INTERVIEW by LAUREN RIGNEY | PHOTOGRAPHY by STEPHEN PAVEY
Isabel Castillo was illegally brought to the United States at the age of six. Her parents took the family from Mexico to Harrisonburg, Virginia, in search of a better life. Twenty years later, Isabel is now an established college graduate, but her undocumented status makes her an outlaw in the only country she feels is home. Since graduating from Eastern Michigan University in 2007, Isabel has devoted herself to supporting the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, better known as the DREAM Act. If passed, this legislative proposal would grant American residency to undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as minors and are pursuing higher education or military service.
Could you give us a little bit of history of your involvement with DREAM Act? Was there a specific moment you decided to be an activist?
It was after college that I started to really get involved. Because here I am with a bachelor’s in social work, I graduated magna cum laude, and I can’t use my degree. I had heard about the DREAM Act and so that’s when I went online and signed up for everything and anything that had to do with DREAM Act.
Because you have undocumented status, did you encounter any complications enrolling at Eastern Michigan University?
Being undocumented, I couldn’t qualify for federal or state financial aid. So it was always a struggle trying to pay off each semester. I had to pay each semester off before I could even apply for my classes the next semester. Financially it was always on the back of my mind: “Oh my God, the semester’s almost done, I have to find another $8,000 for the next semester.”
That sounds incredibly stressful and scary.
I began sharing my story to some of the professors that I started to build a relationship with. I told them, “this is my situation, do you know of anyone who can help me?” So I really got a lot of help from my community. No one’s going to knock on your door and say, “here’s $40,000 so you can go to college.” We have to be advocates for ourselves.
Did you ever take a semester off?
I did it all straight through. I graduated in three and a half years.
That’s awesome. I just graduated in May, and it’s hard enough doing it in four years. How was your time at EMU? Did you enjoy being a college student?
I did, but I lived at home so I didn’t really get that experience of living on campus. It was kind of like, I go to school and do my work, and then I go home.
Well, all in all you got your degree (with honors), and that’s what was most important, right?
That was the most important thing to me. I wanted to go to college even if it was getting a degree and making tortillas or whatever, but I needed to get a degree. Nobody can take your education away.
So now that you have your degree in social work, what would be your dream job?
Being an immigrant and knowing the struggles that it entails, coming to a new country not knowing the language and culture, I definitely want to keep working with immigrants. I’d like to have a non-profit and set up English classes and do more educational programs for children. I want to go to grad school, eventually law school, and keep fighting for immigrant rights.
Aside from your activism work, which I know consumes a lot of your time and energy, are you working to save some money for yourself?
I waitress. I do that and sometimes I interpret for individuals – friends or family members. Like if they need to interpret a doctor’s visit, or go to the court, or get their passport. So I do that, and they give me whatever donation they want. It’s very unfortunate that there’s thousands of individuals out there, where we have a degree and we can contribute, and we want to contribute and give back to our communities, but because of our broken immigration system, we cannot.
You mentioned that you told your story to professors at college. Were you ever scared about how someone might react?
At first it was scary, and sharing my story was a sentimental thing. But I think as the years went by, and I kept sharing my story more and more, I’m not scared anymore. That’s what we’re really letting youth out there know – we have to share our stories. We have to let people know what we’re really about, and that we’re not criminals – we’re good people. We want to succeed and we want to contribute and be part of this country that we call home – and the only country that we know as home.
You’ve received a lot of press lately, including a New York Times article with your picture. Are you not worried about negative consequences of the press?
Now I feel like the more public you are, the safer you are. I know that if something were to happen to me, I have this whole movement that’s right behind me that’s got my back. It’s not easy, but I do feel it is important to share your story and to let people know you’re a real human being, and we’re not criminals. Only criminals hide. I’m not going to hide anymore. I haven’t committed a crime. I don’t think a six-year-old has the mental capacity to say, “Mom and Dad, have you checked the immigration laws before you take me?”
How can Daily BR!NK readers learn more about the DREAM Act and support your efforts?
1. Donate: Make a donation to our grassroots organization.
2. Sign Petition: Sign the federal DREAM Act petition.
3. Stay Updated: Follow sites like dreamactivist.org and theniya.org for the latest action and alerts on the DREAM Act.
4. Share Your Story: To submit your story, send it in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.