How 1 Undocumented Student Became an Immigration Activist

How 1 Undocumented Student Became an Immigration Activist

How 1 Undocumented Student Became an Immigration Activist

The Hope CommUnity Center told Eli that she had a voice and that her voice needed to be heard rather than stifled by fear.


The Hope CommUnity Center of Apopka, Florida, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to Florida’s immigrant communities. Three Roman Catholic nuns opened the center in the 1970s with a mission to empower the community to develop its own potential and create positive change. That mission was realized in November of 2015 when Elizabeth (Eli) Garcia accepted the Mario Savio Youth Activist Award at Berkeley, California.

Eli Garcia was born in 1989 in a small village in Mexico. She lived with her parents and two brothers in poverty, with no access to clean water or sufficient nutrition. When Eli was 4 years old, her mother and father came to the United States to make a better life for their family. Eli was left behind with her grandparents in Mexico, finally reuniting with her parents in the United States seven years later at the age of 11. Eli recalls her early years in Florida, when she unable to speak or understand English and was very aware of the differences in language, food, and culture between the United States and Mexico. Her parents told her, “Eli, all you have to do is go to school and study hard and make the best of the best.” Eli believed that anything was possible with an education. She worked hard to learn English and she studied so that she could partake in the American dream. Eli was in middle school when she told her parents that, try as she might, she simply didn’t feel like she was the same as the other children at school. It was then that her parents told her that she was an undocumented immigrant.

Realizing that she was subject to deportation and could be separated from her family was devastating, but, even worse, Eli realized that as an undocumented immigrant she wouldn’t be able to continue her education after high school. Eli felt as though she were an invisible person with no voice. She was scared. Her dreams were dashed. She became withdrawn. She was going through the motions of school, knowing that she would hit a wall at the end, if she even got to the end. But when Eli got to high school she met a worker from the Hope CommUnity Center, which was located in her neighborhood. The worker told Eli that she had a voice and that her voice needed to be heard rather than stifled by fear. Slowly, Eli realized that the Hope Center worker was right, that she needed to overcome her fears for herself and for others like her in the community.

Eli began working with immigrant families who were experiencing fear of deportation. She tried to teach people that they deserved to be in the United States, that they lived here and have contributed to this society. She wanted the immigrant community to raise its voice and share its stories in support of immigration reform. Realistically, Eli understood their fears as her own. Undocumented immigrants could not obtain driver’s licenses, and thus often drove without a license to get to work or the doctor. Police stops easily led to the threat of deportation, so staying under the proverbial radar was essential. Certainly, rising up in protest when one didn’t want to draw attention to oneself was counterintuitive. But Eli was undeterred—“We are the voice of the voiceless”—and the reality of the immigrant movement was that nothing would change until others found their own voice. Eli was determined to do that for others as the workers at the Hope Center did that for her, and together, work for comprehensive immigration reform so that no one’s voice is stifled by fear in the future.

Eli’s efforts started with a passion for reform stemming from her own personal situation and extending to others in her community like her. She began by simply listening to people’s stories and sharing her own. Every time she shared her story, Eli felt more united with a larger community. If people can realize that they are not alone and can create respect within a community by sharing their experiences, they can speak up and raise their voices together for change, acting on what they believe is right and what they believe is wrong, and realizing that together they have the power to make a difference. Despite her newfound boldness, Eli maintained her fear of deportation for many years. She wanted to engage in civil disobedience, but she simply couldn’t take the risk of being arrested.

As high-school graduation approached, however, Eli became depressed. Her parents were very proud that she would be getting her diploma, but Eli knew she couldn’t go to college afterwards. She went to school every day listening to her peers speak of college adventures yet to come, with no hope that she would be able to live that same dream. But the Hope Center connected Eli with Seminole State College’s International Student Office. An adviser helped her through the admission process, and Eli was ecstatic at the prospect of starting college in 2009. She then found out that she would be expected to pay out-of-state tuition, yet couldn’t apply for federal aid because she didn’t have a Social Security number. The only recourse was attending the college one class at a time via scholarships available through the Foundation for Seminole State College. Eli felt privileged to be in the college in any way, and, though hesitant, shared her story with her fellow classmates. They were highly supportive and immediately collected $100 for her, and in that moment she realized that she shouldn’t be embarrassed by her situation.

With new confidence, Eli seized the opportunity to gain awareness and support for a revised version of the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), which was being reintroduced to Congress in 2009. The federal DREAM Act proposed to allow undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before the age of 16, lived in the United States for at least five years, and who graduated high school in the United States, to earn six years of conditional residency status so that they could attend college after high-school graduation. If they then completed two years of college or served two years in the United States military, they would be granted permanent residency and later be able to apply to become citizens. Eli organized marches and rallies in support of the bill. At the time there were approximately 65,000 undocumented immigrants graduating from high schools in the United States each year, all subject to deportation rather than being given a chance to continue their education in the United States. Rallies for the DREAM Act were taking place on college campuses coast to coast. On September 21, 2010, the Senate filibuster of the DREAM Act was maintained in a 56-43 vote. The bill was reintroduced and passed the House of Representatives on December 8, 2010, but the bill once again failed to pass the Senate.

This was a huge disappointment to Eli, but she didn’t give up, and she didn’t let her community of undocumented immigrants give up either. Eli continued to spread the word, to listen to other’s experiences and stories. She collected more than 1000 petitions for her congressman, and created awareness of the DREAM Act not just among the students but also among their teachers. She continued to organize rallies, even traveling to Tallahassee, Florida for weeks and weeks in support of the DREAM Act. On June 15, 2012, President Obama announced that his administration would stop deporting young undocumented individuals who matched certain criteria proposed by the DREAM Act. This initiative, later called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), did not confer non-immigrant legal status or provide a pathway to citizenship, and therefore was not the comprehensive reform or permanent solution Eli and her community needed. Some states, including Arizona, pushed back against DACA, precluding the issuance of driver’s licenses and public benefits to the students protected from deportation, but, even in the face of a flawed proposal, Eli realized that it represented progress, and that she and her community of undocumented immigrants were being heard. Eli was able to gain a full scholarship at Seminole State as of the Fall of 2013 because of DACA, and she attained her associate-in-arts degree in 2014.

Eli attributes her success as a young activist to her passion for her cause and her ability to listen to others. She feels that many people have ideas, but they either aren’t connected to the roots of the movement or they fail to listen to others, and that is why their ideas don’t move forward and effectuate change. As Eli told me, “There are moments when you get so tired during movements seeing the same things and no change, and you want to give up because it’s so hard.” When it gets hard, Eli thinks about the separation of families that are such a part of her heart, and that gives her the strength to keep going. She recalls early on when she organized a rally and only 10 people attended. She had to think about what went wrong, and realized that she needed to communicate better next time. She also realized that she didn’t want to lose those first ten by acting disappointed that they were the only ones there, and had to find a way to keep their interest, and have them spread that interest to others. Ten became hundreds of people marching, sharing stories, creating a community, and working hand in hand with empathy and hope, motivated to keep fighting for families.

Eli argues that it is important to remember our history because it is what makes us who we are today. She tells her community that they can have their personal dreams of becoming professionals and having a home and a comfortable life, but that they should not forget their roots. She tells them that they might become a doctor or lawyer one day, but look out for those who might come after them as undocumented immigrants in need of medical care, and don’t be afraid to speak out for them until they can speak out for themselves, because you were once that person. Remembering one’s history and remaining active are critical.

When Eli found out she was a Mario Savio Young Activist Award recipient she was shocked to be recognized for the work she and her community have done. She is inherently shy, and has difficulty thinking of herself as someone special. The work Eli has done started out of her own survival. The award meant that she was being heard on a larger scale, and that her community and cause were important beyond their own arena. She knew she shared the award with her community of undocumented immigrants, as well as with the Hope CommUnity Center, and when she accepted the award, she brought Hope Center workers with her. The Savio award was powerful for Eli, and has inspired her to keep fighting and advocating for what is right so that there can be truly comprehensive immigration reform. She realizes that it will be a process, but she is willing to keep fighting for small, steady gains. She would like to see the State of Florida issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants so that they can go to work or to the doctor or to a restaurant without fear of being stopped by the police.

Eli says she grew up at the Hope CommUnity Center, a place that has addressed issues of illiteracy, poverty, lack of access to health care, and immigration in its 45 years of existence. From that invisible high-school student, Eli has certainly grown up and is not invisible anymore. At the age of 24, she attended the White House Summit on Working Families, where she participated in discussions on worker’s rights and heard presentations from President Barack Obama. Eli works at the Hope Center as an activist advocating the rights of fellow DREAMers, and she tutors students to help them become eligible and prepared for college. Eli believes in having a “heart as wide as the world.” She would like to continue her studies, focusing on social work and immigration law so that she can help others in a more comprehensive way. She aspires to make it easier for the next students and hopes that they will then contribute back as she has until immigration injustices can be remedied so that everyone can live without fear.

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