Karla Casique moved with her family to the United States (U.S.) in 2002 to flee political conflict in Venezuela. Once in the U.S. she continued to face conflict while trying to pursue higher education.
The narrative about immigrants in the U.S. is that the majority of immigrants come to the U.S. from Mexico and cross the border without inspection, the media frames it as coming “illegally.” This experience however is not always true, not all undocumented immigrants are Mexican and not all Mexicans are undocumented immigrants. This is Karla Casique’s story. Casique back then a 6-year-old moved to Damascus, Maryland due to the constant harassment that she and her family endured from the Chavez Government in Venezuela. Her family decided to buy into the so called “American Dream” and moved to the U.S. fleeing this harassment hoping for better outcomes. “Our property and business were getting damaged, our house got vandalized,” shared Casique. Moving to Maryland was a tough transition for Casique as her childhood was spent in a predominantly “white neighborhood and school.” This was a big impact for Karla because in Venezuela she was not considered a racial minority.
In terms of her immigration status in the U.S. Karla, always knew that she was an undocumented immigrant. However, she never understood what it really meant to be undocumented until she started to apply to college. “Sometimes I was discriminated against and I didn’t even realize it,” she said. “I remember being asked once if I had documents by one of my high school teachers.” This question was something that Casique did not realize was wrong. Students and their families should not be asked by any educator about their immigration status. This question should especially not be coming from educators who work at K-12 institutions. By asking this question educators violate the Supreme court ruling Plyer v. Doe which ruled that all students regardless of immigration status have a right to a free public K-12 education. Plyler v. Doe however does not extend into higher education.
Once accepted to the University of Maryland (UMD), Karla experienced a turning point in her life. She became more aware of immigrant issues because she was getting an education. However, the injustices continued. She faced many struggles trying to pay for her tuition and registering for classes. Casique mentioned that once she began attending UMD and got exposed to different cultures and people from different backgrounds, she realized she had experienced many forms of discrimination. Some of it was connected to the common myth blasted in the media that all of the Latinx community is undocumented. Casique as a Latinx woman was a victim of racial profiling and of the misinformation/myths connected to the undocumented immigrant community. These struggles that other students from privileged backgrounds did not face trying to earn an education made her stronger and propelled her to get involved in different activities and Lainx organizations. This included getting involved with the Political Latinx’s United for Movements and Action in Society (PLUMAS).
Part of Casique’s involvement brought her to an event hosted by the Multicultural Involvement & Community Advocacy (MICA) office that highlighted immigrant issues, Casique decided to come out in a brave manner as “Undocumented.” Karla soon was identified by students and other university members as an undocumented student with resilience. During this time she developed a mentorship with Yvette Isela Lerma Jones, Coordinator for Latinx Student Involvement & Advocacy, at UMD who Casique describes as a “strong supporter for undocumented students.” When Karla formed this relationship with Yvette, everything was going great on the academic side, but on the economic aspect everything was quite the opposite. Casique described the following moment as a life-changing experience, this was the moment when she received a letter from UMD stating that she had four days to pay $7,000. If she did not pay this amount, UMD would terminate her admission to the university. “It was impossible for me to raise seven thousand dollars in four days,” Casique said. Casique mentioned that she sought help for any possible payment arrangement from the university to strategize a possible solution and also apply for as many scholarships available to undocumented students. Doing this, she disclosed her undocumented status with the university. “I think I made a mistake by identifying myself as undocumented to them,” Casique stated.
After not finding any possible solution from the university, she started to think about opportunities to raise the funds for her tuition. This experience gave her the courage to move forward and “come out as undocumented” to the public eye. She talked to her family about a fundraising page that would help her get the money she needed. Her family did not support her because it meant that she was exposing herself and her family to the public. Furthermore, during her fundraising efforts, she mentioned that she received messages through Facebook with insults and derogatory terms, she was being targeted. Fortunately, her fundraising plan worked and in a matter of three days she raised the money needed to pay her tuition debt.
This accomplishment however did not solve all of her problems, Casique would not be able to take out the money from her bank account until after three days. Given that she only had four days total, she was running against time. She called the bursar’s office sharing that she had the money and asked if she could pay with a check. Casique found herself in a hostile environment. The Bursar’s office would not accept a check; they wanted cash to settle the debt. UMD wanted to ensure the full amount was paid immediately. The Bursar’s office told her that Saturday was the last day to pay, and if she did not have the money in cash, her registration as a student would be terminated. “A check is a form of payment, she said my checking account had money; it would just take one day for the full amount to be in the bank. I think that they would have accepted my check if I had not disclosed that I was an undocumented student.” Fortunately, she received help from the Catholic Center at UMD. She obtained a loan from them to pay for her tuition. Even with the loan, “I had to walk around with seven thousand dollars in cash across campus,” she said. Karla could have been exposed to several dangers by walking around with this amount of money, but the main goal at that time was achieved, she had raised the funds needed to stay in college.
Given this experience and the fact that she had raised the funds in such a public way, she knew that her immigration status was exposed and that there was no going back. This realization was tough because this moment in her life coincided with Trump’s presidential campaign. Trump’s racist agenda and anti-immigrant rhetoric only heightened her ability to be targeted as an undocumented student. This however did not stop Casique, she decided to do interviews with the Diamondback and the Washington Post. These interviews provided her positive feedback and encouraging messages. They also however positioned her to receive negative and discriminatory comments online. Simultaneously, on campus she was being exposed to banners and posters that had racist and discriminatory comments and messages such as “deport dreamers.” Karla felt attacked. This experience encouraged her to become an active advocate for the UMD undocumented community. Karla didn’t want other undocumented students to be targets. As Karla began to be public at events and around campus she started to receive many emails from other students who were undocumented. She quickly realized that she was not the only one on campus.
Election day came and her biggest fear became true, Trump became President. UMD had been an institution that stood with and for undocumented students. It had praised itself for being a diverse school, but according to Casique, the University was not doing anything to help undocumented students. All of the work being done for undocumented students was being done by faculty, staff, and students; nothing was being done by higher level administration. It was not until Trump got elected that it seemed like the administration had an “aha” moment. The university decided to stand with and for undocumented students. “It was so sad to see that only after anti-immigrant rhetoric was being presented and Trump was elected that the University decided to truly stand with and for undocumented students,” said Casique. Karla’s advocacy continued, she was involved in a discussion with Wallace Loh, President of UMD, to discuss what the University could do to further assist undocumented students. “We need someone to work with all of the undocumented students at UMD and their specific needs.” This was Casique’s call for action. Casique’s activism did not end there, she participated in the creation of the sixty-four demands created by protect UMD, a coalition of 25 student organizations at UMD. Out of the 64 demands, 10 were specifically created to support undocumented students. One of the 10 demands was for the university to become a sanctuary campus. The University did not support this demand because the institution was in jeopardy of losing ninety-four million dollars. After many hearings and meetings, the undocumented student position which would work with and for undocumented students at UMD was finally granted and created at the university. This was one demand that was met. After Casique saw some progress on campus she decided to step back from her advocacy and work on other issues important to her. Casique is happy that UMD has an undocumented student coordinator and that other undocumented students will benefit from this crucial support. Casique is expected to graduate fall 2018 with a degree in journalism. She envisions herself working in the arts, as a writer specifically for marginalized communities. Casique is an example of perseverance and resilience.