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UNDOCUMENTED: Weber State students pursue dreams while preparing for 'the worst'

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OGDEN — Luis Mendoza dreams of owning a global technology company or studying diseases as an epidemiologist one day.

For the first-year Weber State University student, the possibilities seem endless. But unlike many of his peers, Mendoza and 93 other undocumented Weber State students have more roadblocks ahead than just exams, a social life and work demands.

Mendoza’s mother brought him to the country when he was just 2 years old. Like other undocumented students, he can attend school through a state program and earns a paycheck working for the university.

But his federal permission to work so he can afford tuition and living expenses — and the promise that he won’t be deported while he’s in school — are in doubt now that Donald Trump is the president-elect.

“You can’t be comfortable,” Mendoza said. “You have to be prepared for the worst.”

Mendoza’s path to a college education hasn’t been easy. As a teenager, getting a work permit took five months and several trips to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in Salt Lake City.

“That was the scariest part, entering that as a little 16-year-old kid with these massive security guards, and you’re just like ‘I didn't do anything,’” he said. “There’s always that fear something will go wrong.”

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First-year undocumented Weber State University student Luiz Mendoza poses for a portrait on Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2016, at his school's Student Services Center in Ogden.

Those fears were almost realized earlier this year when Mendoza’s uncle got a visit from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after a driving under the influence arrest.

His uncle was released the same day because he has children who are legal citizens, but the experience made life a “constant mind game,” Mendoza said.

The close call now means, when he comes home each day, he worries: "Is my family going to still be here?”

“That’s something I struggled with the entire summer,” he said.

To make his start at Weber State even more difficult, Mendoza filled out a federal form this fall with the wrong number and got an official reprimand in the mail, warning him not to make any more mistakes.

“When I saw that, that I was in jeopardy of getting my permit revoked, that was a little heartbreaking,” he said. “It’s a lot more stress.”

After the election, Mendoza’s mother started talking about returning to Mexico, but he stands firmly against that idea because he lost two family members there to drug-related violence.

Mendoza was always told to keep his immigration status a secret, and he’s seen racism in the U.S. firsthand. But he’s starting to speak out now that he knows what he wants to do with his life.

He also knows those opportunities don’t exist for him in Mexico.

“I don’t want to risk what I’ve worked so hard for,” he said.

Path to college

Thanks to protective parents, some students don’t know they’re in the U.S. illegally until they apply for college, Weber State Executive Director for Access and Diversity Enrique Romo said.

Undocumented Utah high school graduates can attend Weber State and pay in-state tuition thanks to Utah House Bill 144, which passed in 2002, but they have to promise to pursue legal citizenship as soon as they’re eligible.

These students also benefit from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, more commonly known as DACA, which gives qualified immigrants work authorization for two years as long as they came to the country before they were 16, have a clean criminal record and meet other qualifications.

But these “Dreamers,” as undocumented students are sometimes referred to, rely on the Obama Administration’s policy of deferred action — rules and executive orders Trump has vowed to overturn.

“If DACA goes away does that mean they’re going to get fired?” Romo said.

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Undocumented Weber State senior Joaquin Zetina poses for a portrait on Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2016, at his school's Student Services Center in Ogden.

Weber State President Charles Wight is among 596 college and university presidents who have signed a statement supporting DACA.

Perception

Joaquin Zetina plans to be a doctor in the future and is working at Ogden Clinic to complete his school work in Weber State’s medical lab sciences program.

During the presidential campaign, Zetina would often joke with his co-workers about having to return to Mexico, his home until his mother brought him to the U.S. at age 12.

His coworkers’ responses made him realize people have a stereotype of undocumented immigrants.

“They’d be like ‘Oh no, no. You’re a very productive member of society. You're trying to go to school; you’re working here. You’ve nothing to worry about. You’re not who they’re after.’ But they don’t realize, at least with this DACA thing, that yes, it’s me.”

Zetina wishes more people understood deferred action and how complicated it is for people to pursue normal lives in the U.S.

“It was interesting because I really felt people had really strong opinions they know nothing about, and they could potentially ruin somebody’s life and decide somebody’s future,” he said.

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Leticia Mata chats with classmates on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, during her Healthy Lifestyles class at Weber State University. Mata would occasionally work alongside her mother in onion fields when she was young. "Seeing my mom working in fields and hard jobs, it gave me the motivation to go to school," Mata said. She is currently studying to be a nurse.

Perseverance 

Leticia Mata set her sights on a college education while watching her mother work multiple jobs, including some on farms, just to put food on the table for the three young daughters she brought to the country. 

“I know my mom did all this stuff for us to get a better future, so I want to pay her for that,” Mata said, holding back tears.

Mata is on track to apply for the nursing program at Weber State. She hopes to be a neonatal nurse or work with the elderly some day.

“I just love to help people,” she said.

But Mata, along with her peers Zetina and Mendoza, is undocumented.

She has turned inward, focusing on her studies in the wake of Trump winning the election.

“What’s the whole point of going to school if we’re not able to work?” she said.

Mata and her friends talk frequently about the possibility of being deported, but she is staying positive and preserving with help from her mother.

“You have to believe in yourself and of how much stuff you've accomplished in this country,” she said. “It was so hard for me to get to this point. I just can’t go back. Just keep going forward.” 

Contact education reporter Anna Burleson at aburleson@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnagatorB or like her on Facebook at Facebook.com/BurlesonReports.

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