Growing Up as an Illegal Immigrant: The Story of a UF Student

Illegal immigration is one of the most highly debated topics of the 21st century. As of late, our Twitter and Facebook feeds have blown up with an influx of opinions on the issue, ranging from the anti-immigrant statements of Donald Trump to the immigrant-friendly comments of left-wingers like Bernie Sanders. It seems everyone has an opinion on the issue, and more importantly, it seem like everyone wants to influence others to share in that opinion.

According to the Pew Research Center, there were roughly 11.3 million unauthorized illegal immigrants in the U.S. in 2014. Six states alone count for 60 percent of these 11.3 million people, with the state of Florida being one of them.

When discussing the topic of immigration, it's easy to close your mind off and forget that at the core of the issue is a person seeking a better life, just as you and I are. It’s easy for us students to have strong beliefs when it comes to the issue, but it's even easier for us to forget that these immigrants we are talking about are sitting right beside us in classrooms, at the library or in our sorority houses.

It’s easy to sit here and say that I feel strongly about keeping immigrants out and building strong walls to make sure they can never get in again. The hard part is realizing that this immigrant you’re so quickly passing judgement about is actually someone you know, and that they’re actually someone you might consider a friend.

Her name, age and some minor details have been changed for her protection, but the power of her story remains the same. This article will highlight the story of Mariana Rios, a 20-year-old sophomore from south Florida who, until recently, lived her life in fear of being discovered as an illegal immigrant.

Like the story of many others, Rios’ life was shaped by circumstances outside of her control. Rios was born in the South American country of Venezuela in 1995, just before the communist dictator Hugo Chavez rose to power. In fear of what might happen to the country under his regime and in the hopes for a better life, her parents decided to uproot the family and move to the United States — a decision, she says, they do not regret in the slightest.

“Our life here hasn’t been the easiest to say the least. There have been times where I could tell that my parents felt scared and backed into a corner, but then we would hear about our family members in Venezuela who struggled to make sure they could even afford a carton of milk for their kids. It made me think that no matter how bad things got, no matter how uncertain our future was, it still didn’t even compare to what we would have experienced had we stayed,” Rios said.

Rios said she vaguely remembers feeling different from other kids growing up. “Looking back on it now I can see that maybe in the very beginning of my childhood we weren’t the wealthiest of families, but I just remember being happy. I never felt like I needed anything.” She said that she was too young to really know or understand the circumstances surrounding her family.

It was only as she got older that she truly realized the black cloud her parents carried with them every day. After overhearing conversations and probing her parents with questions, they finally let her in on the truth. “They weren’t hiding it from me, the concept just didn’t really stick with me until I was around 12 years old. They just said ‘Mar, we’re illegal, and it's a secret you need to keep for your own protection.’”

From then on, Rios says she remembers it being a thought constantly in the back of her mind. “There wasn’t a day that went by where I didn’t think about it. Someone could come knocking on our door at any minute, take us away and end our lives here. It was terrifying,” she said.

It was a secret she struggled to keep internally, but showed no signs of harboring externally. The secrecy, she said, was their normal. Being an illegal immigrant in this country is no easy feat. Rios’ parents struggled with simple tasks, such as opening a bank account or renewing their driver's licenses. Rios said her parents always had to be extremely careful, never wanting to draw too much attention to themselves.

“We managed it the best we could,” she said. “Some days were good, and some days we felt like we weren’t going to make it to the next day.”

Real problems arose, however, when it came time for Rios to apply to college. Top of her class and highly involved in extracurriculars, Rios said she felt confident about her ability to gain acceptance at the school of her choice. Where the uncertainty would lie was in her actual ability to go due to her immigration status.

“I wasn’t a citizen or a resident. I was here illegally. I didn’t have a Social Security number, and that's the first thing they ask you for on your application.” Rios said she remembers staring at the application packets for days being unsure of who she could confide in about her situation.

On the advice of her school counselor, Rios applied to schools as an international student, despite having lived in the U.S. her entire life. This unfortunately was not the first hurdle on her journey to a college education. Being classified as an international student not only meant that she was placed in a more competitive pool of applicants, but it also meant that if she wanted to go to school, her family would be forced to pay the out-of-state tuition fees.

Rios considers this one of the most difficult times in her life. “It was painful. Words can’t describe how I felt. I worked so hard just to get to that point, and it seemed like the world was fighting against me.” Above all, she knew how much this was affecting her parents.

“I think in more ways than one, my mom and dad felt like they failed me,” she said. Rios recalls a time when the uncertainty of it all caused her mother to break down in tears, apologizing for letting her daughter down. Rios said this pained her the most to hear. The idea that her mother had somehow let her down was unfathomable to her.

“My parents sacrificed everything for me, and to see them hurt over this, it's not something that as a child you ever forget,” stated Rios.

Fortunately for Rios and her family, this story has a happy ending. Upon accepting her admission to UF, Rios’ family made the brave choice to apply for political asylum with the U.S. government. If successful, the Rios family would be given refuge in the country and become U.S. residents. However, if their appeal was unsuccessful, they would be placed in jail and have to wait for deportation back to Venezuela.

On January 18, 2013, the Rios family was granted political asylum with the U.S. government. Rios said she remembers the news bringing her immediate tears of joy not for herself, but for her parents.

“It was just validation. A weight was lifted off of my parents shoulders, and I saw the peace it brought them to know that our family was going to be okay, that our family was going to be safe,” she said.

While Rios’ story has a happy ending, this is not the case for most illegal immigrants. Not many people are as lucky as Rios to have been granted refugee status in this country, with as many as 438,421 people deported in 2013 alone, according to the Pew Research Center. Even more shocking is the fact that many of these deportees are people like Rios who immigrated to the U.S. at very young ages, having absolutely no recollection of their native country.

Rios said that although she was not born here, she considers herself an American inside and out. She said that while her future looks as bright as ever, she will never forget her life as an illegal immigrant.

“You’ll never understand the shame and the suffering that comes with being in that situation until you experience it yourself. It’s hard to see the good in the world when you feel like people are constantly telling you that you’re the one that's not good enough,” Rios explained. “You feel like a criminal, like a second-class citizen. But the reality of it was that my only crime was being born in another country, and as a child you don’t know how many times I wish I hadn’t been,” Rios said.

By sharing her story, Rios said she hopes to educate people on what it really means to be in this country illegally. Her deepest desire is that anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation can find solace and strength in her own story.

Photo credits: new.rutgers.edu