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Raquel Cetz: A Dreamer Reeling From Post-187 Immigration Policies

- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Samanta Helou Hernandez

Raquel Cetz and her mother arrived in Los Angeles from Yucatán, México, four years after Proposition 187 passed. She was two years old. Growing up in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, Cetz knew from an early age that she was not born here and that she was undocumented.

“My parents were always very transparent with me, letting me know that I basically was not born in the United States, but that education was a tool that would eventually helped me stabilize myself in the country,” she says.

Cetz is a Dreamer — that generation of young people who were coming of age when, in 2012, then-President Barack Obama responded to the pressure of the immigrant-rights movement and finally agreed to offer temporary relief to young undocumented immigrants.

The program was called DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), and it protects around 700,000 youth from deportation, allowing them to work in this country without fear of deportation. 

But the fear facing this young community continued after Donald Trump was elected on an agenda that included getting rid of the program.

She credits DACA, which allowed her to work and continue her studies. Cetz recently graduated from Cal State University Northridge with degrees in Political Science and Chicana/Chicano Studies.

“I have had the privilege and opportunity to have the ability to work and because I live in California, to attend school thanks to the California Dream Act,” she says.

The California Dream Act allows students who live in California but are not legal residents or citizens to pay in-state tuition in colleges and universities.

Before the Dream Act, and like in many other states, undocumented youngsters that wanted a higher education had to pay out-of-state fees, which are extremely expensive and prohibitive for many of them, who hail from working-class immigrant families. 

But despite living in California and having certain “advantages” in policy regarding other states, Cetz and her peers still found it hard “to figure out access, how to access opportunities within the educational system.”

"When I was in high school, there were no counselors that actually knew how to help support undocumented students,” she says.

So Cetz and a former student formed a “wise-up” club in their high school to provide information and workshops for undocumented students to figure out how to navigate the educational system, how to apply to attend a community college or a four-year university, among others.

But she was in 9th grade when she attended a college fair with her mother, who is Indigenous and whose first language isn't Spanish. "I was speaking to one of the recruiters who didn't know what an immigrant or undocumented student was,” she recalls. “He actually told me that people like myself don't belong to higher ed.”

Many in her generation have parents who did not have the same opportunity to study — or even get a basic education. "I often think about the families that did not finish even elementary school or have been able to learn English in a country that consistently tells them that speaking the language is necessary to be part of the nation.”

Early on, she also found the help she needed through immigrants’ rights organizations. In particular, she was helped by people at CHIRLA, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, who guided her in filling out her DACA application, but also in learning more about her rights and how to “rise up” against anti-immigrant hate and injustices.

“These organizations empower communities and families,” she says.

At California State University, Northridge (CSUN), she worked as an assistant for the Dream Center to support and welcome undocumented students. CSUN has one of the largest immigrant student populations in the nation.

From being an undocumented student and a Dreamer, Cetz has become an activist who aspires to complete a law degree to help her community further, she adds.

When Prop 187 passed in 1994, she wasn't born yet, and her family was not in the United States, but she now believes that what happened in those years has continued in different forms throughout the nation, and it has continues today.

“Proposition 187 I believe is connected to what is currently going on today. Again, I feel like a lot of these kinds of xenophobic and harsh policies have been around ever since.”

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