Undocumented Ypsilanti valedictorian: ‘I want a bright future’ (The Ann Arbor News)

Ypsilanti’s STEMM Middle College graduate Diana tears up as she addresses her class as the 2016 valedictorian at Eastern Michigan University’s Convocation Center on Tuesday, June 7, 2016. Melanie Maxwell | The Ann Arbor News

YPSILANTI, MI — Diana was one face in a sea of black-and-gold gowns and caps gathered for Ypsilanti Community High School’s commencement ceremony the evening of Tuesday, June 7.

Diana, the Class of 2016’s valedictorian for Ypsilanti’s STEMM Middle College, draped honors cords, an Upward Bound stole and more than half a dozen medals from robotics and her various other accomplishments around her neck.

It was a long way from her early upbringing in Mexico. More than a decade ago, her mother uprooted her family and moved to the United States – without a visa – in search of a better life.

Today, Diana, her mother and two of her six younger siblings remain undocumented immigrants. Diana was 8 years old when her mother decided to take her and her two younger siblings, then 6 and 2, to America.

Undocumented immigrants do not have legal protections for their right to live and work in the United States. A public K-12 education and emergency medical care are afforded to them, but they cannot take advantage of other types of government-funded assistance.

Diana dreams of greater opportunities for herself beyond high school and plans to study biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan-Dearborn beginning this fall. Yet the fear of deportation still weighs on her and her family.

Although she’s currently allowed to legally live and work in the United States, she doesn’t have any good options to become a permanent resident or a U.S. citizen.

So despite her academic success, her future is in doubt.

“It’s a great country, where I feel like a prisoner in a way,” Diana said.

Diana graduated first in her class at STEMM Middle College, one of three small learning communities within the high school. She graduated with summa cum laude honors, maintaining a 3.95 GPA.

That’s a far cry from her early experiences in the United States as a first grader who couldn’t speak any English, felt isolated from her peers, cut off from her extended family and faltered in her will to live through middle school.

Once Diana reached high school and enrolled in the STEMM Middle College, though, she felt accepted for the first time and connected with teachers and students who supported her in her drive to achieve.

“I just met the right people that inspired me in a way,” she said. “I have this in me that I want to be successful, and they were the right people to meet who would kind of fulfill that something I was missing inside of me.”

Today, Diana, 19, would say her family found that better life in Ypsilanti, but it took several years of struggling in school and longing for her home in Mexico before she came to that conclusion.

The trip to America

They left Mexico abruptly one day. Her mother wanted to escape Diana’s abusive alcoholic father, to leave behind the dangerous neighborhood they lived in and to give her children the chance at a good education. She had been to Michigan with her brother before and knew a man there, so that was their end destination.

“We had struggles, so my mom kind of decided that coming here would be the best option for our future,” Diana said. “Everything happened so fast. … It wasn’t a fun experience.”

Diana’s father died one year after they left Mexico, and she remembers speaking to him briefly only twice after they left.

“Now I understand why, but at the moment I felt like I disliked my mother because of how she took us away from my father,” she said.

At first, their plan was to walk across the desert and find a way over the border. Diana recalls her mother struggling with three young children in tow to cover as much ground as possible. One night armed robbers threatened them, which prompted Bernal’s mother to seek a different way.

She came up with some money to have smugglers transport her and her children across the border, but somehow in the process Diana and her siblings got separated from their mother.

“I don’t remember exactly how it worked. I just remember that we got here and at this point my mother wasn’t with us,” Diana said. “It was my two siblings and I living with strangers. We had no idea who people were. We had no idea where we were going. We didn’t see our mom and we were asking for her.”

In her scared 8-year-old mind, Diana couldn’t tell whether days, weeks or a month passed without her mother, but the strangers made the long drive to bring the children to Michigan. They were dropped off with the man her mother had planned to meet there, and so their new life began.

“It was just a strange situation for us,” Diana said.

School was hard for Diana, who didn’t speak English when she enrolled in first grade at Carpenter Elementary School. She was pulled out for English as a Second Language classes until seventh grade, when she tested as proficient in the language.

“I just felt out of place. I didn’t feel like I belonged,” she said. “I didn’t feel like that was my world. I missed my home back in Mexico, and I just kept wondering why I was here. I didn’t understand at that point.”

Living in fear

Deportation was talked about as a threat in her household from the time Diana’s family arrived in Ypsilanti. They heard about friends of friends who had been deported, leaving behind U.S. citizen children.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed 235,413 undocumented immigrants in 2015, 62 percent of whom were Mexican citizens. In 2014, 1.02 million people across the country were granted lawful permanent residence through various avenues, according to the most recent data from U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics.

Visas allowing people to legally live in the U.S. are granted to relatives of U.S. citizens, people who have a job offer in the U.S., refugees and others who qualify for special immigration programs.

Immediate family members — parents, spouses and unmarried children younger than 21 of U.S. citizens — do not have to wait for visas to become available. But for extended family members, the current wait time for a visa for a Mexican citizen is a long as 23 years.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, granted to eligible children who entered the country when they were younger than 16, offered Diana an avenue to avoid deportation, but her mother was afraid for her to apply.

She didn’t want Diana to risk identifying herself as an undocumented immigrant even for the chance at a more secure status.

In limbo

Diana eventually sought and was granted DACA, but U.S. citizenship is out of reach.

“It’s getting to the permanent residency that’s the challenge,” said Marva De Armas, an immigration attorney in Ann Arbor. “You’re legally present here, you’re not going to get deported, but you don’t have lawful status. Those people are going to spend their entire lives here, not getting deported, ICE knowing that they’re here, getting work permits, paying taxes, but they will never be able to adjust (and become permanent residents).”

DACA provides Diana with a work permit and exemption from deportation for two years, with the option for renewal. She still would need additional documentation to travel outside the country, with no guarantee she could re-enter the United States. So she doesn’t know when she will see her extended family in Mexico again.

“I mean, don’t you feel great when you’re able to visit your family?” she said. “I just can’t wait till I go back. I don’t want to go back to Mexico to stay, I just want to go back to visit.”

Diana’s legal status also means she cannot apply for any federally-backed student loans or fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

By applying for numerous local and privately funded scholarships, she has amassed about $18,000 to get her started at the University of Michigan-Dearborn this fall, where she will study biomedical engineering with the hope of a career in research or designing prosthetics or artificial organs.

Ypsilanti Community Schools staff, parents and community members came together Tuesday evening to celebrate the graduating seniors in the Class of 2016.

She is determined to capitalize on the opportunities the U.S. promises.

Diana watches her mother work two low-paying jobs as a cook to support her family, frustrated there are no better options for someone without legal status.

“I don’t want to be in my mom’s place. I don’t want to be working two jobs where I’m earning little money and working super hard. She’s killing herself just to move us forward,” Diana said. “I want to be successful and to also say that my mom’s reason for bringing us here had purpose, had meaning. I look at the future, and I want a bright future.”

Diana wants to believe in the idealistic America her mother sought, the “greatest country” where everyone has a chance to succeed. But she struggles to reconcile that with the America that calls her a criminal and says she doesn’t belong here.

“It’s tough. You don’t know how to express yourself without being judged,” Diana said, tears spilling down her cheeks as she thought of all her mother has sacrificed for her. “If she brought us here illegally, she didn’t have the resource to bring us here the right way. People may blame her or say something about it, but I feel like I’m not a criminal. I didn’t have a choice. She had a choice, and her choice was for our better future.”

This piece took first place for best government/education reporting in the 2016 Michigan Press Association awards.