AMERICAN FALLS — Odalis Gonzalez doesn’t remember driving away from her home in Tijuana, Mexico, to travel to the United States with her sister and a family acquaintance in 2003. She only knows that she entered the United States illegally — and that it left her poised for a life full of risks.
“It is a risk when I tell people I was born in Mexico — they might ask me how I arrived in the United States,” she said. “It is a risk when I dare speak the words out loud — those dreaded words that make people feel uncomfortable and fill me with fear when I say, ‘I am undocumented.'”
Gratitude for greater opportunities has also accompanied the risks tied to Odalis’ journey as an undocumented immigrant growing up in Eastern Idaho. Access to free public education, hard work and federal policies designed to ease the deportation of undocumented minors have helped her thrive scholastically. She was recently selected as American Falls High School’s 2017 valedictorian. And the university of her dreams, one of the most prestigious private schools in the nation, Notre Dame, has offered her a full-ride scholarship.
In a two-hour interview with Idaho Education News, Odalis reminisced on her experience as an undocumented student, and how it has shaped both her academic pursuits and her hopes for the future.
“I’ve been given many opportunities, and I hope someday I can help others have the same,” she said.
From Mexico to California to Idaho
Fifteen years ago, 3-year-old Odalis and her 8-year-old half sister, Martha, left their home in Tijuana, Mexico — in a car they’d never seen before, bound for the U.S. border.
The girls’ parents, Jaun Gonzalez and Reyna Reyes, had failed twice to reach the United States with their children. They decided it would be best to send the kids first this time. The family would eventually reunite across the border.
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The car’s driver, a family acquaintance, flashed a pair of false passports to agents at the border, then drove on into California, where Martha and Odalis stayed with family and awaited their parents’ arrival.
Weeks later, Gonzalez and Reyes carved their own path out of Mexico, eventually entering the United States in the back of a truck, “packed like sardines,” Odalis said.
The family reunited and began their life as undocumented immigrants in Lynwood, Calif. The girls enrolled in school, and Juan Gonzalez found work at a restaurant, then a warehouse, then a taco truck.
But a shaky job market and East L.A.’s notorious crime scene prompted the family to move north. It would be colder, they were told, but Gonzalez and Reyes could both find steady work in a sea of potato fields, in a place called Idaho.
A dedicated learner
The family resettled in the agricultural hotbed of Southeastern Idaho, in a house off the road between Aberdeen and American Falls.
Odalis was pleased to find that many Hispanic students also attended her new elementary school in American Falls. She picked up on English from her teachers and her sister. Her parents eventually found work and she made friends at school and began earning high marks in class.
But something else was driving Odalis’ desire to do well in school, she said. The free education, helpful teachers and steady jobs for her parents instilled a growing sense of gratitude for the sacrifice her family made to reach the United States.
Yet the family never became citizens out of fear of being deported, Odalis said, and because they were largely unaware of immigration procedures.
“I know what my parents did was against the law, but I’ve always wanted to be at the top in school because of the opportunities that provided me,” Odalis said.
By the time she reached high school, Odalis’ work ethic and performance had caught the attention of several teachers. Dual enrollment courses had helped raise her GPA to beyond perfect — 4.034. She also earned a 30 out of 36 on the English portion of her ACTs — an impressive feat for a native Spanish speaker, said American Falls government teacher Caroline White.
The winding road to college
Thoughts of attending college — most likely a state university — crept into Odalis’ mind. But the 2016 presidential election and then-candidate Donald Trump’s campaign speak left her unsure of her future in America.
Odalis recalled the night she learned Trump would become president.
“I seriously remember crying on election night,” she said. “I was that scared.”
Worse yet, she said, her Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals paperwork was up for renewal. DACA is an Obama-era immigration policy that provides certain undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as minors with a two-year, renewable period of deferred action from deportation. Odalis would need the renewed paperwork to stay in the United States and enroll in college.
With White’s help, Odalis sent her paperwork off months prior to the November election, and waited.
When her paperwork hadn’t returned months later, White contacted two different lawyers to see why. She was told that a flood of renewals spurred by the election had created a logjam of paperwork, and that Odalis should receive hers soon.
Eight months after sending it off, Odalis received her renewed DACA paperwork.
Her dream of attending college became more of a reality when she received an acceptance letter in the mail from Idaho State University in March, along with a full-ride scholarship offer to attend.
But Odalis didn’t immediately accept ISU’s offer. Earlier in the school year, White had convinced Odalis to apply to White’s own alma mater, the University of Notre Dame. It would be tough to get in, White had said, but Odalis had several things going for her: great grades, high test scores and Notre Dame’s reputation for working with DACA students. Odalis’ status as a practicing Catholic didn’t hurt her chances, either.
“I knew she had the potential to go to an Ivy League school,” White said. “She stands out because she does what she needs to do — and beyond — to truly learn material.”
On March 20, Odalis received an envelope with a little green Irish guy in the corner. She had been accepted to Notre Dame, also with an offer to attend on a full-ride scholarship.
What’s next for Odalis
Odalis wasn’t immediately sure about which college to attend, but a recent trip to the University of Notre Dame swayed her decision. She’ll start classes at the Indiana-based private school this fall.
Odalis is interested in studying political science and psychology. She’d like to become an expert on immigration laws.
When asked about what she would like to do as a profession, she pointed to her senior project, a series of classes held at American Falls High School aimed at helping immigrants become better versed in American immigration laws and procedures.
An eventual career helping immigrants could come in a number of occupations, she said, from national politics to education.
“The immigrant community is closest to my heart because I am a part of that community,” Odalis said.