DREAMer Leaves U.S. by Choice, Ends Up at Harvard

By Aura Bogado Apr 24, 2014

Despite the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, undocumented youth remain in limbo in the United States. Those who want to pursue higher education aren’t allowed to apply for federal loans or grants, and the work permits issued through DACA are only temporary; DACA itself doesn’t even provide legal status. Many young people work around the obstacles, while some don’t even apply. Others feel that DACA is too little and too late, and would rather leave the U.S. than put up with an immigration system that doesn’t benefit them.  

Berenice Villegas is one of those students. She made one of the most difficult decisions of her life in the summer of 2012. She had just graduated with an environmental biology degree from Columbia University the previous year, but because she was undocumented, she feared what her future in the United States would hold.

Villegas applied for three masters programs in Europe and was accepted to each one. But on June 15, 2012, President Obama signed a memo specifically created for people like Villegas. DACA would provide her with temporary but renewable relief from deportation. Villegas was torn between leaving her family–with the risk of never returning home–or sticking around with DACA and the limited opportunities it provides. "I had to move on with my life," says Villegas, who is now 24. So she left.

New Beginnings

Villegas arrived in the United States when she was 13. She, her mother and younger brother moved from Mexico to Ohio to meet her father, who had already been working there for more than a year. She didn’t know English then, but learned quickly and managed to finish the year as an eighth grade student with a 4.0 grade point average. She refused to take less rigorous English as a Second Language courses when she started high school in ninth grade. And although no one in her family had finished high school, her parents stressed an education. "I always knew that I wanted to go to college, and that’s what I had to do," she says. "I had to go to college."

Upon graduation, she applied to at least 10 colleges and chose Columbia University because it gave her the best financial aid package. "I didn’t really know about the Ivy League schools, to be honest," explains Villegas. Ivies treat undocumented students as international students, and meet their financial needs. That means that any federal grants and loans that aren’t available to undocumented students gets covered by the institution. Villegas didn’t know that a small group of elite schools would not only provide the best financial aid, but prestige as well. But she learned all about it once she arrived at Columbia in New York City.

"For the first time in my life, I felt free," recalls Villegas. Being undocumented in Ohio meant Villegas couldn’t acquire a driver’s license; but moving to Manhattan meant she could get anywhere in the city because of the excellent public transportation.  And because she attended Columbia, she had healthcare–another first for Villegas.

"I just became another student," she says. "Sometimes it was really easy for me to forget I was undocumented." But with graduation looming, Villegas started to worry about her future. She had met other undocumented students during her time at Columbia, and by February 2011–just three months shy of graduation–she finally let her best friends know about her status.

Leaving and Coming Back Home

Feeling that the United States didn’t welcome her, Villegas chose the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. She was also granted full funding, which is a rarity for non-Europeans.The program would allow her to attend several universities over the course of her studies. But first, she would have to leave the United States for Mexico in order to obtain a student visa–a big risk, because the visa is never guaranteed. But she did obtain it, and soon after, arrived in the Netherlands to begin her master’s program in evolutionary biology. All the while, she kept in mind that one of the international schools she could apply for was Harvard.

"I knew it was a [long] shot," says Villegas of obtaining a student visa to the same country in which she grew up undocumented.

"My chances were very low, and I was very nervous," explains Villegas. "But I also wanted to go home [because] I had been in Europe for a whole year." On her visa application, she was transparent about the fact that she had lived in the U.S. without papers. She says that at the embassy, her interviewer was kind. Two days later, Villegas’ student visa arrived in the mail.

She returned to the U.S. in late summer of last year, just a year after taking the risk of leaving. She spent time with her family in Ohio, visited friends in New York, and completed her semester at Harvard–all with the blessing and authorization of the state. Yet Villegas still considers herself a DREAMer, a designation usually reserved for undocumented students.

Villegas’ case is, of course, extremely unique. She’s a brilliant biologist, and her dedication to her work has obviously created rare opportunities for her. But in other ways, she’s not exactly alone. Villegas says she’s met other students in Europe who made the decision the leave the United States, too, because of their status. She’s also been in touch with people such as Nancy Landa, who was deported from the U.S. and then raised funds to attend graduate school in London. As much as the DREAMer identity was forged by undocumented youth in the U.S., it sticks with people abroad."It’s something that’s a part of me," she says, without hesitation. She fears for her friends and family who are undocumented, and for her own odds of returning home.

After her semester ended at Harvard, Villegas returned to Europe, and is now finishing her master’s in France. She wants to return to the U.S. and pursue a doctorate degree, and is taking a year off to apply to various programs worldwide. In the meantime, she’s looking for a job in a research lab with a work visa–hopefully back home in the U.S. "I’ve taking my future into my own hands," she says, reflecting on her life over the past three years. And it’s true: Villegas’s uncertainty about the future, the result of being a DREAMer from a state that has both rejected and embraced her, has perhaps become one of her strongest assets.