Lady Lira stood in silence as she listened to her fellow Knox students discuss the legalities of immigration during a training session for Orientation Week. As her peers shared their perspectives on the controversial subject, Lira’s stomach twisted into a nervous knot.
“All illegal immigrants are criminals and should be deported,” the moderator of the exercise said, prompting students to either walk to the “agree” side of the room or the “disagree” side.
As students dispersed, a wave of memories rushed over the Knox junior. She remembered her mother leaving her with her grandmother when she was three and pretending to sleep in the backseat of a car at age 11 next to her 12-year-old cousin Kenia Reyes, while a woman posing as their mother failed to persuade the border officials to let them through.
She could still remember crying during the interrogations with border agents, the second unsuccessful crossing, and then she and her cousin wading across a small river during their third crossing attempt into the United States, praying after her feet hit solid ground on the other side, not recognizing her mother after being reunited after eight years, adjusting to her new life, learning English, making honor roll and moving to Galesburg to attend Knox College.
Now, standing inside Taylor Lounge watching her peers divide around her, Lira felt her hands sweat and start to shake. A single question seized her mind: “Should I tell them?”
That question is being echoed in the minds of undocumented students across the country as national movements aimed to reduce the secrecy around those with undocumented status gain momentum. This fall, three Knox students publicly revealed their statuses on campus, but while the students feel it’s time to “come out,” the administration lacks relevant information about undocumented students at Knox, including a list of the students within that population.
Last year, MEChA de Knox, a chapter of the National Chicago of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztln (MEChA), a political organization promoting Chicano rights, went to the MEChA conference in Chicago, where they heard a speaker whose message would change the course of the group at Knox.
Lira was struck immediately by undocumented youth activist Maria Gonzalez’s openness about her undocumented status, which she mentioned when introducing herself. “I was tearing up and I’m like, ‘Lady, don’t cry, don’t cry.’ And I’m just like, ‘She said it. Why can’t I say it?’”
Gonzalez has started conversations about undocumented students on many campuses around Chicago. In April 2014, she hosted a Coming Out of the Shadows event at the Illinois Institute of Technology as part of the Chicago-based Coming out of the Shadows movement that hosts rallies where undocumented immigrants can share their stories publicly.
When MEChA de Knox heard Gonzalez speak at the 2015 MEChA nationals, the group knew they wanted her to give a presentation at Knox. She agreed.
On Sept. 24, 2015, a small audience of students joined members of MEChA at Kresge Recital Hall to learn about the politically charged issue. For MEChA members junior Clara Torres and sophomore Karla Medina, the night was a personal milestone.
“At one point I was crying just because what she had to say really connected,” Medina, Secretary of MEChA, said. “It’s what I had been living through.”
Near the end of her talk, Gonzalez shared with the audience that there are undocumented students on the Knox campus and urged the majority to be considerate of their feelings, needs and requests for help. Torres and Medina recognized that in that moment, Gonzalez’s words took on a stronger relevance to the audience.
“Me and Clara kind of looked at each other and that was the moment like, ‘Yes, we’re going to come out now,’” Medina said. They rose from their seats, joined Gonzalez in front of the stage, faced the audience and revealed their statuses to their peers.
“It was more people than I have ever even told individually,” Medina said. “I don’t regret it. I don’t.”
Although the specific moment was unplanned, Torres and Medina had been thinking about revealing their undocumented status on campus long before Gonzalez came to Knox this fall.
“Since the end of last year, we were thinking of having a ‘coming out of the shadows’ event after we both saw Maria Gonzalez speak at the end of our national MEChA conference,” Medina said. “Since then, it’s always been in the back of our minds to come out and say, ‘Yes, we are undocumented. Yes, we are here on campus.’”
Knox has admitted undocumented students for over a decade, but despite the long-held policy, the college has no public stance on its policy on the website, which prospective students often use as a resource.
According to Charles Clark, the Chief Institutional Research Officer of Knox, undocumented students are not tracked in official reporting systems of the college and therefore cannot be separated out from the population to analyze retention rates, enrollment or other general indicators of the well-being of the student population.
“It’s not like we keep a running database of who the undocumented students are. A few of us have an understanding,” Lori Schroeder, Associate Dean of the College, said. “There is a sensitivity around their status … We don’t want the idea that there’s a list of people we’re watching that may feel uncomfortable with the idea that we’re watching them.“
Determining these statistics wouldn’t require a lot of data-gathering.
“Because the numbers are so small, it wouldn’t be hard to start tracking that,” Schroeder said.
Off the cuff, Dean of Admission Paul Steenis estimates that Knox has admitted 17 undocumented students over the past four years.
The closest statistics the school has on retention data for undocumented students is from the class of 2015. According to Schroeder, of the seven undocumented students who entered with the class in 2011, three withdrew from the college and four graduated last spring.
Tracking the numbers of undocumented students could help calculate their overall population and retention rates at Knox, statistics that are widely used among students when applying to schools.
Despite there being no federal law prohibiting any college or university from admitting undocumented students, there are schools that choose not to. Making that distinction between schools is an important and often unclear part of the application process for undocumented students.
The college application process is a difficult process for undocumented students that can burn out even the most motivated, said Susan Bell, Executive Director of the organization College Bound Opportunities, a selective program Medina was admitted to that helps students apply to and find scholarships for college.
“It’s just harder for undocumented students to find the schools that are going to be financially friendly to them,” said Bell. “You have to search for the information, so you have to go on everybody’s financial aid website for assistance and see if they make a statement there. Some do, most don’t.”
According to Steenis, most of the work Knox does with undocumented students is done through various networks such as community-based organizations and high schools. Outside of these networks, the fact that Knox accepts undocumented students isn’t advertised.
“We don’t tend to specifically promote it or push it on our website,” Steenis said.
The hardest part of sending undocumented students to college isn’t the application process, it’s the financial aid.
Organizations like College Bound Opportunities work to fill the gap between financial aid and the remainder of tuition left to pay. This gap is often larger for undocumented students, who are not eligible for federal funding such as the FAFSA or federal loans. Knox, along with most colleges in the U.S., is well aware of this.
Financial aid restrictions are not just limited to a student’s financial aid package, however.
Some federally funded campus resources, such as TRIO, a Federal outreach and student service program, are unavailable for undocumented students. But programs funded by Knox, such as SPARK, are open to everyone.
Financial aid is not the only aspect of student life that is different for undocumented students. Even the classroom experience can be isolating. Usually, Medina feels like just another student in class, but when topics such as race, politics and immigration arise, it’s a different story.
“When these topics come up, that’s when I feel a barrier there,” Medina said. “I feel like I’m in a different situation and have these different limitations that other people might not even realize.”
“The Undocumented and Unafraid movement definitely was shocking to me because it only seemed natural to be afraid,” Torres said. “Because the consequences of having one of your family members or yourself be deported is just incredibly big.”
Some of that fear has been eliminated by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows many undocumented youth to get driver’s licenses and work, but it is not an all-encompassing solution.
“DACA just applies to the students,” Steenis said. “It doesn’t apply to the family members. DACA only protects you so far as well. So, I mean, we’ve got to be concerned about family members, sometimes I mean that’s more of a concern than students themselves.”
Torres understood the importance of being the first of her siblings who didn’t have to work through high school; her family explicitly told her not to.
“I knew that my older siblings didn’t have those opportunities,” the Knox junior said. “So, it’s like, you have one job; you’d better do it right.” In eighth grade, Torres got into every selective enrollment high school in Chicago that she applied to.
She maintained her level of academic achievement in high school and earned straight A’s from one of U.S. News’ top five schools in Illinois. But during her senior year, things began to fall apart. “I started losing hope that I could go to college,” Torres said. She thought of how hard she had worked in school her whole life.
“I was starting to realize it wasn’t going to be enough, and that was really depressing.” She spent hours searching for scholarships that didn’t require citizenship, with no luck.
Focusing in on Knox kept her going.
“After looking at Knox, I started to get a little more hopeful and a little more determined,” Torres said.
Lira stood silently on the the “disagree” side of Taylor Lounge with the vast majority of the group, facing the three peers who stood opposite them. As the conversation died down, she hesitantly half-raised her hand to speak.
Before she could finish the first sentence revealing the closest kept secret of her life, the tears came. She waited to gain control of her voice. “I am undocumented. We’re not all criminals,” she said, tears streaming down her face. “I worked really hard to be here. My parents are not criminals. My mom has worked really hard.”
Lira felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. The divide in the room collapsed as people came nearer to support her. She noticed some of her peers were crying. Lira felt a weight lift off her. She’d told them who she was, and they had accepted her.
“I didn’t feel any different because I’m not different,” Lira said months later. “But it felt good because they’re actually gonna understand, they’re gonna know that undocumented people can attend college, can do all these things and are able to do all these things.”