“Why are all these people getting off here?” Emmanuel asks as the Market–Frankford Line stops at 15th Street Station. It’s a little after 8 a.m. and the train is emptying a pack of suited commuters from West Philadelphia.
I tell him that this is the station for the Center City Business District. Emmanuel nods sleepily as the train doors beep closed and we jolt toward Frankford Transportation Center.
College junior Emmanuel Cordova hasn’t explored much of Philadelphia’s downtown since he transferred from the University of Illinois at Chicago in August. The 20–year–old spends his days shuttling between his dorm on 36th and Chestnut streets and his pre–med classes at Leidy Labs.
Emmanuel clutches a 24 oz coffee from Wawa. This was a necessary purchase since he was up working late and only got four hours of sleep last night. At Frankford Transportation Center, we wait for the 50 Bus that will take us to the United States Customs and Immigration Services Office in Northeast Philadelphia, where Emmanuel will be getting fingerprinted and photographed.
Emmanuel is an undocumented student, one of a handful at Penn today. He has lived in the United States since he was four years old, but he doesn’t have a Social Security Number or a driver’s license. Emmanuel has also never held a legal job—but all of that may change after today.
On June 15, President Obama introduced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. According to the latest figures from the Department of Homeland Security, 423,634 undocumented students like Emmanuel have filed for temporary work permits and the chance to be protected from deportation for two years.
Emmanuel waited months to file for Deferred Action—mostly because he didn’t have $465 to spare for the application and another $300 to pay an immigration attorney to walk him through the process.
Emmanuel was arrested once before, in front of his girlfriend’s house in Chicago. This made hiring a lawyer necessary expense, in case any complications arise in the application process. The incident happened in August before his freshman year of college. His girlfriend needed a ride to her summer job at Dairy Queen. He volunteered even though he didn’t have a license, hoping to preserve a sense of normalcy in their newly minted relationship. He was going 8 miles over the speed limit when a cop stopped him and found him without insurance or a driver's license.
To afford a lawyer, Emmanuel switched to the cheapest dining plan at Penn. He feels privileged to have such a relatively easy source of money but also worried that his meal plan might run out in the middle of finals, like it did last semester. Hopefully, by then, Emmanuel’s application for Deferred Action will have been approved, opening doors to a barista job or a research assistant position at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
The biometric data appointment today will kickstart a background check to determine whether Emmanuel is eligible for Deferred Action.
It’s snowing outside but Emmanuel keeps his Chicago Redhawks jacket unzipped. The ends of his jeans start to soak up the slush as he paces by the bus stop, trying to look up the route on his phone.
At 8:51 a.m., the bus finally arrives. We sit across from a white man with a broken arm. He has the name “Kathy” tattooed on the right side of his neck. We pass by snow–dusted graveyards and a empty Lukoil station. Somewhere on the highway, Emmanuel tells me about his plan to get a green card before going to medical school.
“It’ll probably be faster if I get married,” he says, casually. “It only takes six months.”
It’s the first time that I’ve ever heard a 20–year–old boy bring up the topic of marriage. But getting hitched to his 21–year–old girlfriend Aneta is a big part of Emmanuel’s plan after college. When compared to other Penn students’ dreams, it’s the metaphorical equivalent of landing an analyst position at Goldman Sachs or a Teach for America post in Hawaii. It’s one way to improve the chances he’ll remain in this country for good.
Most undocumented immigrants who arrived as children cannot obtain a green card by marrying a U.S. citizen, but Emmanuel’s uncle petitioned for him to be able to do so before the law changed in 2001.
Aneta Gil is a junior at the University of Illinois at Chicago majoring in Public Health. She has doubts about getting married at a young age and is especially concerned about how her parents, who emigrated from Poland, will react if she decides to marry Emmanuel without first having a career.
“Maybe things will change with our political [climate] or the government, but I’m definitely willing to help him out,” Aneta said. “I’m there for him, we’ve been developing great together and we still are so we’ll see what happens.”
“Worse comes to worst, we’ll get married so he can move on with his education if he wants to be a doctor because you do need your papers for that,” she adds.
At the USCIS Office, the receptionist examines Emmanuel’s Mexican passport and gives him a clipboard with a worksheet to fill out. Emmanuel circles the option for green eyes and brown hair, and then fills out his height (5 ft. 7 in.) and weight (160 lbs).
In the waiting room, a suited white man in black suede boots sits patiently with his copy of “The Rules of Love.” Behind him are an elderly Indian couple. She wears a pink sari with a black fleece jacket while he sits in a brown suit and a blue beanie. Most of these aspiring Americans wait quietly. Some strain their necks to follow the soap opera playing on mounted plasma screens.
A stiff American flag hangs by the receptionist’s desk and the blue walls are adorned with patriotic posters. An image of the statue of liberty is plastered with the slogan: “Celebrate Citizenship. Celebrate America.” In the corner of the room, a banner displays USCIS’s slogan: “Respect. Integrity. Ingenuity.”
It was arguably his mother’s ingenuity that brought 4–year–old Emmanuel here in the first place. She found an American couple that agreed to smuggle her across the border in their car. After transporting her to the United States, the couple returned to collect Emmanuel and his younger brother.
“I just remember they told us to stay quiet—not to talk at all—and to pretend that we were sleeping,” Emmanuel says. But he didn’t quite follow the instructions: “I opened my eyes and I saw the immigration lady but she didn’t say anything, she just let us through.”
The opportunity to leave Mexico for the United States appealed desperately to Emmanuel’s mother, who had been abused by Emmanuel’s father, an alcoholic. After crossing the border, Emmanuel’s mother moved the two brothers to Illinois. They lived with relatives at first, but her inability to secure a job due to the language barrier forced them to move from house to house for three years.
“We would have problems with our cousins, the rent or complaints,” Emmanuel said. “I wasn’t the best–behaved kid when I was younger and I think that contributed to that. We would be dependent on going to the shelters to get food ... we couldn’t buy toys, we had to go through the garbage to get toys.”
Still, Emmanuel learned English rapidly from watching Barney. When he was seven, they settled in Chicago’s suburbs. Emmanuel grew up like most kids in his neighborhood: playing soccer and hockey throughout elementary school, video games in middle school “and then, um, partying in high school,” he recalls. “I was basically just a normal kid until college, that’s when I started embracing my identity and doing a lot of political activism.”
Emmanuel became more comfortable with sharing his undocumented status in high school, after he told his then-crush, Aneta. The pair got to know each other in a math class during their sophomore year. “I would always get jealous of her because she would beat me at math,” he said. “She was actually the first person I told. Her reaction was positive and I guess that helped me assess. I think the first person you tell is really meaningful. She embraced me and she said not to worry, that she was there for me.”
Aneta recalls that she didn’t really understand what it was like to “not have papers.”
“It was hard to digest and know all of the obstacles,” she says. “I just accepted him.”
Part of Aneta’s effort to accept Emmanuel’s situation involved driving him everywhere. When the couple enrolled at the University of Illinois together, Aneta would drive five minutes to Emmanuel’s house every morning to pick him up and drive another 45 minutes to campus. She often stayed hours after her classes were over to ensure that he had a safe way to travel home.
Since undocumented students are not eligible for federal grants or loans, Emmanuel scrimped together money from relatives and a modest scholarship to attend UI. But the money ran out after one year and Emmanuel faced the possibility of dropping out. That’s when he found Penn.
Penn is one of a few of schools in the United States, like Harvard, Yale and Stanford, that admit undocumented students from Mexico and Canada on a needblind basis. The University offers private aid for undocumented students through its endowment and tuition money, according to University Director of Financial Aid Joel Carstens.
“We’ll determine what your family can contribute and the total commitment for eight semesters or four years. That applies to all our students—documented or undocumented,” Carstens explained.
According to Penn President Amy Gutmann, this is because Penn is “absolutely committed to admitting the most talented, hardworking students that we can find, regardless of their citizenship.”
But for many undocumented students, applying to Penn is still a complex and nerve–wracking process. Penn Admissions' website, for example, doesn’t make the University's policies immediately obvious. The Financial Aid for International Students section of Penn’s website simply says, “This year, Penn has promised more than six million dollars in undergraduate aid funds to support non–citizens and non–permanent residents of the United States, Canada and Mexico.”
“Not a lot of people know about financial aid here.” Emmanuel explains. “You don’t even know, if you’re undocumented, if you can still apply within that application pool, so I think that putting ‘including undocumented students’ [on Penn's website] would be a big help.”
Wharton junior Jose Gonzalez, the Executive Director of Penn for Immigrant Rights, is working with the Admissions Office to draft an FAQ sheet for undocumented students that will appear online.
Jose, who is also undocumented, says, “It was a mess for me applying here. It was a lot of guesswork on my part and trying to reach people at Penn for help.”
Like Emmanuel, Jose is still waiting for his Deferred Action application to go through. Having a work permit, he explains, would be hugely beneficial. However, he’s mindful that the undocumented student movement in the U.S. is largely an elitist movement that leaves out around 10 million others undocumented immigrants who are ineligible for Deferred Action.
The receptionist calls Emmanuel’s name, inviting him to a counter in the enclosed section of the building, where he’ll get photographed and fingerprinted.
The whole procedure takes less than five minutes. On the way out, a slightly overweight woman with bleached blonde hair and a silver puffer jacket makes eye contact with Emmanuel.
“Awful weather, huh.”
“Yeah,” he responds.
“Did you get your citizenship?” she asks.
The question sits with Emmanuel for a second before he explains: “No, I’m actually here for Deferred Action for undocumented immigrants.”
“Oh, so are you here for your citizenship?” she asks again, confused.
“No, I’m an illegal immigrant,” Emmanuel says. He doesn’t often resort to using this term, but there was no other way for him to explain his situation. “Obama passed an executive order this summer to allow undocumented immigrants to get a work permit.”
“So you’re getting a green card?
“No... well, it depends on whether the DREAM Act passes.”
Anjali Tsui is a senior from Hong Kong studying English. She is the former Opinion Editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian.