An undocumented student’s journey to CSU

Tatiana Parafiniuk-Talesnick

Dreams can be incredible; but, the thing about dreams is that you wake up.

At least this is how Karen Villar, a sophomore double majoring in sociology and ethnic studies at Colorado State University, describes them.

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Karen Villar is in her second year at CSU. She's majoring in ethnic studies and sociology. (Natalie Dyer | Collegian) Photo credit: Natalie Dyer
Karen Villar is in her second year at CSU. She’s majoring in ethnic studies and sociology. (Natalie Dyer | Collegian)

Villar is one of around 175 “dreamers” at CSU. These students are undocumented on campus. According to Villar, the term came from the introduction of the DREAM Act in 2001. The DREAM Act failed to pass, but has been continuously brought up since its introduction. The act proposed granting conditional, and eventually permanent, residency to minors who immigrate.

“It was just a good, positive word to classify us all under,” Villar said. “I personally accept the term and consider myself a dreamer, but I’ve heard people say, ‘That’s all they want us to be.’”

But, Villar has more than dreams; she has goals. And, it is possible she may be more motivated than the average college student, because she has a lot at stake. When she was 4 years old, her family made the hard decision to uproot their life to move to the U.S. from Mexico.

Originally she, her brother Carlos, her father and her pregnant mother came to the U.S. with visitor visas to see family in Colorado. But, when her mom went into labor, the family found their youngest member was going to face a life with severe disabilities. Villar’s younger sister had hydrocephalus and epilepsy – fluid in the brain and seizures – which left the family with a difficult choice.

“Logistically, if we were to move back to Mexico, medicine was going to be too overpriced. For her benefit, we decided to stay here, because of the health opportunities she had,” Villar said. “Hospitals were better, better doctors, just more opportunities for her to get better.”

So, Villar’s parents decided to stay in the U.S. Her mother left behind her teaching career and her father left a job working with a non-profit aid organization to live in a new country and culture, to navigate life in a foreign language, all without those nine digits that say you belong.

“Parents say they are coming for the American dream, but it’s never for them,” Villar said. “It’s for ours.”

Villar and her older brother have not left the country since. All she can recall of Mexico is the stories she has been told – the U.S. is the only home she knows.

The Early Years 

Villar always looked up to her brother. He went to school and learned English and she soon followed suit. He was a model student, and she did her best to be the same.

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Immediately, the two where burdened with being the bridge between their house and the rest of the world. As elementary students, they became their parents’ translators from reading the mail to going to doctor’s appointments. If her brother was not at the house, it was up to 8-year-old Villar to interpret the world for her parents.

Learning to read and write in a new language you never use at home was challenging, Villar said, and occasionally her accent would slip out when she read aloud in class – exposing her and adding to the fear any elementary student already feels when they are forced to read aloud.

Despite these difficulties, Villar describes a happy early childhood. She grew up in Thornton, Colorado, where Latinos make up 31 percent of the population. Her legal status was never questioned. There were always cousins around to play with, and Villar remembers neighborhood games and a strong sense of community.

It was when she went to middle school and her brother went to high school that she said problems of citizenship began to emerge.

It takes 9 digits to enter

There were a few things Villar never questioned. Her father worked in construction and her mom never worked outside of the house. That was life. But, she did recognize the nature of the work her father did.

“I realized he was always really tired,” Villar said. “I was aware of all the hard work he was doing.”

Going to college was another thing that was never questioned. After all, her parents immigrated for their children, so the children were raised expecting that they would go to college.

Reality kicked in once Villar’s brother started thinking about college. First came opportunities he could not join. Group trips outside the country were impossible, and at that point Villar and her brother had never been on a plane. Then, the process of applying to college began.

People without a social security number cannot apply for FASFA, the Free Application for Federal Aid, or any federal aid at all.

“It was at that point I realized how much 9 digits meant,” Villar said.

She was always aware of her parents’ status, but it was not until this time that she became fully cognizant of just how her status was going to impact her.

As an undocumented student, her brother would have to pay out-of-state tuition out-of-pocket, as federal loans are also not an option for undocumented students. It became his dream to be accepted into an Ivy League school, Harvard, where he would qualify for a need-based scholarship from the private institution.

His hopes were dashed when he read his rejection email. The summer after graduation in 2012, he received an acceptance into University of Denver. DU is a private school, so much of his tuition was covered by the institution. At this time, Villar’s father moved to Wyoming to take a job with an oil company to earn more money for the family.

Since her sophomore year of high school, Villar was in a double enrollment program, receiving both high school and college credits. After watching her brother go through the process of applying to college, Villar joined every activity she could, driven to be the best.

“I was working 10 times harder than my peers, just because I was aware of what was going to happen,” Villar said. “I was doing anything I could to make myself look worthy of college.”

Villar said that while she enjoyed her various high school activities, there was a different pressure on her to succeed than other students.

Hope in the form of bills and executive actions

In June 2012, DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was passed and the Secretary of Homeland Security announced that “certain people who came to the United States as children and meet several guidelines may request consideration of deferred action for a period of two years.”

For the Villars, it meant she and her brother would be able to pursue their education without the threat of deportation. And, even more importantly to them, it meant they could work.

At first, DACA seemed a little too good to be true. They waited a few months to apply and felt more safe when friends in their community had their requests accepted.

“It was relief,” Villar said. “My brother and I were able to work and we were able to help out our parents.”

Although a relief to have, DACA demands perfect behavior from those who have it.

Colorado State University Students stand in support of DACA at the Lory Student Center Plaza on Nov 14, 2016. (Luke Walker | Collegian)
Colorado State University Students stand in support of DACA at the Lory Student Center Plaza on Nov 14, 2016. (Luke Walker | Collegian)

Close to 670,000 people have received DACA in the US and 15,000 in Colorado.

“My brother and I would joke, ‘Oh, the government knows we exist now,’” Villar said. “I think behind every joke we try to hide something, and I think for us it was just the fact that we couldn’t mess anything up.”

In April 2013, after 10 years of struggling, Senate Bill 33, better known as ASSET Bill passed into law. This allowed eligible students to pay in-state tuition at Colorado public universities. Students could qualify if they attended high school for three years before graduation, were admitted to a participating college within 12 months of graduation and signed an affidavit promising that they were currently seeking or will seek legal status as soon as they are eligible.

ASSET meant Villar could go to a state university.

Now what?

In her senior year of high school, Villar applied to CSU. She was accepted and offered a large package of scholarships by the institution. There was a chapter of the society she wanted to join, Pi Lambda Chi.

Villar started attending CSU in 2015. She felt a uniquely strong sense of community and support between professors, staff and classmates who fight for DREAMers.

The presidential election of 2016 challenged that feeling. Among other pieces of anti-immigrant rhetoric, President-elect Donald Trump has said that he will end DACA. On Oct. 10, 2016, a few CSU students built a “free speech wall” meant to show support for Trump’s immigration wall policy.

Villar said the anti-immigrant rhetoric during the election was not scrutinizing people for their political opinions, but rather for who they were.

“It had absolutely nothing to do with politics,” Villar said. “I personally can’t vote.”

Villar described that day and the following weeks, as extremely emotional. She said she did not feel this was normal political discourse where supporters of one candidate debate with those of another – these weeks she felt her community was being attacked.

“The deeper meaning of it was the separation of families,” Villar said. “It was, ‘We don’t want your people here.’”

Villar said the week following the election was very difficult. On Election Night, she texted her parents, “Pura decepción con estas elecciones” — “Pure deception with these elections.”

She was speaking to the surprise the night took; many polls predicted Hillary Clinton would win.

Her father responded, “Usted no se agá un lado puro pa delante” — “Don’t put yourself to the side, just get ahead.”

And her mother added, “No hay que perder las esperanzas” — “You don’t have to lose your hope.”

Villar took her parents’ advice to heart. Now, she is leaning on her community of DREAMers, her sorority, her friends, her family and her professors for support.

One professor told Villar, “If you build a 20 foot wall, someone will build a 21 foot ladder.”

Villar hopes to graduate a year early with a degree in ethnic studies and sociology with a concentration in criminal justice. She wants to go to law school when she can afford it, and one day be a prosecutor. Villar has been interested in criminal justice since she was a child.

“I’ve always worked hard, I can’t stop now,” Villar said. “It’s not an option.”

Her phone screensaver reads, “Dreams don’t work unless you do.”

Villar is a DREAMer, but more than that, she is a doer.

Collegian reporter Tatiana Parafiniuk-Talesnick can be reached at news@collegian.com or on twitter at @TatianaSophiaPT.