When Viviana Sanchez was five-years-old, she got on a plane with her mother and three-year-old-brother. They flew past the vast ocean, past paradise, and left Guayaquil behind, a city on the coast of Ecuador, until they arrived in N.Y.
Sanchez, now 22-years-old and a senior psychology major at York College, City University of New York, says she has a very vivid memory of the day she left Ecuador. She still remembers her mom asking her if she was excited to see her father, who had already been living in the U.S. for over a year.
“My father was forced to come here, he had to come to a different country not knowing the language, not knowing anything,” Sanchez said. “He always tells me this story, how the first time that he came here he was all alone and nobody had come to pick him up. It was very hard for him.”
Sanchez says her parents immigrated to the U.S. because they couldn’t find a job in Ecuador. They came to the U.S. with tourist visas, but eventually they expired.
According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2014, there were 11.3 undocumented immigrants in the U.S., and a majority of them entered the country without valid documents or arrived with valid visas but stayed past the expiration.
Because Sanchez was a minor when she immigrated into the U.S., she is considered a DREAMer under Deferred Action Against Childhood Arrival, a policy announced by President Barack Obama in 2012.
DACA allows the the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to use prosecutorial discretion to not deport undocumented youth. Immigrants who came to the U.S before their 16th birthday, and meet other guidelines, have temporary permission to stay in the U.S. and not be deported. It is not considered legal status like a visa or a permanent resident card, but they are authorized to work.
In 2014, Obama expanded DACA, however federal district court in Texas issued an expansion that temporarily placed the expanded DACA program on hold.
“I wanted to go get my passport renewed with my family so we could see if I could purchase tickets and just go back to Ecuador, which I don’t know nothing about,” Sanchez says. “As soon as I got back home and I took out my passport I turned on the news… it was an emotional experience because it was on that day, that I felt like leaving the country, that DACA was announced.”
Before DACA, Sanchez could not find a job and struggled to pay for school. Because of her status, she does not qualify for financial aid.
“I was offered like a scholarship mid-junior year,” she said.
“I remember coming home and I told my parents ‘hey I was offered a scholarship because I’m a good student in school,’ and they were like you can’t apply (to college) because you don’t have a social security number.”
It was that same year that she experienced her first instance of discrimination. Sanchez was interning at a hospital in New York for high school credit. She was placed in an HIV prevention unit, but she didn’t know that they were going to ask her for paperwork.
By this time, Sanchez says she knew she didn’t have a social security number, but she didn’t know she was considered “illegal.”
“I remember the administrator just looking at me and giving me a dirty look, and she was like ‘are you an illegal?’” Sanchez said.
“I felt like crying, I didn’t know how to respond. At the time I didn’t know my rights or anything, they’re not supposed to be interrogating you about your status when you’re in school. I know that now.”
Sanchez thought she wouldn’t be able to go to college; however, after encouragement from her parents, Sanchez applied and was able to pay with the help of her parents. The number of classes she could take would fluctuate based on what she could afford.
“It was really frustrating. I was forced to only take two classes (freshmen year). I had to drop my other classes because my parents were like ‘no, that’s too much money.”
A separate semester one of her mentors fundraised money to pay her classes. After DACA, she got a job and also helped pay for her education. This semester, her education is being funded through a scholarship.
While in college, Sanchez became highly involved in the immigration activism community. She joined the New York State Youth Leadership Council, a non-profit led by and aimed at creating opportunities for undocumented youth. She is also joined Make the Road New York, an organization that aims to build Latino and working class communities through organizing, among other things. Currently, Make the Road NY, is advocating for the New York DREAM act, which would allow DREAMers that meet in-state requirements to be eligible for state financial aid and scholarships.
Because of her involvement with Make the Road NY, one of her mentors encouraged her to apply for the Adobe Youth Voices National Audio/ Story telling competition in 2012. She was one of the finalists. In her submission, an audio story, she told her immigration story.
“A lot of people are still very scared to tell their stories, and I was one of them for a very long time,” she said.
“We need to tell our stories, not only for ourselves and our families, but for people to understand our struggles and who we are. That we are not criminals, that we are not here to hurt anyone, that we work very hard.”
She, alongside 34 other DREAMers, was also featured on the cover of Time Magazine, with Jose Antonio Vargas, Filipino journalist, filmmaker and immigration rights activist.
“And that’s how my activism started,” Sanchez said.
Currently, Sanchez is still finishing up her final year in college and advocating, because the “struggle continues.”
“I’m a lot of things: I’m a student, I’m someone’s daughter, I’m someone’s sister…I’m a dreamer,” Sanchez adds.