• MHCC Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) Students Share Experiences, Offer Advice to Allies of Immigrants

    For first-year Mt. Hood Community College student Vanessa Castillo, earning DACA status opened up new possibilities. New job opportunities became available. She felt more confident, less concerned about being rejected by potential employers. And she felt less judged and stigmatized.

    From left to right, Vanessa Castillo, MHCC student; Elizabeth Perry, Bilingual and Culturally Diverse Student Retention Coordinator for MHCC’s Transiciones; Kelly Bernardino, MHCC ASG President; Carolina Reyes, Oregon DACA; and Amy Widger, ESL and Intensive English for College and Careers (IECC) instructor, speak at a recent immigration resources workshop held at MHCC.

    With her confidence renewed, Castillo set her sights on furthering her education. It had been a goal of hers since graduating high school some 17 years ago. She saw it as an opportunity to better care for her family and to show her children – by leading by example – the value of achieving a solid educational foundation and the importance of pursuing careers they were passionate about.

    “I always wanted to continue my studies,” said Castillo during a recent immigration resources workshop held at MHCC. “I wanted to prepare myself better, for a better job, and to show my kids, to show my family, the importance of learning.”

    [Pullout quote: “I always wanted to continue my studies. I wanted to prepare myself better, for a better job, and to show my kids, to show my family, the importance of learning.”]

    However, even with DACA status, the path to a degree and a better-paying career was not straightforward. For starters, as a DACA student, she did not qualify for federal financial aid. Instead, she has relied mainly on scholarships to help fund her education. She doesn’t know if she will receive scholarship assistance for next term; for now, she views her education on a term-by-term basis.

    “I can only think about the term I’m in,” she said. “Because I don’t know if I will be able to pay for my classes next term. I don’t even know if I will be able to finish this term out.”

    Then there’s the anxiety she lives with over whether the federal government will attempt to discontinue the DACA program. And the renewal process – every two years – of her DACA status. This renewal can take months; the last time, Castillo applied for renewal six months before hers expired. However, it was several months after her DACA expiration date when she finally received an updated status. And during those months, while her status was in limbo, she could not work or access other benefits.

    “I’m not a criminal,” Castillo said earnestly. “All I’m trying to do is educate myself, prepare myself, and care for my family.”

    Amy Widger, an ESL and Intensive English for College and Careers (IECC) instructor at MHCC, said she’s been more mindful of the anxiety and the disruptions that many of her students have been dealing with over the last year.

    Widger said that being more flexible with her students is just one example of how she’s trying to become a better ally to immigrant students and community members. Other advice she has for potential allies: listen more, share reliable and truthful information, exercise empathy and sincerity, build connections, and just recognize people more often.

    “We are all so busy sometimes,” she said. “One suggestion: slow down and make people more visible. Recognize that we have a community that is isolated. Let’s be more open and make people feel more visible.”

    Kelly Bernardino, president of the MHCC Associated Student Government, said she was “on the fence” about applying to the DACA program while in high school. However, with some family coaxing, she joined in 2012. As a result, she was able to transition from an internship directly into a job.

    “I am very thankful for that opportunity,” said Bernardino. “But I also think there’s a lot to do to fix the program and the immigration issue.”

    Recent government actions have made her fearful: for herself, her family and her community. She reports not feeling safe all the time, and having a constant fear of even getting something as seemingly minor as a speeding ticket.

    “You never know what is going to impact you, and that’s the fear,” she said.

    Allies of immigrants can play an important role in helping alleviate that fear, said Bernardino. And to her, an ally is someone who “understands” instead of accuses.

    “I’m not here to create controversy,” she added. “I just want an ally to understand where I’m coming from.”