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Hola es su centro para mantenerse informado, compartir ideas y conectarse con recursos. (Hola is your hub to stay informed, share ideas, and connect with resources in northern Illinois.)

NIU students show resilience in national celebration of immigrants

Maria Gardner Lara

Northern Illinois University students recently recognized “I Stand with Immigrants Day.” It’s a national call for action that celebrates the contributions of immigrants in the U.S.

Daniel types away on his laptop during a lull in foot traffic at the “I Stand with Immigrants” table at the Holmes Student Center in the heart of the NIU campus.

He’s a graduate student and works at the Undocumented Student Resource Center. He helps those who are recipients of national scholarships for undocumented students.

“I help them craft their stories, I help them with their resumes, I help them with internships,” Daniel said, “and I overall just help them navigate their lives being an undocumented student on campus.”

He said while many immigrants come from Latin America, he primarily works with undocumented students from Africa, Asia and Europe.

“So, the diversity of immigrants, especially the undocumented immigrants is very diverse,” he said. “So, I think it's time we kind of recognize that.”

Daniel arrived in the U.S. as a kid from Poland.

“I am also undocumented,” he said. “So, I experienced those same struggles. So, part of my activism is helping other students who are struggling in the same situation to help them try to overcome them as well.”

At the table, Lorena carried the largest smile as she instructs visitors on an activity. A world map is dotted with thumb tacks indicating where someone’s family originated.

Among the participants was NIU President Lisa Freeman.

NIU students and the college leadership were instrumental in passing legislation in Illinois to support undocumented students as they pursue higher education.

“We need to celebrate the accomplishments and the potential of our students who are immigrants, even those who are undocumented,” Freeman said, “because they are just here seeking what we all want a better life for ourselves for our communities and our families.”

Lorena is a senior this year.

“I know I'm almost done, but it's getting hectic,” she said. “It's okay though,” she laughed.

As for many young people, college is a time of exploration. They decide on a major and figure out a career path. Lorena said, for her, the search is over. She pictures herself at one nonprofit that provides legal services to poor, often undocumented workers.

“That's like my dream job right now. Because they're just helping and making sure that everyone knows their rights,” she said. “And their work brings us back to “I Stand with Immigrants” because everyone deserves equal opportunity and to know their rights.”

“And,” she added, “they’re just, like, amazing.”

Lorena is undocumented. This creates a challenge as she determines her next step.

“It's been a little bit difficult,” she said. “Once it comes to the end of my senior year, obviously, I'm looking at if I can take a job. So, I’m just trying to find internships or something like that. I feel like that would be my biggest concern, because when it comes to the real world, it's like -okay, I want to see where I can fit in.”

And she’s not alone in her status. New DACA applicants haven’t been accepted since 2021. And a growing number of folks wouldn't meet the requirements such as having entered the U.S. prior to June of 2007.

For Lorena, overcoming obstacles is nothing new.

There was figuring out how to pay for college since she doesn’t qualify for federal aid – and all that during a pandemic.

Also, she tamed her fear about telling her story.

“Growing up in a community that was mostly white,” she said, “you never knew their response, you never knew what was going to happen, like the dangers that could come from it.”

She shared her experiences in a speech during an event held by Dream Action NIU, the student group for undocumented students.

“I knew that I was scared, and I knew that it was something that brought me fear,” she said. “And now I'm using it as a form of power -switching that narrative. Your story is something powerful.”

According to the Migration Policy Institute, immigrants make up nearly 14% of the Illinois population. And nearly a quarter of that share is made up of undocumented immigrants.

Some elected officials are asking the Biden Administration to expedite work authorizations for asylum seekers, as immigrant rights advocates call for work visas for everyone -- including those undocumented here in Illinois, like Daniel and Lorena.

A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.