The passport belonged to Jennifer Diaz. Even in the small photo, you could see every feature of the eight-year-old. She had thick eyebrows over her brown eyes and long curly black hair.
So did Jane Doe, a communication studies junior whose name has been changed to protect her still uncertain legal status.
For Doe, this coincidence was her ticket to America, but it would take 20 years and countless meetings with lawyers before she found a semblance of hope in her continued battle for citizenship.
As immigration rises to the top of the national political debate, one Cal Poly student’s long and sometimes frustrating journey to United States citizenship shows the endless complexity of the immigration system.
She recalled her childhood, growing up in a two-story, color-peeling house on the isolated dirt road she knew so well.
Doe was born in Cojutepeque, El Salvador on June 28, 1999 to Salvadoran parents. Her father left her and her mother when she was six months old. He walked six months to cross the border into the U.S., where her mother soon followed.
“My mom left me with my grandma,” Doe said. “I lived with her and her 10 siblings until I was 7. My parents left me because they thought it was too dangerous for me to cross with them. They thought I was going to get killed, raped, kidnapped or all of the above.”
My parents left me because they thought it was too dangerous for me to cross with them. They thought I was going to get killed, raped, kidnapped or all of the above.
Around 20,000 migrants are kidnapped for ransom every year trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, according to Amnesty USA. Additionally, as many as six in 10 migrant women and girls are raped on this journey.
Her parents had saved enough from working in the U.S. to afford a safer way of getting their daughter across the border by the time she was 7 years old. They paid $10,000 for a “Coyote” to take her to Guatemala, where she would begin her journey.
“Coyote” is a colloquial Mexican-Spanish term referring to a person who smuggles people or things across the U.S.-Mexico border. In this case, her “Coyotes” were a husband and wife who were paid to take her by plane to her parents in the states.
There were many complications in trying to get Doe to the U.S. The Coyotes set up a fake adoption that would get her over the border as the daughter of a Venezuelan man in the U.S.
Doe spent one month in Guatemala trying to get rid of her Salvadoran accent and practice enacting her new Venezuelan identity.
Much to her dismay, the Venezuelan man was arrested and Doe was sent back to El Salvador to wait, with her future unknown.
She said she remembers being confused and not understanding what was happening. The arrest stalled her travels to the U.S. until the Coyotes could find her another identity. It would also delay her reunion with her parents, whom she had not seen in seven years.
She traveled back to Guatemala with the Coyotes one month later, after they finally found her another passport.
“She looked similar enough to me for me to be her,” Doe said about the girl in the passport. “I had her visa too. Her name was Jenifer Diaz. A month after that, they booked my plane. I came to the United States on Dec. 29, 2006.”
Her name was Jenifer Diaz. A month after that, they booked my plane.
In the decade following 1980, the Salvadoran immigrant population in the U.S. increased from 94,000 to 465,000, according to Migration Policy. The number of Salvadoran immigrants continued to grow through the 1990s to the 2000s as a result of family reunification. Many were also fleeing El Salvador due to a series of natural disasters, including earthquakes and hurricanes.
By 2008, there were about 1.1 million Salvadoran immigrants in the U.S., according to Migration Policy. They remain the country’s sixth largest immigrant group.
The U.S. now has more immigrants than any other country in the world. Today, more than 40 million people living in the U.S. were born in another country, totaling about one-fifth of the world’s migrants.
In the years Doe spent struggling to get across the border, her parents had been working in the U.S. under Temporary Protected Status. This status allows people from 10 countries around the world, including El Salvador, to live and work in the U.S. for a limited amount of time.
Doe lived as an undocumented immigrant for eight years. When she was 15-years-old, she became a DACA recipient.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) was created on Jun. 15, 2012 by former President Barack Obama. The act defers deportation proceedings for two years for qualified individuals who were brought to the U.S. illegally when they were children. The program also gives those who are approved work authorization, which can be renewed.
As of 2019, California has around 188,420 DACA recipients, according to USA facts.
That same year, in 2014, Doe’s mother married a U.S. citizen and gained her citizenship through marriage. Doe then began her permanent residency application process through her mother’s newfound citizenship status.
Unfortunately, she said that was not as easy as it sounds.
There was much miscommunication between Doe’s mother and their lawyer during this complicated process. In 2017, her lawyer informed Doe that under the law, she would have to leave the country for one to six months before they could begin the process of getting her residency.
“I was a freshman at Cal Poly watching the sunset at 5 p.m. through my dorm room window,” Doe said. “It was two weeks before Thanksgiving. That night, my mom called me with the news that the lawyer [had] said I [would] have to leave the country before I [turned] 18 and a half on Dec. 28, 2017 or I would risk being banned from the United States.”
That night, my mom called me with the news that the lawyer [had] said I [would] have to leave the country before I [turned] 18 and a half on Dec. 28, 2017 or I would risk being banned from the United States.
Doe’s best friend since freshman year, who was granted anonymity to protect Doe’s immigration status, expressed her confusion when her best friend suddenly left school.
“To be honest, I never really understood why she had to leave. One day she just basically disappeared, and all I knew was that it had to do with her citizenship,” she said. “I don’t know a lot of people who have been through this type of struggle. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that just because we’ve ended up in the same place, it does not mean we had similar experiences getting here.”
Doe left when she was told she needed to leave, but returning to El Salvador was not among her options. Although her family was there, the country’s climate at the time was too unsafe. She was able to stay with a family friend in Italy where she took online classes until she could get a residency appointment in El Salvador.
In January 2018, she returned to El Salvador for her residency appointment. She received a two-year conditional U.S. residency. Under the conditions of this residency, she cannot violate her status in any way at the risk of getting it revoked.
Only a few months ago, Doe discovered her family had received incorrect legal advice about leaving the country. At 18 years old, undocumented residents who are not protected by DACA begin to accumulate unlawful presence. However this was not the case for Doe. Despite being protected by DACA, she still was told she needed to leave. She never had to leave the country at all.
Now, things like speeding and jaywalking are no longer little offenses for Doe.
Small infractions might not be enough to get her residency revoked altogether, but can sometimes lead to bigger problems. No matter what, Doe said they leave her with the constant feeling of walking on eggshells.
“Things you usually wouldn’t be scared of, I have to be aware and conscious of at all times,” Doe said. “I can’t get a record because then I can get both my residency and my chance of becoming a citizen taken away.”
I can’t get a record because then I can get both my residency and my chance of becoming a citizen taken away.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issues immigrants a conditional green card valid for two-years. There are many different conditions involved in this stage of the residency. If the conditions are broken, there is a chance the conditional residency will be revoked. In order to become a permanent resident, a petition is filed to “remove the conditions” 90 days before the card expires. Once the conditions are removed, the immigrant becomes a lawful, permanent resident with a 10-year green card.
On Jan. 24, 2020, Doe traveled to San Francisco to begin the process of getting her permanent residency, and in three years, her citizenship.
Being undocumented on campus
Jennifer Diaz sounds like just a name to anyone else, but for Doe, it was the name that changed her future.
“My residency process has been hard, but I’ve also been very lucky,” Doe said. “That is not the case for a lot of the people like me, especially in today’s political climate.”
Realistically, not all students end their stories with the hope of citizenship like Doe.
In 2017, President Donald Trump ordered an end to the DACA program and the process of its removal still continues. Since then, thousands of recipients have lost and continue to lose their protection from deportation. For every day that action is deferred by Congress, 122 people lose their DACA protection, according to American Progress.
Undocumented students can go to any college in California if they meet the application requirements. The California Dream Act provides scholarships in the form of state grants and loan-aid — specifically the California Cal Grant — for those who qualify.
Cal Poly offers many resources for students under DACA. The University’s Dream Center provides a safe and inclusive space for all undocumented students. It offers programs and services to educate the community on campus and provides assistance with scholarship referrals, counseling resources, computer and printer access, policy and legislative updates and more.
“The University has now put in place more initiatives and programs to support diversity and inclusion in our campus community than at any other time in our history,” University Spokesperson Matt Lazier wrote in an email to Mustang News. “There are literally hundreds underway in academics, Student Affairs, Human Resources, University Housing, health and wellbeing and every other facet of campus.”
The Office of Diversity and Inclusion is another resource.
“Regular people think they can’t help in making a difference, but there is so much they can do,” Doe said. “Right now, I’d say the biggest help would be to vote.”
The primary elections are March 3.