Walking down North High Street in West Chester, she doesn’t appear to be different than any other 21-year-old. However, what separates her from others walking down the street is not her appearance.
Sophia, who requested that her real name not be used due to her status, is one of over 11 million undocumented immigrants living in America.
Her father was already working in the U.S. when he decided he wanted to bring his family here when she was 3. However, the immigration process takes between eight to 12 years to complete and there is no guarantee of obtaining legal residency after this period.
For Sophia’s father, it wasn’t worth sacrificing his children’s childhood to wait for the immigration process. He decided to rely on coyotes, who are paid thousands per person to smuggle people into the U.S. from Mexico, to reunite his family.
The coyotes bought the family across the border. From there, they made their way from Las Vegas to Chicago before being united with family in West Chester.
“First, we lived with family that was already here legally,” Sophia said. “We tried to save money for a place of our own.”
Settling in American culture, her mother was hired at Parkway Cleaners. After several months, her family saved enough to rent their own apartment. Sophia lived just like any other legal resident but her world would be flip upside down a few years later.
When Sophia was seven, officers from the Immigration Customs and Enforcement Agency raided her mother’s workplace and took her to a prison facility outside of Philadelphia.
Sophia’s mother told her that “if you did speak back to them [the officers] or try to argue with you, at that time, they did hit you.”
“My aunt back-talked to them. She asked them ‘Why are you taking us? I have children, they need us,’ At that point, one of the ICE officers punched her and pushed her to the floor.” Sophia said. “She fell to the floor, she was scraped and beaten.”
After the incident happened to her, Sophia’s aunt took the case to court and was able to obtain her citizenship.
“I had no idea what was going on. All I knew was that she wasn’t there,” Sophia said. “I remember going to school and I just felt so sad. I wanted to cry right there.”
Without any contact from Sophia’s mother for months, her father slipped into a deep depression and began drinking daily. Members of her extended family began to take care of his children. With finances now tightened, Sophia and her sister would often do odd jobs like cleaning houses for just $20 a day.
Yet within a few weeks, her mother re-entered the United States undocumented.
“When she came back we were all sleeping. She walked in through the door and my sister ran down and started crying,” Sophia said. “My mother said ‘I’m back, but you have to get up and get ready for school. You have to go.’ My sister then said, ‘But if I go to school you won’t come back again.’”
Her mother decided not to return to work due to the threat of deportation. Soon afterwards, Sophia and her siblings were able to obtain a sponsorship from her uncle for legal residency. Sophia went on to graduate high school with honors.
She applied to become a citizen, but for years her application was unaddressed. When she turned 21, it expired.
“I’m out of that application and there’s nothing I can do. The only hope that I would have is the DREAM Act,” Sophia said.
Under the DREAM Act, students who have lived in the United States for at least five years and have demonstrated good moral behavior would be able apply for six years of conditional status.
During this six year period, a person must complete two years of a four-year degree or serve in the military for two years. After this period, depending on the moral conduct of the applicant, legal residency would be granted.
Without conditional status, Sophia cannot pursue post-secondary education.
“Something that I think would really help people is if I would be able to do communications with Spanish and be an official translator,” Sophia said. “But it feels horrible, it’s like I’m lying here to my teachers telling them I don’t want to go to college. But I do, I still do.”
Sophia is not the only one. 65,000 students who graduate high school and have been in the U.S. more than five years face limited prospects for completing their education or working legally in the United States due to lack of documentation, according to the National Immigration Law Center.
While 118 representatives and 36 senators have co-sponsored the bill it still has not been brought to the floor for debate.
“Not everyone is here as a criminal or, you know, to steal anyone’s job. People just want to come here for a better future for themselves, for their families, for their kids,” Sophia said. “I think that a lot of students and people here are proving to this country that they are an asset and that they want to belong here, they learn English wanting to belong here.”
Despite her hardships, Sophia doe not regret her family’s decision to come here undocumented.
“I said to my mom, ‘I’m glad you guys made the decision to be here, otherwise we wouldn’t have had the future we have now,” Sophia said. “I feel very lucky. I feel so blessed. Obviously someone wants me here. Obviously I’m here for a reason.”