The road toward citizenship: The plight of the undocumented

Joselyn after obtaining her master's in mass communications from CSUN. (Photo courtesy of Joselyn Arroyo)

Joselyn after obtaining her master's in mass communications from CSUN. (Photo courtesy of Joselyn Arroyo)

College graduate recalls the hardships she endured while obtaining a bachelor’s and a master’s degree as an AB 540 student

Joselyn after obtaining her master's in mass communications from CSUN. (Photo courtesy of Joselyn Arroyo)

Joselyn after obtaining her master's in mass communications from CSUN. (Photo courtesy of Joselyn Arroyo)

She has vague memories of the day her parents packed up and brought her and her sister to the U.S. One of them is her arriving at an “airport” though in reality she’d arrived to Sun Valley after crossing the border illegally at the age of three.

Growing up, Joselyn Arroyo, 29, would accompany her mother, a janitor at the time, to the KNBC studios in Burbank. She remembers watching the broadcasters and deciding then that it was what she wanted to do when she grew up, oblivious to the hardships she’d face living in the U.S as an undocumented resident.

Born Joselyn Ontiveros in San Luis Potosi, Mexico on April 26, 1982, she stands at about 5 feet 5 inches with medium length black hair, tan skin and an athletic build and has always considered herself a citizen of the U.S. despite her illegal status.

“I knew I was from Mexico but I didn’t know the logistics of not being and being a citizen,” says Joselyn.

About 40% of the nation’s undocumented students reside in California, which comes out to roughly 20,000 people.

Joselyn’s life resembled that of any other kid her age; she was oblivious to politics, money and other grown-up complications until she was halfway through high school.

She attended Kennedy High School in Granada Hills where she was editor of the school newspaper and the captain of track/ cross-country as well as being in the honor society.

“For me, I felt like I was letting [anyone] down when I’d tell them I was undocumented. Like they would think I was a bad person,” says Joselyn. “There was a lot of stigma. But I also didn’t want pity.”

There weren’t any clubs or organizations for undocumented students for Joselyn so she kept her status a secret from most except those closest to her, including high school sweetheart, Tim Arroyo whom she met when she was in 10th grade and he was a senior.

“ I never had to deal with that growing up,” he recalls. “Some people are ignorant to the situation.”

She remembers one instance where the sting of her undocumented status overruled her accomplishments.

“My high school selected three people out of the whole school to take a class at CSUN for college credit and I was one of those three people,” remembers Joselyn. “When they saw my application they said everything looked great but they needed a Social Security number and I told them I didn’t have one. They told me they had to choose someone else. It was sad because it was another door closing.”

Most seniors in high school enjoy the luxury of being able to drive and planning out what college to attend and what to study however, due to her status, Joselyn began to feel like the American dream would remain a pipe dream.

“That’s when people get their driver’s license, start applying for jobs and college,” says Joselyn. “I realized all the paperwork required a Social Security Number so I went home and asked my mom what my SSN was and [she told me] I didn’t have one.”

“I fell into a little bit of a depression,” recalls Joselyn. “I had nothing. My depression lasted six months but I realized being depressed wasn’t going to get me my papers.”

Running track became a source of solace for Joselyn, who had always been active and enjoyed the exhilaration of running toward the finish line knowing her status wouldn’t affect her achievements on the field.

“I felt protected being in a sports team because I didn’t identify as being undocumented but as being a runner,” she says. “Running was very much an escape for me.”

She was able to parlay her passion for running and academic excellence into private scholarships, which she used to attend College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita.

“I had to pay the non-resident fee which at the time was $133 instead of just $11 per unit,” says Joselyn.

In 2001, AB 540 legislation passed allowing undocumented students who had attended a California high school for three years or more to pay the resident fee, thereby decreasing their tuition costs.

“AB 540 passed and everyone looked at me like they didn’t know what I was talking about so a lot of it was about having to educate myself,” says Joselyn. “It coincided perfectly because it was right when I transferred to CSUN.”

While at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), she pursued a degree in journalism with a concentration in broadcast while continuing to run track and interning at KNBC.

Her days would start at 5:30 a.m. for track practice. She would attend class until the afternoon after which her boyfriend picked her up and then dropped her off in Sun Valley where she would do homework until the evening when her mother would take her to the KNBC studio. She worked till midnight and then she’d be picked up again.

During her senior year, she worked with Lincoln Harrison, media production specialist at CSUN, for “Valley View” and “Noticias del Valle.”

“She would watch me [during production], write notes and two days later she’d teach me how to do it,” he recalls with a smile. “ She slowly took over direction for the Spanish show.”

Her hard work paid off when she received recognition from her school for her accomplishments. She knew, however, that academic excellence would not be enough to get her a job while she remained undocumented.

“I got the Outstanding Graduating Senior award and the professor made a speech about who was going to be lucky enough to hire me and I knew that nobody could hire me,” she said. “It was bittersweet.”

She graduated in 2004 and the following January she and Tim married.

“People told me I could get married and get my papers but it doesn’t work like that. I thought I’d have to go back to Mexico for a year or two and I hadn’t been there since I was three,” she says. “I was going to wait to see if something happened here.”

The DREAM Act legislation, which would give legal residency to AB 540 students, wasn’t yet enacted so in Fall 2005 she returned to CSUN for a master’s in mass communications.

“I was prepared to continue going to school because I didn’t want to go back to Mexico. I didn’t want to leave my husband or my family. I applied for grad school thinking I’d be more valuable to this country with an M.A. I thought having a master’s would give me more of a case to stay here,” states Joselyn. “Everything that is important is here in the U.S. for me.”

She and Tim moved to an apartment two blocks from CSUN so she could walk to school and she began catering where she was paid in cash while she continued to apply for private scholarships.

“I used to walk to Vons and I’d have to carry the groceries home,” remembers Joselyn. “I couldn’t wait to get a driver’s license so I could get a car and put my groceries in the trunk. Work was tough because sometimes I’d cater parties and my friends were there and they knew I was going for my master’s and yet I had to stand there asking if they wanted tri tip or chicken.”

Joselyn on the day she became a citizen. (Photo courtesy of Joselyn Arroyo)

Joselyn on the day she became a citizen. (Photo courtesy of Joselyn Arroyo)

She also worked as an interpreter for an immigration lawyer, aiding others like her obtain residency.

“It was ironic because I didn’t have my papers at the time,” she says. “I was helping others get their residency and I didn’t have my residency. I was a little jealous; I wanted to be the one getting the papers.”

Joselyn, who has two younger siblings who were legal, felt her life fraught with irony especially when she still didn’t have her papers and had to ask her younger siblings for rides.

“I always wondered how if they got their driver’s license before I got my papers, that would suck; sure enough, that’s what happened,” she says with a laugh. “I was getting my master’s degree and they were giving me rides. Maybe I got good grades because I couldn’t do anything else. I couldn’t go to bars with friends because I didn’t have a license.”

During her last semester, she co-founded HEARD, which evolved into Dreams to be Heard (DTBH), a club for undocumented students, where she finally became acquainted with others like her.

“We started going to workshops that other universities had and there was one in Dominguez Hills where lawyers were giving free advice and I asked if being a graduate student would help me gain my residency,” recalls Joselyn. “The lawyer asked me basic questions about whether my family had petitioned me and I’d never really talked about it with my family. I knew my aunt had petitioned my dad and at the time my dad put me under the petition because I was under 21 years old. That, combined with my marriage, allowed me to apply for residency. If I didn’t have that, getting married wouldn’t have been enough–I would still have had to go to Mexico.”

Immediately following this revelation she contacted a lawyer and explained the situation. She was told she could gain legal residency in about six months.

She knew the day that she met with the immigration official she was treading tenuous grounds as the decision depended on their “mood” as she’d heard.

She brought with her photo albums chronicling her relationship with Tim and was met with cynicism.

“She told me they could be fake,” says Joselyn. “How could I fake a relationship of ten years?”

But the tide turned when she mentioned she was in the mass communications graduate program at CSUN.

“All of a sudden she was like my best friend. It turns out her brother also went to CSUN to study journalism,” says Joselyn. “Suddenly she was really nice and saying my husband was lucky to have me. It was an emotional roller-coaster.”

Joselyn went on to describe the difficulties she’d endured during the past 22 years and in one fell swoop her life changed.

“She had no idea what AB 540 was and I was explaining to her, an immigration official,” remembers Joselyn. “She stamped my papers and told me I would never have to go through that trouble again because I was a resident now,” says Joselyn.

What followed was a three-year period when she received her green card and a Social Security number and finally, a license.

“I was proud to show it and finally I had an I.D. from the U.S. with my name,” she says. “I was living in the shadow for 22 years and all of a sudden you’re allowed to come out and it’s OK.”

Putting her personal struggles out in the open allowed and inspired her to do her thesis on the plight of undocumented students.

“It was so timely. I did a radio documentary on undocumented students. There are stereotypes of undocumented as being out on the streets selling oranges or that they are corrupted,” she says. “I wanted to show people in college doing what everyone else does.”

In 2008 she graduated with her master’s and yet again she received the Outstanding Graduate Student award, only this time there was nothing holding her back.

“I got the award for outstanding graduate student and it was different because when I got one for my B.A. there were a lot of walls and here I actually felt very happy cause I saw the doors open wide because I had my papers,” she said.

After graduating she was offered a part-time position at CSUN as a media specialist but opted to continue producing.

“I wanted to teach but I wanted more experience under my belt,” she said. “I’ve been doing that since 2008.”

The year 2010 was a big one by all accounts. She and Tim bought their first home in January and later that month they welcomed a son. In April, she became a U.S. citizen.

“It’s so comforting knowing I have that security to take care of my son and help my husband,” says Joselyn. “I guess it wasn’t my time when I graduated with my B.A. because I had to get my master’s.”

Joselyn takes prides in the struggles that have shaped her into who she is and, in retrospect, realizes that the journey has made her appreciate all that she has now.

“I’m glad I came, my parents did a courageous thing to give us a better life and I’m glad they did,” explains Joselyn. “I dealt with the consequences but I think it made me stronger and I definitely appreciate everything much more now.”

“It was a great joy to see her lift that burden off her shoulders,” says Tim.

Harrison mentions how his wife, KNBC producer Reva Hicks, recalls seeing a little girl at the studio years ago.

“My wife has a vague recollection of seeing a little girl with the cleaning staff,” says Harrison. “There was an early connection with her and I didn’t realize it till she worked here.”

KNBC Executive Producer Wendy Harris became friends with Joselyn’s mother while they both worked the night shift and recalls how some 15 years later Joselyn interned at KNBC.

“She was perfect for the job, extremely hardworking,” remembers Harris. “I’m so happy to see her be successful. She is a the great American success story.”

Joselyn, who always admired Wendy’s ability to balance work and a personal life, found that she now had what she’d always dreamed of as the little girl visiting the studio years before.

“All the doors opened right when they were suppose to for me but the journey was tough,” says Joselyn.


Editor’s note: This story was previously published on El Nuevo Sol.

Leave a Reply