Arts and Culture
1:22 pm
Fri July 13, 2012

Portrait of a Dreamer: Young Missourians consider a future under Obama's immigration-policy change

20 year-old Diana Martinez likes to say she was born in Mexico but made in America:

“We came on a bus,” she says, remembering her arrival to the United States. “We crossed the border. We came with visitors visas, and overstayed our stay, so we became undocumented at that point.”

Martinez calls herself a Dreamer. She’s part of a national movement of undocumented students who grew up in the U.S. and are fighting for the passage of the DREAM Act.  If passed, it would allow them to stay in the country legally.

“We had to take our destiny into our own hands," says Martinez. "The Congress keeps playing with our lives. They think it’s a political game. But it’s our daily lives."

President Obama’s administration recently announced it will begin offering work permits to undocumented young adults who came to the United States as children. Many across the nation are reacting to the news, including groups groups of young undocumented immigrants whose futures are affected by the executive order.

The new policy could allow as many as 800,000 undocumented immigrants to live and work in the U.S. legally, without fear of deportation. Since October of last year, almost 7,000 immigrants have been deported from the Midwest.

“It really sucks having that fear," says Martinez. "Every time I’m driving and I see a cop, there’s a possibility that I won’t be here tomorrow. I could be in jail, in deportation proceedings.”

For the last three years, Martinez has been working as an activist for young undocumented immigrants. Her activism took her to Washington, D.C. where she was arrested, along with 21 other undocumented students, after refusing to leave a sit-in in the Hart Senate Office building.

Martinez’s mother Rosa Quintana says she worried her daughter’s activism might endanger her ability to stay in the United States. Through a translator, she says, “Well we prayed, and let her spread her wings. Because they're kids — and we think that they're ours, but in reality they have to live their own lives.”

So now Martinez serves as the co-director of KSMODA — the Kansas/Missouri Dream Alliance. She spends a few afternoons each month mentoring undocumented high school students: “I think it’s important for them to know that they have a support system if they ever need it, and that they’re not alone,” she says.

Martinez talks about something she calls the “undocumented blues.” She says it usually hits around age 16, when you realize you can’t get a drivers license, work or apply to certain colleges.

“To the government I literally don’t exist,” she says, “and that’s how it felt in real life. And when you don’t exist, why should--why am I still here?”

Becky Martinez- no relation to Diana- is an assistant professor at the University of Missouri who studies immigrant health. She says undocumented individuals live with uncertainty and lack of access to resources for chronic health conditions, which can have a negative affect on mental health. 

“Stress is a big problem among this population,” says Martinez. “Depression. For the dreamers, the feeling like they’re part of the country but they’re really not is really really harsh and can lead to significant problems for this population.

Martinez's older sister Karen Garcia was also undocumented until she got married after high school. Now a legal resident with a child of her own, she tearfully says she still worries about her little sister: “I see the pain my sister has to go through. She can’t do everything that we can. She can’t get an ID for her 21stbirthday, she can’t do everything that everyone else takes for granted.”

But now, because of Obama’s executive action, these problems will likely change. If she’s approved for a work permit, Diana Martinez will be able to obtain a drivers license and other documents she has lacked. And, initially, she was thrilled: “I just started bawling. I don’t know why. I just started crying. I drove to my parents’ house because I wanted to be with people who knew what this meant. They were in the pool with my nieces and I just jumped into the pool— like, ‘Ahh this is great’— with my dress on and everything.”

But after she thought about what the policy meant, Diana says her plans began to change.

“Before, I definitely wanted to stay in the United States and keep fighting to be here,” she says, “but as I thought about it more I thought it’s only temporary, it's not permanent. They don’t really want us here, they don’t really want me here.”

Martinez says after college graduation she plans to return to Mexico to better people’s lives there — though this is different than most of her undocumented peers, who say they plan to stay.

The work permits are not paths to citizenship and will only be valid for two years. Then, there’s no guarantee immigrants will be able to renew them — possibly leaving immigrants in the same situation they’re in now.

This story originally appeared as part of Off The Clock, KBIA's weekly program covering arts and culture in mid Missouri.