Karla’s New Beginning

DACA and a Young Woman’s Pursuit of the American Dream

Karla was still a teenager when she became an activist. She was a DREAMer, one of the thousands of young people across the United States who are American in every way except for their lack of papers. Today Karla is a beloved client and friend of Justice For Our Neighbors Tennessee, but back then she was fighting for the right to stay and flourish in the country in which she had been raised and the one she considered her home. She began her advocacy career by making the rounds at the Nashville offices of her U.S. representative and senators.

It was an education.

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“Hungry for education” Karla presents an apple to Rep Jim Cooper’s Chief of Staff. Photo courtesy of TIRRC.

“We sympathize,” some stone-faced staff member would tell her. “But there are still rules you have to obey.” These words were usually followed by a stiff smile and a “thank-you-please-stop-by-any-time” as they showed her the door.

Others seemed truly sympathetic and tried to soften the blow. “We know it’s not your fault,” they would say. “You can’t be blamed. Your parents brought you here through no fault of your own.”

Did these politicians and their staff members think they were being kind? Did they think it was an act of compassion to tell children to blame the parents they loved for their undocumented status? Or did they just have a hard time looking at this appealing young woman with her hopeful eyes and shy smile and then giving her a flat-out “no?” Did they think of their own daughters at home and the plans and dreams they had for them? Did they happen to glance across the office at their fresh-faced, ambitious interns and fail to see a mirror image of Karla? A girl who wanted to go to college. A girl who wanted to live with dignity and security. A girl who wanted to belong.

“They said we should blame our parents,” says Karla. “It was our parents’ fault. I heard this message over and over again.” She falls silent for a moment, as if finding it difficult to say her next words aloud. “So I began to blame my mom,” she admits, shaking her head, “I began to feel bitterness towards her. “

Karla was only 5 years old when she left her hometown of Jalisco, Mexico.

She has only one memory left of her life there, and it’s the stuff of nightmares: a terror-dark night, a little girl pulling hard on the door to escape, running barefoot through the twisting streets, crying for someone to help her. Karla’s father was beating her mother again. He had a pole in his hand, and Karla thought for sure this time he would kill her.

Karla realized the politicians who blamed parents like her mother were dead wrong. “My mom brought me here to save my life,” she states emphatically. “I admire and thank her so much for that. She is the most courageous person I know.”

A dream deferred, not denied.

Karla has been an active volunteer with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition since she was a junior in high school. Together with several other TIRRC volunteers, she founded the student-centered JUMP—Jovenes Unidos por un Mejor Presente (Young People United for a Better Present.) There was a lot to learn. There were training sessions to attend and late-night discussions on strategy. It was an exhilarating time. They were very young, and they were out to change the world. They just didn’t realize yet how long that might take.

In March 2010, Karla joined thousands of other DREAMers across the country for a march on Washington, D.C. Part of the United We Dream Coalition, they trudged through the halls of the senate buildings and rallied on the Capitol grounds. They put their hearts and souls into passing the DREAM Act. They came close— and then they watched it fail.

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The DREAMers take the Hill! Photo courtesy of Nao Bustmante.

It was a devastating loss. “Our lives shattered around us,” remembers Karla. ”But it made us stronger and more determined. I definitely feel the youth groups put pressure on President Obama. Our efforts made DACA possible.”

“A passionate and effective advocate for immigration reform.”

Meanwhile, Karla’s life was moving forward in an exciting direction. She won a scholarship to attend a local community college. She became part of the prestigious Google Ambassadorship program, acting as a liaison between students and new Google technology. She interned at a healthcare organization. She also received a full scholarship to Lipscomb University in Nashville, where she majored in public relations and digital marketing.

Karla has worked very hard for every achievement, but she remains both profoundly grateful and keenly aware of the burden of expectations placed upon her shoulders. “So many people don’t have these opportunities,” she says. “I knew I was going to school not just for myself, but for everybody.”

Karla and a fellow volunteer at a TN JFON event.
Karla and a fellow volunteer at a TN JFON event.

All through this time, Karla remained active in the DREAMer movement. She was a youth organizer for TIRCC when DACA came out in 2012. She met Adrienne Kittos, attorney from Justice for Our Neighbors Tennessee at a DACA clinic Karla had arranged. Adrienne would shepherd Karla through the process of receiving her 2012 DACA status and help her to successfully reapply in 2015.

“I love Adrienne so much,” Karla says simply. “Without Adrienne and JFON I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

“Karla is an absolutely lovely young woman who made my job as an attorney very easy,” counters Adrienne. “She was well-organized and responsive when we needed documentation for her DACA case. It is always a pleasure to meet with Karla—she has the most positive, upbeat presence.”

“I live two years at a time, not knowing what is coming next,” Karla says, smiling, reinforcing Adrienne’s assessment of her character. It’s clear that the uncertainty of her existence isn’t going to stop Karla from realizing her dreams.

Softening hearts and changing minds—one person at a time.

In 2012, TIRCC began its campaign for tuition equality in Tennessee. It was considered a long-shot, an idea with little hope of advancing in Tennessee’s General Assembly. But in the spring of 2015, they had the governor’s support, and they had won the State Senate. All that remained was the House.

Karla was asked to give testimony. She stood in front of the legislators and began to tell her story. She spoke with eloquence. She told the truth. She made more than one of these public servants really see her—not as a number, statistic, or shadowy “illegal alien” but as a young woman Tennessee should be proud to call one of its own.

Karla changed a few minds that day—including that of Rep. Rick Womick, a hard-liner on immigration issues. He was a “no” vote coming into that session and a “yes” vote by the time it had ended.

Tennessee “has become their home, they’ve grown up here,” he told the reporter from the local paper. “Who are we to say they cannot go on to college?”

Sadly, the bill lost by one vote. Just one vote. But Karla, still in her early 20s, has learned patience. She has enough experience now to know that some failures are merely delayed victories. The bill comes up again next year, and she and her colleagues are confident they can and will have the votes to win this time around.

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Karla, her mother, and younger sisters at her college graduation.

Karla is now a college graduate and works as a recruiter for her alma mater, Lipscomb University. She serves on many boards that focus on Latino issues in her Nashville community. (Update: Karla also currently serves as a TN JFON board member.) Of course, she is still an advocate for immigrant justice and a role model for other undocumented youth. She will always be a DREAMer, her eyes fixed firmly on the road ahead when she will achieve her most cherished desire.

“I want more than anything to become a U.S. citizen,” she says. “This is the country I love. I want to give back my talents to the country I was raised in.” She adds, in case there is any doubt, “My country. “