Heading out to visit colleges is supposed to be a positive experience for both parents and high school seniors.
But for Nicolas Lee, the simple act of traveling from Santa Barbara to UC San Diego became a journey that presented too many consequences for his family’s future.
“On the Interstate 5, between San Clemente and San Diego, there is an immigration checkpoint,” he recalled. “If you’re undocumented, that’s the one route you don’t want to drive through. And it’s random – sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not. It’s all based on luck. If they see you and they just want to check your documents, they pull you over.”
Lee, who has asked Coastlines to use a pseudonym to keep his undocumented status private, has never told his parents why he didn’t choose UC San Diego. “At the last second, I thought about it – even if I like it, I can’t choose that school,” he said. “I wouldn’t want them to risk something just to come see me. So UCSB became the choice – it was the closest to home and it was nice to see them all the time.”
Like millions of undocumented young people around the country, Lee has grown up being cautious about details and opportunities that most citizens take for granted -- like signing a lease, getting federal student financial aid or being able to take part in international education possibilities like the UC Education Abroad program.
“You can get a permit to leave the country and they give you a little piece of paper that says you can come back into the country – but that’s not guaranteed,” he said. “The person at the gate could just deny you. One person could change your future – just one person. I did not want to risk that.”
The number of undocumented students like Lee living, working and pursuing degrees at American universities and colleges is difficult to track, due to the very nature of their precarious status under this current immigration system. In 2012, the same year President Obama signed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), there were 7,000 to 13,000 undocumented students enrolled in colleges throughout the United States. The executive action grants a two-year renewable work permit and exemption from deportation to undocumented immigrants who entered the country before their 16th birthday and before June 2007.
'A BETTER FUTURE'
In 2004, Lee arrived in the United States with his family when he was nine years old. They settled in Santa Barbara County, where life was drastically different from what they had in their homeland.
“My dad was a mechanical engineer, my mom was a computer science major,” he said. “Now my mom cleans houses and my dad works at a hotel as maintenance. So they gave up, literally, their whole careers for us to be able to be here. Why did this happen? When you come here, you can’t just validate the degrees that you got in other countries. I think there is a test you have to do – but to do that you have to have a Social Security number, or it is super expensive. So without the means when they first arrived here, my parents just came in and made do.”
The Lees went from living in the big city in their home country, to a town of a few thousand residents. “I grew up in the second largest city in my home country,” he said. “Think of it as an `L.A.’ – it’s super urban, lots of shopping malls – it’s the place to be.”
Then, his father was robbed at gunpoint. “When they did that, they took his car, they took everything – and he was going to pay some workers – and they took that money too,” he recalled. “As I understand it, that got the ball rolling. My aunt lived here in the United States – she had already been living here for 15 years. By the time we came here, she was already a citizen. So she got sponsored by her boss to able to apply for documentation. There was talk of progress for the undocumented immigrants in the country at that time. So my parents wanted to be able to give me the opportunity, along with my brother.”
The Lees had been to the United States before – on vacation. “So we came with a tourist visa and we overstayed the visa,” said Lee. “I know we are super lucky to have been able to do that. Some people don’t even get that option.”
Lee struggled to adjust to cultural differences during his first year attending elementary school. “I remember in my country, you would not be able to leave the house without doing your hair, and you definitely couldn’t leave without wearing an ironed shirt. If you are going to school, you are wearing a uniform. In the US, my school did not require uniforms. I didn’t know how to dress. How does an American person dress? So I took tips from my cousins who were living here, but I still stood out. If you look at my pictures when I was in 4th grade, I was wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt - it was so strange for me because it was not the culture that I grew up with. I literally didn’t know how to dress.”
Fitting in with the kids was hard, until about fifth or sixth grade. “Sixth grade was when I felt I finally found a good group of friends,” he said. “Those group of friends carried me through high school. I still talk to a lot of them, even though we met way back. None of them know that I am undocumented.”
Mathematics, his favorite subject since third grade, helped him advance at school despite the initial language barriers. “In the beginning, they put me in a slower math class not meant for advanced students. I was just not happy with that,” he recalled. “We fought for a month to put me in a higher-level math class, so I could be accelerated. Honestly, that move is what changed my experience until now, because if I hadn’t been in that math class, I would have been delayed with my calculus classes in my high school. It’s insane how something in fourth grade can affect you until now. I would still be taking math classes and would not be finished. I think I really wanted to be on top of it and not let anything drag me down.”
“I loved math because it is a universal language,” he continued, “I knew English before I came here as well – I was super fortunate to go to a bilingual school – but it was obviously still hard to communicate with others. I had an accent and it was hard fitting in at first – but once I got used to it, I just wanted to do the best I could. I was also in an ESL class in fourth grade and also did not like that because they took me out of my math class to go to that. I tested out of ESL and was able to focus more on my academics.”
Growing up in a predominantly wealthy area, Lee felt different from his classmates in other ways. “Our house wasn’t the nicest,” he said. “It was right across campus from my school. You can see it from there - and it was kind of rundown. And then all the students would invite me to their beautiful houses in the middle of a ranch with horses. They had a lot of money. I definitely felt different as far as like having that economic difference between my peers and really I never knew how to explain to them what my parents jobs were. In most schools, it’s a big thing at the job fair to bring your parents to talk to the students – `what do your parents do?’ Are my parents engineers? Does my dad work at a hotel? Does my mom really clean houses? Is that something I want to share with people? Because as a middle schooler, following social cues and norms, I didn’t know what people would think about that, you know?”
“My parents worked really hard for me not to feel economically embarrassed. They gave me everything I needed. If I didn’t have a laptop, they went out and got me a laptop. I wanted a camera, they got me a camera. I never felt like I didn’t have the things that my peers did. I know that my parents did have to give up a lot for that.”
ANONYMITY: HIS CHOICE, HIS REASONS
Lee became more aware of the impact of his family’s undocumented status when he turned 18. “When you’re a minor, you just feel like you’re protected,” he said. “You’re not an adult, so you’re not legally responsible for being in this country illegally. But once you turn 18…I had a huge identity crisis. The land that I’m stepping on, is technically illegal. Everything that I do in this country is illegal, but I grew up here. My 18th birthday was a strange day. And I just had to go through that – just feeling weird about it – and come to terms with it. What happens, happens.”
Now in his fourth year as an engineering major at UC Santa Barbara, Lee has kept quiet about his undocumented identity. “I think the way that I like to cope with it is to not think about it. I think it only comes up when you have to renew your DACA -- you have to do it then. I have talked about it with only a few people. It would have to be someone very special in my life. Just four days ago, I had to sign my documents for DACA and I had to send it over to USCIS – and no one knows about it. It’s something that just happens – it’s something you just have to do and pretend it didn’t happen.”
Because he isn’t vocal about his status, Lee hasn’t gotten to know many undocumented students on campus. “You don’t just see each other and go `oh, you are undocumented!’” he laughed. “One of my friends – she got an email from the undocumented services person – while she was showing me something on her phone! And until then, I hadn’t known she was undocumented. So I told her I was too -- we bonded over that, knowing what each of us had to go through. There are so many different stories that people have here – each one is different.”
His choice to be silent about being undocumented is also due to not wanting to be unnecessarily defined by any misconceptions about his identity. “I just really don’t want this to affect my experience here,” he said.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM…AND ON THE 2016 BALLOT
This past election year, the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump made a series of statements about immigration. “Ah yes, the wall,” said Lee. “I understand there is a national security issue. I agree that national security should be a number one priority. But I think it would be a massive humanitarian disaster if all the people who are already here, who are just living their lives, were to be ripped away and placed somewhere else.”
“So it’s a strange topic,” he continued. “I understand the points of view about national security. At the same time, I am in this position, where that policy would not go well with the path that I’m on in my life. I think that the people who are already here, there’s value in letting us stay. We are contributing to society – many things wouldn’t happen if we weren’t here. We’ve made a difference in people’s lives. That’s not saying that in a conceited way -- but your life IS changed by the many undocumented people around you that you may not even know about. Some people have been here for 20 or more years undocumented. Definitely it’s a sketchy topic. For the people who have been here for a while – and they’ve made lives here – there’s no reason in my logical mind to kick them out.”
He also thinks politicians should address the human side of the immigration dilemma, before making sweeping statements categorizing whole groups of people as a problem to be solved unilaterally.
“Nowadays, there is a general feeling that the economy is more important than a person’s life,” he said. “I don’t think politicians really see the stories behind the undocumented students that are here -- like the struggle that they had to go through life. You don’t just live in a garage with your whole family, attend university and find success – and then get ripped out because of economic issues and because we’re `costing the government too much. It’s a big misconception that undocumented people don’t pay taxes. Taxes are taken out of people’s checks – it’s not a choice. All the money being taken out of my dad’s paycheck for Medicare is never going to go back to him. And we still file our taxes. We have to do it in order for me to apply for financial aid.”
“Everything is regulated for us,” he said. “The government is very well aware that we’re here. Definitely keeping a humanitarian approach to the people is the most important, and it’s not so much about the money. And I know that’s hard because everyone is concerned about money. I think a person’s life should outweigh the money aspect of it.”
PAYING FOR HIS FUTURE
As an undocumented student, Lee cannot qualify for federal aid and is limited from applying for most grants, work-study jobs and many loan programs.
“During high school, no one really knew if there were resources for undocumented students,” he said. “AB 540 was just not a thing until I was a high school senior– and it’s the only reason that I’m here. I wouldn’t have been able to pay for it, without AB 540. Even if I had gone to a city college, without AB 540, it would still have so expensive -- the units are about $500 for non-residents. AB 540 helped out a lot.”
To help Lee pay for his freshman year tuition and expenses at UC Santa Barbara, his parents delved into their savings. “We ended paying a significant amount,” he said. “We just did it.”
In his high school senior year, Lee learned about a scholarship available to undocumented students provided by the Adsum Education Foundation, a nonprofit started by Gauchos Maritza Meija-Wilson `02, Travis Wilson `02, Jonathan Wang `02 and UC alum Debra Roets.
“I remember the first Adsum Reception that I attended,” he recalled. “It was this gathering of all these undocumented students that got awards. It was insane to see other students like me -- because no one really talks about it. Adsum first and foremost showed me that there are a lot of other students that are in my same position. We were just kinda in the shadows – and Adsum helped us come out at least to get to know each other. And as far as money, if I didn’t have the Adsum scholarship, that would have added at least 10 hours to my work week if I had to continue paying solely on my own. My Adsum scholarship is about $4,500 a year. I’ve been offered Adsum for four years.”
With the Adsum award and the scholarships he received from other private scholarship funds, Lee was able to balance a full course load with part-time student employment at UC Santa Barbara. “As of now, I am working 10 or 15 hours a week again at Student Affairs,” he said. “No loans. Just doing all this. And yes, I take the full class load. I was really lucky in high school when they allowed me to dual enroll in college courses. Instead of taking AP classes, I took these college courses. So by the time I was here, I was done with almost all of my general education classes. And ever since freshman year, I’ve been taking classes in my major.”
WHO ARE YOU, NICOLAS LEE?Lee’s favorite class this quarter is a digital imaging class. “This class talks about how a camera works,” he said. “I’ve been a photographer all my life. My grandpa is a photographer, my aunt is a photographer -- as soon as I showed any sign of interest in photography, they went out and bought me a camera.”
Lee initially took engineering as a way to honor his father. When he experienced doubts about his major during his second and third year, he called his father at 2 a.m. in the morning to talk about his fears. “He said do what you want to do,” recalled Lee. “He knows that part of my reason for doing it was to pay homage to them and he knows that he’s not forcing me to do it. `You do what you have to do,’ he told me, `If you don’t like it then don’t force yourself to do something you don’t like for the rest of your life.’ My mother said the same thing.”
Having survived the tough third year of his major, he looks forward to exploring careers that combine his love of STEM, his creativity and his people skills. “I feel like I’m in a weird position – I’m a very social engineer,” he laughed. “I have a lot of different channels open to me now.”
Lee wants to encourage other undocumented students to defy the stereotypes surrounding their status. “Don’t give up,” he said. “Because I don’t want to sit here and let my future be decided. Because if anything happens, at least I’ll have a college degree. So whether I’m back in my homeland or in another country, a U.S. college degree is worth a lot. I want to keep going. In the end, everything that I have is my education. Nothing else is valid in this country.”
And if given a real choice to stay, or to return to his homeland, Lee had no doubts on what his answer would be. “I want to stay,” he said. “I’ve been here for a long time and consider myself more a citizen of this country than that of my homeland. I am an American – I want to be considered as an American."