Cindy Bernal vividly remembers the day she found out that there was a deportation order against her. It was early evening at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Harlingen, Texas, an austere concrete building in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) region of the Texas-Mexico border where Cindy and her family lived. They had immigrated from El Salvador to the RGV when she was five to eventually move to Houston, and then back to the RGV. But on that day, at age 16, Cindy and her parents were taken to the back of the office and handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. The agents began intimidating Cindy’s parents by telling them in Spanish that ICE had the power to take Cindy away from them. Listening to the agents speaking among themselves in English, Cindy remembers remaining silent as the agents discussed giving her an Order of Supervision, and her stress turned into panic. Cindy finally spoke up, asking the agents in English what an Order of Supervision was. The agents appeared surprised when they heard her speak fluently in English, and becoming noticeably friendlier, eventually allowed her to leave with her parents. By the time Cindy and her family were released, the agents were engaging her parents in friendly conversation about whether they knew how to make pupusas, to which Cindy’s father insisted they were welcome over for pupusas anytime. The juxtaposition of the casual conversation about food with the gravity of the life-altering news she had just learned was jarring. When the agents asked if the family had an immigration attorney and Cindy confirmed that they did not, the agents handed them the phone number for ProBAR, explaining that they might be able to help.
All of this was happening while Cindy was in high school, an added stressor to an already busy time in a young person’s life. Cindy was an excellent student and took advanced classes, but as she started to apply to internships and scholarships her junior and senior years, doors began to close on her in a way that they didn’t for her documented peers. She was far along in the process of applying to AmeriCorps when it became clear that being undocumented made her ineligible to serve. As in Cindy’s case, the barriers of undocumented status often come to a head around high school, when a young person is starting to piece together the components of their future: qualifying for scholarships to college, academic programs, and eventually employment and career – things that many of us take for granted but that often aren’t available to undocumented youth even if they have grown up most of their lives in the U.S. Compounding this reality is the uncertainty and fear of deportation. Cindy remembers writing to her best friend the night before her first USCIS interview, revealing for the first time that she was undocumented. She didn’t know if they would ever see each other again, but promised to make contact if she were deported to El Salvador. Cindy remembers crying while she wrote that letter.