by Julie Cosgrove.
When Tania Mora graduated from high school four years ago, she fell into a funk because as an undocumented immigrant, she felt she had no future. Her friends were applying to colleges but she knew that college was out of the question for her struggling family and without a social security card, her job prospects were limited.
“I wasn’t exactly depressed,” she said, “but I thought, ‘what’s the point?’”
The great recession of 2008-2010 had hit the family hard when her father lost his job working for the McDonalds Corporation. The family had to move from Imperial to San Bernardino where he could look for work as a day-laborer in construction. Despite California Assembly Bill 540, under which Mora would qualify for in-state tuition, the family could not spare the additional $800 she would need for a semester in a community college.
Her situation changed in 2011 when Assembly Bills 130 and 131 allowed students who were AB540 qualified to apply for state financial aid for state colleges and universities. With the new laws, Mora was able to enroll at Chaffey Community College as an English major.
“California is exceptional, one of a handful of states that have similar legislation to help with the cost of college,” said Cal State San Bernardino professor Enrique Murillo, PhD., “it changed everything.”
Murillo is president of the Southern California Consortium, some 63 hispanic serving institutions aimed at increasing the number of hispanic students in colleges and universities.
“We couldn’t wait for the federal government to pass the Dream Act,” he said. “The states on their own had to take the leadership.” According to the San Jose Mercury News, 20,000 undocumented students have applied for state aid for the first time. For the Moras, these measures justified remaining in California for the sake of their children and in spite of their financial difficulties.
In the inland empire, undocumented workers are employed in service, especially restaurants, construction and in manufacturing, transporting and warehousing, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. When the great recession struck, their unemployment rate was estimated to be 14 percent compared to 12 percent for documented hispanic workers, 8 percent for whites and 14 percent for blacks. Since then, it has dropped to 11 percent. During this time, immigration slowed down and the number of undocumented living in the United States fell from a high of 12 million to 11.1 million in 2007 where it has remained relatively stable.
But while immigration, especially from Mexico, has slowed, the stable number of undocumented suggests that emigration, or return to Mexico, has not increased. The recession hurt this community but at the same time, developments in educational opportunities and changes in the employment picture in at least one industry, the warehouse industry, have kept families from leaving California.
Kenny Parada of the Warehouse Workers United is the American born son of illegal immigrant parents who escaped the civil war in El Salvador and who were able to gain legal status during the immigration reform enacted during the Reagan Administration. Nonetheless, his parents still struggled, his father as a truck driver and his mother as a warehouse worker.
Parada enjoyed a typical American childhood, but when he graduated from high school, decided he wanted to work, just like his parents, and took a warehouse job. He soon changed his mind as he began to experience the hardships that many undocumented workers experience and odd memories began to surface about his family’s experiences.
“I remembered my mother when she got home,” he said. “As soon as she got home she would begin picking metal splinters from her fingers, every day, she would pick out the metal.”
The great recession brought a drop in the number of full-time warehouse jobs available and Parada observed some of the undocumented workers wanting to return to Mexico or Central America to ride out the bad economic times. However, few did. The drug war and the violence in Mexico were a factors but more important was the explosion in part-time, temporary work in the warehouse industry. The large retailers, like Walmart, Target and Amazon were turning increasingly to third-party contractors to provide blue collar workers and many undocumented workers stayed for those jobs. Parada noticed that many warehouse workers could not get full time work, were paid minimum wage and received few benefits, even when injured on the job. His observations mirror a 2013 study by USC Professor Juan de Lara, Phd., and a series produced by Pro Publica and Vice News, “Permanently Temporary.”
There are 100,000 warehouse workers in San Bernardino and Riverside counties and an estimated 10 per cent are undocumented.
“They might as well all be undocumented,” Parada said. “They are all treated badly, have their rights violated and can only get temp work.”
“And there are always people willing to work, that’s the other problem,” Parada said. He works as a community outreach organizer, recruiting workers for the union, but finds that the undocumented are often reluctant to join in.
“It’s hard for the undocumented to come out of the shadows because they have this attitude, I came here to work,” he said. “And there’s always another crappy job they can get.”
The children of those workers are now beginning to enroll in college where they often collaborate for mutual support. Mora is president of the Student Alliance for Education, a campus club. Members frequently discuss issues concerning their families. During the recession, many parents considered returning to Mexico but stayed, in part, so their children could take advantage of educational opportunities.
Like Mora, club vice-president, Cynthia Rodriguez, was happy to enroll at Chaffey as a criminal justice major when AB 130 made tuition costs a reasonable expense. But when the recession reduced the number of jobs available to her father, the family discussed returning to Mexico.
“My brother was OK with that,” Rodriguez said, “but I just stared at my father.”
Rodriguez said such a move would be difficult for her. Her parents brought her to California as an infant and neither her Spanish nor her understanding of Mexican culture is adequate. Still, she has not been comfortable living in southern California as an undocumented student.
One of her earliest memories is when she fought back tears as an immigration agent demanded answers from her father who tried to reply with quiet respect. Misunderstanding the question, he replied “No,” when asked if he had ever been arrested, not realizing the agent knew he had just been picked up at the Mexican border, trying to cross illegally into California.
Then Rodriguez heard something that still haunts her. The agent accused Rodriguez of lying and declared that he had ruined not only his chances to stay in the United States but the futures of his children. As the family left his office, Cynthia turned to see the agent gazing at them as he leaned against the doorsill.
The uncertainty of living in the shadows has kept Rodriguez from seizing another change for undocumented students. In 2013 the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an executive order signed by President Obama, delayed deportation for the children of undocumented immigrants for two years if they met certain requirements. It also allowed those approved to apply for work permits and social security cards and to reapply after the first two years.
Rodriguez is uncertain that DACA will continue under a different presidential administration and was afraid that it would somehow threaten her family’s ability to remain in California, so she delayed applying for more than a year.
Unlike Rodriguez, Mora and most others in SAFE applied for DACA immediately, have been approved and now have the part time jobs that many students undertake. Mora works at the campus bookstore.
“Now I can buy food on campus whenever I’m hungry,” she said. “We used to have to bring food to school everyday.” It is a convenience she never takes for granted.
“It changed everything.” she said.
Joel Constantino, 22, broadcast major and secretary of SAFE, agrees. Brought by his family to California when he was 13, he had been working in the fields picking crops before he enrolled at Chaffey. Now he has a part-time job at the El Pollo Loco restaurant just two miles from campus.
“My father wants to go back to Mexico,” Constantino said, “but he will stay until I am established here.” So he will continue his studies and his family will remain, despite their economic struggles.
Occasionally there are conflicts within their families and it is difficult for students to hear their parents reminisce about a Mexico they left. Sometimes a significant other will ask Mora or Rodriguez why they work so hard, why they have so little spare time?
“It’s a privilege to work,” Mora said. “I really want to work.”
She resists subtle pressures from some members of her family to look for a full-time job instead of going to school but still finds the time and energy required for classes and a part-time job an honor and not a sacrifice. Rodriguez agrees and adds that her job helps to contribute to the family finances.
“We have to work, it’s the least we can do,” Rodriguez said in regards to her parents. “They kill themselves for us, it’s the least we can do for them.”