It’s not a question of why immigration reform needs to happen for Alma Huerta, a freshman at Georgetown University—it’s a matter of when. The 18-year-old has lived through having no papers to waiting to take a citizenship test to undergo a uniquely American transmutation—from Mexican to Mexican-American.
“You live here and study here, this becomes your country,” said Huerta, who is studying international politics and foreign policy. “You are product of your heritage but in the end there is a reason why you left, you want to be a part of this country.”
But for many—approximately 12 million—joining the union isn’t an option until legislators in Washington decide their fate. Hundreds of activists and demonstrators assembled near the Capitol Tuesday, hoping to revive the debate and unveil Rep. Luis Gutierrez’s (D-Ill.) new comprehensive reform bill.
Among the chanters and banner yielders were members of Georgetown University’s MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan), a chapter of the politicized Latino student organization founded in the 1960s. For each student, the issue is personal and carries with it the threat of separation from loved ones.
MEChA co-chair and California native Frances Davila said the government’s treatment of undocumented immigrants cost the life of her stepfather, who was ordered to return to Mexico when he applied for citizenship two years ago.
“He suffered a heart attack and died there. He was 30 and very healthy,” said Davila, a senior culture and politics major. “This is how the lack of immigration reform divides family and it really disturbed ours. It goes beyond pushing a law; we have to consider the emotional and mental stability of all these immigrants.”
Although Huerta is on a path to legalization, the fear and isolation Davila described is a familiar feeling. Growing up in a conservative agricultural community named after a Confederate colonel, Huerta said she often felt powerless against the anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“When I was younger and I heard these debates, I didn’t have to ability to agree or disagree,” Huerta said. “As a kid I would ask myself, ‘am I not wanted here?’ or ‘should I go back to a place I love by extension but don’t remember?’”
Unlike many of the students in MEChA, Huerta knows what it’s like to be the subject of a national debate and the bearer of blanket statements by those opposed to her presence.
“I would hear ‘immigrants are lazy’ or ‘they should go back home,” Huerta said. “So you are saying that my family is lazy? It’s hard to be rational in those discussions. They are so narrow in their view of immigrants but I try to understand them as if I wasn’t an immigrant.”
Her mother, a school custodian; her father, a dairy farm worker; Huerta said hearing family stories may humanize the immigration debate.
“People need to know the real issue with immigration and not just say immigration is an issue,” Huerta said. “Sometimes it was hard to listen to the stories about families that were split up and how they were uprooted. At times, I think other people believe we are no better than cattle that wandered into the wrong field.”
Brought here as a child from Guanajuato, Mexico, Huerta had no memories of the town that produced her. In fact, her first memory is on an American playground, running around arms outstretched like wings while her mother was in English class.
“My dad loves Mexico and he wishes he shared with his children there,” Huerta said. “But whenever people decide to come to America, it’s not something they wanted or something they could wait for, there was a desperate need.”
The next year Huerta entered school, trying to unlearn Spanish quickly enough to avoid teacher reprimands and excel in school. By the time she reached high school, she had reached the top of her class, never once earning any grade less than an A.
During the first few years of her life in the U.S., Huerta was undocumented. She later applied for a green card, receiving permanent residency and initiating citizenship proceedings.
When it came to apply to college, Huerta had only one school in mind since she was 14: Georgetown. There, she would be close to the policymakers and politics that will affect her and many in her community. This summer, Huerta earned a full scholarship to the elite institution.
Though her story sounds ideal, Huerta said until others like her can enjoy the citizenship she won’t either. Her participation in this rally and others will continue to fuel her resolve to see comprehensive immigration reform in the coming years.
Davila said students like Huerta are examples of what immigrants can contribute to American society with education.
“People fail to see the long term issues. They (immigrants) are the future teachers and workers of this country,” Davila said. “Without giving them an education, the entire country suffers.”