College Park, Md––When Luis Orellana was 3-years-old, he and his family of three visited the United States (U.S.). While on this trip an unexpected situation forced him and his family to stay in the country without documentation.
Given the lack of understanding on immigration status in the U.S., many people assume that people who are in the U.S. and are undocumented live without status because they never had any and or because they “didn’t get in line.” It’s not that simple. Many currently undocumented folks come into the U.S. with a tourist visa, student visa, workers visa, etc. but given the 10+ year backlog for renewals on some of these visas and a lack of opportunity for folks seeking asylum or looking to adjust their status; individuals become or remain undocumented. For Orellana, his experience is one connected to family reunification and also an unfortunate circumstance that could happen to anyone.
When I asked Orellana to share a little about his first entry into the U.S. he shared that the purpose of visiting the U.S. was to visit his father, who at that time already resided in this country, without documents. This visit to see his father led to an excursion to Montgomery Mall which then turned into a nightmare. At the mall his mother lost her purse in the restroom. Her purse contained all of their passports and visas. “As a suggestion from my dad we decided to stay in the U.S. because it would be extremely difficult to get our documents back, and we did not know how to do it,” shared Orellana. A year after this family experience, Luis was registered to pre-kindergarten (Pre-K). Orellana remembers that his first words in English were learned in two ways, one way was by being taught by his older brother and the second, was by watching the cable television cartoon ‘Dora The Explorer.’ Orellana describes growing up in Montgomery County as a normal “American kid.” One of the first culture shocks that Orellana remembers was during lunch at school when he saw kids throwing away food. This came as a surprise because coming from El Salvador, Orellana was accustomed to having to finish all of the food served to him. This resulted in being used to never wasting or throwing away food. Another culture shock that Orellana shared was when he noticed how his friends had an easier time asking to spend time with friends. As a child, Luis grew up with restrictions that included not being able to go outside with friends or being able to go to certain places because his parents were always concerned about his well-being. Orellana’s parents did not want anyone to look down on him in the U.S. because he was Latinx and undocumented. Although Orellana was undocumented, he never felt discriminated against nor felt that opportunities were taken away from him as a child. He expressed, however, that he felt different about his socio-economic status compared to other students who were in a better financial standing and who also attended the same schools he did.
During the interview Orellana mentioned that he always knew of his immigration status. However, at the age of 16 he understood what the real meaning and experience of being undocumented meant. “I never understood what the difference of being undocumented was until I started to apply for colleges.” He discovered that as an undocumented individual, he could not receive any federal financial aid, nor could he apply to many scholarships because these benefits were deemed solely for U.S. Citizens. “I applied to different colleges such as the University of Pennsylvania, Marymount University, Penn State, and Georgetown University.” However, due to the difficult financial situation of his family and the lack of documentation, Orellana could not attend any of these out-of-state or private colleges. “I did not have the money or scholarships to be able to go out-of-state. As an undocumented person, I also did not want to take the risk of being far away from my family; you never know what can happen,” shared Orellana. One of the other universities he applied to was the University of Maryland (UMD). Luis, however, could not attend as a freshman because it was too expensive. After two years at Montgomery College, Luis successfully transferred to UMD and into The Robert H. Smith School of Business to pursue a double major degree in accounting and finance. “With the help of my advisor at Montgomery College and my high school counselor; I was fortunate to receive scholarships available to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients. DACA is a program implemented by the Obama administration to provide eligible individuals a two year renewable work permit and protection from deportation. This program was specific to immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors. Unfortunately, DACA does not provide a path to citizenship.
“At UMD I am struggling with financial aid because most of the aid is for U.S. citizens.” To offset this barrier he has to work full time in order to rise money for tuition all while being a full time student. These limitations as Orellana describes them are motivation to continue to pursue his vision of a higher education. He however wished the university had more resources available to undocumented students. Currently, Orellana occupies his time studying and networking with professionals to seek advice on how to move forward in his career. Some of his goals include helping his family financially, to provide a better standard of living for them and to be a role model for other undocumented immigrants. “It’s hard and extremely exhausting but possible.” Orellana envisions working one day on Wall Street in New York City to help his family get out of poverty. “I remember growing up and sometimes not having power or running water at home, we had to experience cold winters nights. I do not want that for my siblings, I do not want them to go through the same challenges that I have faced.” Orellana said, “I want to show my siblings that with persistence and a support network, you can overcome obstacles.” Furthermore, Luis insisted that “Education is an excellent tool and way to get out of poverty.” He wants current and future undocumented students to keep this in mind when moving through hardship.
Overall, Orellana is grateful that UMD has given him endless opportunities for the career he is pursuing such as internships with the top five accounting firms and the opportunity to meet with important practitioners in the accounting and marketing field. Although, UMD was not his first college option, he does not regret applying and attending because he is studying at one of the best business schools in the U.S. Once he graduates, Orellana expects to become a mentor for other Latino students. He describes that most Latinos come from humble backgrounds and their parents do not understand things like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or American College Testing (ACT). For Luis this is important because as a first generation student he has witnessed how not having the right guidance or not knowing how to navigate the educational or immigration system has discouraged many youth from pursuing a career. This summer Orellana will intern with one of the top five major accounting firms, Ernst & Young. This is a big achievement in the accounting world. Orellana mentioned that he gets his resilience from his father because he too has gone through very challenging situations and he is still moving forward. Luis continues to study hard and expects to graduate in Spring of 2020.