center in Florida, and spent over 20 days in the facility before being forced out. However, it was enough time to capture data regarding the abuse experienced by detainees which include: excessive length of stay, poor medical access, sexual violence, lack of legal access, pressure to voluntarily deport, mental health trauma, mental health trauma experienced by the children of detainees, and detention of non-criminals.

In recent years, alarming facts have emerged regarding the specific treatment of LGBT individuals. One of the most high profile cases is that of Olga Arellano, a transgendered woman, who was processed into detention after coming in contact with local enforcement during a traffic violation. Olga died in 2007 due to lack of HIV care, while detained for two months in San Pedro, CA. Most recently, the story of Marichuy Leal Gamino parallels similar trauma as that of Arellano. Marichuy is a transgender woman who spent two years detained in Arizona. At first Marichuy was being held in a cell pod with all men, but after she reported being raped, bullied, and threatened, she was placed in solitary confinement – a common practice by ICE to address the concerns of transgender women.
The stories of Olga and Marichuy mirror national data collected by the Center for American Progress (CAP). In 2013, CAP released its findings of what LGBT individuals experienced while in detention. Complaints filed by detainees include cases of sexual assault by guards and detainees, inadequate medical treatment, verbal harassment and humiliation by guards and detainees, and use of solitary confinement based solely on detainee’s gender identity and sexual orientation. There is also a disparity between the length of stay in detention from 30 days for the average detained immigrant to those seeking asylum, which is 102.4 days. This is critical because a significant amount of asylum cases are made up of LGBT detained immigrants, which in turn makes them vulnerable to deal with the complaints stated above for a longer period of time. The conditions and treatment that all detained immigrants live through are unjustifiable, but when you intersect homophobia, transphobia, and patriarchy, LGBT detained immigrants become susceptible to a culture of violence.

As a queer immigrant who has been detained in Alabama and California the plight of LGBT detained immigrants is personal to me. I have dedicated the past 7 years to organizing at these intersections and I am fully committed to assisting in advancing the lives of my fellow brothers and sisters. In particular health is one of my areas of interest. A year ago, I was accepted into the Masters of Public Health program at the CUNY School of Public Health, Hunter College. This year the school’s division of public health practice and community engagement awarded me an opportunity to implement an independent project. My goal is to spend the next year understanding the medical practice inside immigration detention through the lens of LGBT detained immigrants, as well as understanding how LGBT undocumented immigrants navigate U.S. health systems. Finally, I see the work I engage in as part of the process in changing systems to fully promote the lives of the marginalized and underserved, and allow them and myself to live our full potential. None of this is possible without the support of generous foundations like my program’s division and my recent award by the Jaime Lucero Mexican Studies Institute at CUNY. Their assistance helps people in the struggle for justice and myself to dedicate our time to the work that has given our life purpose and meaning.

Blog Post by Luz Aguirre (LaGuardia Community College, 2015 Becaria)

The Undocumented Pursuit for Higher Education

I recently came back from Exploring Transfer, a five-week, six-credit program at the prestigious Vassar College. I knew about the program through my mentor, pay-it-forward and CUNY Becas recipient Amalia Rojas. The program touched relevant issues such as bioethics, economics of poverty, politics of imprisonment and race in the United States. I got a lot more out of the program than an intellect boost. I am majoring in Philosophy at LaGuardia Community College and need to make a decision about where to transfer. I am not your typical college student. I am a 36-year-old undocumented single mother of a 14-year-old. It took me a while to get to college because it was impossible, for a long time, to come up with the money to start college. I wanted to have enough to at least cover my initial year.

President Obama instituted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012, A two-year work permit and exemption from deportation for certain young people. Now renamed Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. You have to give credit to the Department of Homeland Security for the name, it knows how to intimidate. In these three years, a lot of scholarships for DACA students have been springing up. It is astounding to see how much DACAmented students are soaring. In December of 2014, Obama announced the expansion of DACA for those of us who were too old to fall under regular DACA (the cut-off age is thirty-one). In February 18, 2015, just as it was going to be implemented, a judge in Texas issued an order that blocked it. As much as I wanted it, I was not surprised. As an immigrant, I felt the backlash after 9/11. Before the terrorist attacks, it was likely that a path to status adjustment was opening for the undocumented. American politics changed and started criminalizing immigrants with a vengeance, legal and undocumented. The Department of Homeland Security is the one that manages terrorism and immigration. As a consequence immigration has become a synonym of terrorism.

I am considered an out-of-state student, even though I have lived in New York most of my life. Within the City University of New York (CUNY) system, undocumented people are automatically considered out-of-state if it takes them more than five years after high school to seek higher education—not so DACA holders. For a typical student, tuition for a year at a CUNY college is about $5,000. My first year was around $14,000. Undocumented students cannot fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) profile blocking them from financial aid. DACA students can only fill it out to get their Student Aid Report (SAR), which determines eligibility for non-federal financial aid. I am often on the lookout for scholarships, but the pool is miniscule and competitive. I have begun to diversify my chances by looking out for funded credit programs, such as the before mentioned, Exploring Transfer program. Tuition, room, and board were fully funded. I saved about $2,000 on tuition and books and a month's worth of rent and food. I almost cried when I got it. Getting and holding a job that pays a fair wage is hard, and doing it while undocumented is almost impossible. We live in a world where everything that can be used against you to exploit you is fair game, all in the name of capitalism.

As I weight my options for a four-year college, I thought I had to stay within the CUNY system since private colleges are more expensive than what I am paying now. I have also come to love the LaGuardia community. State University of New York (SUNY) is another option. As long as you can prove you attended two years and graduated from a New York high school, you are eligible for in-state-tuition. Many private colleges and universities have need-blind aid. Meaning, they have private money and do not care if you are undocumented. If you are bright, they will try to get you. As long as a college has a College Scholarship Service (CSS) profile, it is likely that they do not care about your status. A CSS profile is like FAFSA, but unlike FAFSA it awards financial aid from sources outside of the federal government.

As my search deepens, I also have to take into account my nontraditional student situation. Many colleges have nontraditional student programs. These programs are design for older adults who manage many responsibilities. Some of these programs are The School of General Studies of Columbia University, The NYU School of Professional Studies Paul McGhee Division, Frances Perkins program at Mount Holyoke, and the Ada Comstock Scholars Program at Smith College. Mount Holyoke College and Smith College, both in Massachusetts, have the added feature of being all women colleges. I would love to be in an environment that fosters women's voices.

NYU recently launched a financial aid program to help undocumented students. Mount Holyoke College considers undocumented and DACA students for both merit scholarships and need-based financial aid. Brown University in Rhode Island accepts undocumented students, and these must indicate their interest in financial aid as part of their admission's application. Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Princeton University and Yale University have some of the biggest endowments and are open to undocumented students. A problem with private colleges is that they cater to students with money. I have heard from many low-income people who suffer a type of dislocation at these schools. Another problem is that we are not taught to aim that high. High schools for people of color in New York are run like jails. We are treated like criminals in a system that constantly tell us that we are not good enough to aim for these colleges or go for top degrees. I once came out screaming of a parent association meeting at my daughter's middle school. We were being encouraged to send them to the graduation ceremony and prom because "it might be the last one they attend”. Implying that the kids might not graduate from high school. We were also encouraged to start looking into the process of enrollment for technical schools. Losing my composure is the least of my problems, sometimes I feel like I am losing my mind the way this system treats people of color.

The immigration landscape is changing. Once upon a time, there was no support for undocumented people going into higher education. Even now, there is still a lot of misinformation. When I was applying to LaGuardia Community College in the summer of 2014, everything seemed to play against me. I made many lines, repeatedly filled forms and was sent all over the place. Nobody knew what to do with me. It was so stressful I broke down. I refused to state my case one more time to another uninformed person. I demanded a supervisor and an immigration lawyer, which I knew they must have in staff. It is not easy, but nothing of worth is easy. For my part, I will keep researching and reaching out to admissions people to assess my chances. Everyone’s story is different and it reflects different in different environments. Luck plays a part in your future, but so does actively seeking opportunities.

Click here for blog posts from our 2014 cohort

Click here for blog posts from our 2012 and 2013 cohort

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