In March of this year, I had a conversation with Arleene Correa, an undocumented art student originally from Mexico, who is attending California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. We talked about the hurdles to becoming a student, maintaining the highest possible grade point average, fighting invisibility, and scratching to find the funding to meet the tuition which is upwards of $23,000 per year.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was enacted by the Obama administration in 2012 as a way to meet the needs of those essentially held in limbo by the refusal of the US Congress to pass some version of the DREAM act. Because of this policy intervention, Correa was able to secure a Cal Grant, to cover most of the tuition, with the balance being met by the college’s diversity scholarship. With DACA being arbitrarily ended by the current administration — albeit with a six-month deferral to allow the US Congress to again attempt to pass DREAM legislation — Correa’s entire academic pursuit was thrown into jeopardy.
I reached out again to talk with her about how she has responded to this crisis, what CCA has done to make it possible for her to graduate, what her plans are, and what it means to be described as a “burden” for her husband in the eyes of the state.
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Seph Rodney: Hi Arleene. We’re having this conversation because we had talked last year about your immigration status and how that affected your experience as an art student at CCA. Now we want to follow up, given what’s happened in the past week, with the president ending DACA. We had exchanged emails, and you said that you felt very precarious, very anxious about what was happening, and that you might lose the Cal Grant funding you have. Is that still the case?
Arleene Correa: I believe so, yes, because previous to having DACA I was not able to actually transfer from community college to California College of the Arts. Without DACA, I had actually applied to California College of the Arts and got accepted, but I wasn’t able to make the transition because I didn’t have the Cal Grant, so the Cal Grant plays a huge role in me being able to continue [my studies].
I should be in the last semester of my junior year, but because I don’t know what’s happening with DACA and these six months are just living in a limbo, I’m actually starting my senior year instead, and I’m forced to put all my classes into a very hectic schedule so that I can graduate Spring of 2018. My DACA expires October of 2018, which I knew was going to happen and so the best I can do is graduate before October, just to guarantee that I will finish here at CCA.
SR: Right. Because the alternative is if you’re not done, then you basically have no degree and you may be deported.
AC: Correct. Exactly. And that is one of my biggest fears right now, I’m actually doing, I think, seven classes, and the normal is five or four, no more than that, but because I can’t lose the scholarship that I have and I can’t go halfway through with my education, I’m going to do whatever it takes to get out of here next spring, just to guarantee that I won’t lose everything I’ve worked for so far.
SR: So let’s talk a little bit about possible resources you have. You mentioned that you had chatted with immigration attorneys about whether your husband, who’s a citizen, whether your status of being married to him could provide a way for you to stay, and you said that it doesn’t seem so.
AC: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve actually seen about three lawyers and we have two more appointments this month, and so far it’s been really complicated, and I’ve actually mapped this whole thing out and I’m making an art piece out of it, because it’s like playing Chutes and Ladders, you know? You think you’ve gotten so far and then something brings you back down. This last lawyer that we saw laid it out really well for us: I basically broke two huge laws. The first one was coming here illegally as a child in 1997 — I was two and a half […] Then, DACA wasn’t in place until I was 19 and a half, so for a year and a half I was a consenting adult and I lived in New York illegally, knowing that I was an adult and so that year and a half counts against me now, even though there was nothing in place for me to apply for anything. As soon as DACA came into play I applied for it, and I was approved right away, but that year and a half is really hurting me right now. So given all that, the loophole to all this is marrying an American citizen.
AC: Thankfully I’m in a very loving, committed relationship with my husband. And the tenor gets really muddy after this because my entry was illegal. If it [had] been a legal entry, I would be on a path to citizenship right away, however, then we have extreme hardship on his end. They don’t care that we’ve been together for eight years. What they care about is that he’s suffering. Now we have to prove that he cannot live without me, and there’s three options for this: the first one is that he is physically or mentally ill and needs me to take care of him. And he’s not, he’s perfectly healthy. The next one is finances. Given I’m in school and he has a great job, which supports me, therefore I’m a burden to an American citizen, since I don’t provide enough financially. And the third one would be if we had kids, however we don’t. So we’re kind of at a dead end.
SR: I want to talk a bit about the language that is used to describe your situation. Did they actually use that word “burden”?
AC: Absolutely they did. I’m a burden to him because he actually has to pay to feed me and house me, which any person in a committed relationship is willing to do for their partner. However, because I’m undocumented, I’m a burden.
SR: But also, do you find that in your conversations with attorneys that certain people want to refer to you as illegal and others will refer to you as undocumented? We talked about this in our first interview — that you felt really demeaned by that term when you were in casual conversation with someone, and they referred to you as simply as “an illegal.”
AC: Yeah. Saying “You’re a burden. You’re an illegal” or “You’re an illegal alien” … it really shows that something is not right. When I saw the speech delivered when they were talking about ending DACA, he used the word. He [Attorney General Jeff Sessions] even said illegal aliens and I just felt dehumanized. I felt I was like, “wow.” When I think of an alien, I think of a little green monster with weird ears and, that’s not me. I feel like, “Is that me?” I felt so dehumanized that day. I just couldn’t even move, I was in bed, and I just cried the entire day. It was bizarre to me that this language even exists to describe a human being.
SR: So in terms of financial support, how is CCA responding to your situation?
AC: I actually wrote an email to the head of financial aid at CCA and expressed my concerns. because half of my funding comes from Cal Grants and the other part [from] the diversity scholarship at CCA. With DACA ending that means I’m no longer eligible for Cal Grant. Then they responded quickly and they said that due to my scholarship, if I was to lose my Cal Grant, they would just adjust and make up for the difference. This is a very special situation because I do have the highest scholarship that CCA offers. When I first started here, we signed a contract that they would fund my education for four years, which is great, and I feel extremely thankful, but it got me thinking about [others in a similar situation, and … ] nobody’s going to make up for the difference that they have to pay.
SR: How are you adjusting? I mean, what’s it like to know that you have to be done by next spring?
AC: The first day when DACA got canceled, I was just so sad I couldn’t move and then the next day I was like, “All right. I’m getting up. And I’m going to make this work and I don’t care what happens, but this is happening.” And I think it’s just this attitude that comes with being undocumented and knowing that you don’t have the luxury to sail smoothly. It’s an attitude of hard work and we’re going to make this work, regardless.
SR: You said in your email to me that you were thinking that if DACA does actually get rescinded that you were thinking of leaving California if none of that actually comes together.
AC: I’ve lived in this country for 22 years […] And I’ve actually written a “Wetback Life Hack” list. And you know, as funny as it may be, it’s a serious list on how to live your life like, in the shadows going unnoticed. It’s really hard and it sucks a lot and I’ve done it my entire life, and if I have to do it again, and if I’m forced into that corner, then you know, there’s no other way out. I just think it’s survival of the fittest, and I can’t imagine leaving this country and going somewhere I’ve never lived. And so my husband and I have come up with a plan of what we’re going to do if nothing happens and if we can’t figure anything out and we have to leave, then you know, we have to leave, and I’ll have to put my list to use again.
We see it in movies all the time where somebody will marry a person and they’re a citizen the next day. And it’s just not like that. The real world is not. I don’t care how much money you have or how beautiful you are, it’s not like that. It’s just not … everything is stacked against me right now.