Undocumented immigrant aims to give others a leg up | July 4, 2014 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - July 4, 2014

Undocumented immigrant aims to give others a leg up

Young East Palo Alto woman recognized at White House for her advocacy

by Elena Kadvany

Sarahi Espinoza Salamanca doesn't want her story to repeat itself.

Some years ago, she was a promising high school student in Los Angeles, so much so that the University of California at Los Angeles recruited her for her high grades and many extracurricular activities. But Salamanca is an undocumented immigrant. Her parents brought her to the United States from Mexico when she was 4 years old. Without a Social Security number, she could not apply for the financial aid she needed to pay for UCLA tuition.

"I felt like I had my ticket to go — but I didn't have the money," she said. "So I didn't go.

"That was very difficult for me to find out that I wasn't going to be able to go to the college that I wanted to because I didn't have the money and I didn't know anybody who could help people in my situation at the time."

The 24-year-old East Palo Alto resident has set out to be that person for other undocumented students. Last year she launched a website, sarahi.tv, with links to scholarships available to undocumented students, local networking events and conferences, news articles on immigration reform, video interviews with undocumented youth and personal writing pieces. Her website — which was built by a friend, but she has since taken over after teaching herself how to write HTML — also caught the attention of Facebook's immigration-reform lobby group FWD.us. She was one of 20 undocumented students invited to participate in a national DREAMers hackathon, which focused on immigration-reform projects and culminated in a 24-hour coding session at LinkedIn last November.

She was also honored at the White House June 17 as one of 10 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients President Barack Obama's administration dubbed "Champions of Change," illegal immigrants who "serve as success stories and role models in their academic and professional spheres," a White House statement read.

"I wanted to make a difference for students who go through high school and are undocumented and to advocate the resources that are out there because you don't really know," Salamanca said of her website. "Especially being undocumented, you're scared to tell people."

She said that fear, coupled with the fact that talking about one's legal status is a "taboo" topic, makes it difficult for undocumented students to find help or support if they want to pursue higher education.

After graduating from high school, she moved back to the Bay Area — where she originally came with her parents when they first immigrated — and attended Foothill College. Because she graduated from a California high school, she qualified under state law AB540 to attend Foothill College and pay in-state tuition, rather than the much higher international cost. She worked the summer before entering college — babysitting, washing people's clothes, any cash-only jobs — to pay her own way, she said. She had been mostly on her own since she was 16, when her mother, in the process of securing residency, returned to Mexico to request a waiver required as part of the application process. She was told she would be able to return, legally, in six months, but that turned out not to be true.

This November, it will be nine years since she left.

"She's still in Mexico," Salamanca said. "She was caught in the system."

Salamanca's father, who went back to Mexico years before, was diagnosed with cancer in 2009 — creating a circumstance Salamanca said is common for immigrant youth: choosing between furthering her education and supporting her family financially.

"I stayed for as long as I could (in school) but my mom just couldn't handle the bills and my dad always being sick and having to take a taxi to the hospital every time he got sick or calling an ambulance," she said. "She couldn't do it by herself anymore. ... So then I made the decision — do I stay and kind of ignore everything that's happening or do I just drop out of college and work as much as I can and send them as much money as I can?"

She dropped out of Foothill and worked full time for the next two years, sending her parents as much money as she could until her father died in March 2011.

"Our parents don't motivate us to go to school," she reflected. "They motivate us to go to work and make money because we need to make ends meet because we need to feed our younger siblings. We need to pay the bills. We need to pay the rent.

"So it's very difficult to go to school and hear 'Education is first' and then to go home and your parents are like, 'No, education is not first; first you need to bring in the money, and then go to school.'"

Salamanca said she also wants to serve as a resource for immigrant parents.

"One of my passions is not just to educate the students on what's out there and motivate them to go to school, but also to change the mindset of the parents and be like, 'You know what, I understand where you're coming from because I grew up in the same home where education wasn't a priority, but that needs to change in order for you to see a change in your family. ... You have to let your kids go to college and come back."

Salamanca has since returned to her own education, re-enrolling in Canada College last August. She has yet to pick a major, having trouble deciding between computer science, broadcast journalism and political science, she said. She also now has a Social Security number and a driver's license through DACA, the federal program that allows undocumented young people who came to the U.S. as children to obtain temporary legal status. The passage of DACA in June 2012 was seen as a victory for immigration reform, but its recipients and supporters wait with baited breath to see what the next president might do with the Obama administration's program.

DACA allows Salamanca to work this summer, which she does for the Girl Scouts of Northern California. She also continues to advocate for immigration reform and work on her website. This week, website visitors will find a recent video of Obama speaking about delayed immigration legislation; a scholarship opportunity for eighth graders; the California DREAM Act financial aid application; and a post asking others to share testimony on how DACA has changed their lives.

"That's why sarahi.tv started, so that my story wouldn't repeat and somebody who's in high school who has the grades and the potential to go straight to college doesn't have to feel like there is nothing out there for them because there is," she said. "It's difficult to find, but it is out there."

Online Editor Elena Kadvany can be emailed at ekadvany@paweekly.com.


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