Cesar Vargas, law school graduate and founder of DREAM Action Coalition. (Courtesy DREAM Action Coalition)

Undocumented professionals living in the shadows dream of a better future

Luis Aguilar immigrated from Zacatecas, Mexico to Rogers, Arkansas when he was 7 and in the third grade. A year later, he says he was speaking English well, and was the flag guard for a year at his elementary school. That’s what he says he remembered while President Barack Obama delivered his remarks on immigration reform today.

“I’ve pledged allegiance to the flag since the fourth grade,” says Aguilar, who is 24 and undocumented.

Although he says he feels American, it hasn’t been easy. Aguilar is one of millions whose parents brought him to a new country for a better life, but without papers, it was often a segregated life.

“All through high school, I knew I was undocumented, but I really didn’t know what it meant beyond crossing the border,” says Aguilar. “It wasn’t until sophomore year that I realized how it would keep me from getting a driver’s license, go on dates…I couldn’t live a simple life like go to an R-rated movie, because I needed to prove I was 17. All of my friends would go in, and I couldn’t…”

He says the only people that knew of his status were his close friends, and most of the time he would have to make something up, like he didn’t have money. When he graduated high school, he started feeling hopeless after being denied his lifelong dream to join the U.S. Marines, because he didn’t have a social security number. Aguilar was about to go back to Mexico when a friend told him he could go to community college. He got accepted to Northwest Arkansas Community College in 2008, where he studied nursing.

“I even got an award in nursing excellence — which only goes to one person…but in the end, it didn’t help me, because without a social security number, I couldn’t take my board exams,” says Aguilar. “So for two years I’ve just been mowing lawns, and doing random jobs, when I could be saving lives and doing something I went to school for.”

Cesar Vargas, a 29-year-old law school graduate from New York City, is in the same predicament. He has a law degree, but is unable to obtain a license in order to practice what he studied.

“I want to be a military lawyer, and I cannot, because I’m lacking citizenship,” says Vargas, who came to the states from Mexico at age 5. “I want to serve the country — I consider myself an American…It means what my mom is — being a hard worker and doing everything to fulfill the American dream for your family.”

Since Vargas graduated law school in 2011, he hasn’t wasted any time. He says he started a group called the Dream Action Coalition, made up of other undocumented individuals. They speak with government officials about what people on the ground want, which is comprehensive immigration reform. Today, he says he was in Washington, meeting with Senator Chuck Schumer.

After listening to the president’s speech today, however, he says he was somewhat disappointed.

“It’s pretty much the same speech again,” says Vargas, who has been closely listening to the president the past four years. “I think the most important thing that really stood out is that immigration is not about policy, but people…if he’s serious about that, he needs to take his own advice…because to him it may be numbers, but those are real people with real families.”

Robert G. Gonzales, assistant professor and sociologist at the University of Chicago, has been finishing a decade-long project following undocumented young adults. He says he feels this year, the U.S. seems to be in the best position to pass a bill.

“It’s certainly the most favorable alignment of politics and policy right now, but as many have been saying, this is more than policy it’s about people,” says Dr. Gonzales. “By passing some form of reform and a pathway to legalization, we would be in a very good position to immediately move a group of young people into opportunities that will allow them to actualize their investments and make greater contributions to their families, communities, and to our broader economy and society.”

Aguilar is feeling a bit more hopeful these days. Because of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, he got a social security number about a month ago.

“I got my work permit…I finally have a driver’s license,” he says. “I’m hoping in a couple of weeks to have a job as a nurse…Nursing is my calling, and that’s what I want to do…I also want to start some kind of health assistance for kids, giving free exams and checkups, but I’m studying for boards right now.”

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