Juan Carlos Cisneros, 20, emigrated from Nogales, he's a "Dreamer" and studies computer science at Benedictine University Mesa. He volunteers at Phoenix Bioscience High School with the robotics program and is a member of Aliento. Photo courtesy of Aliento.

Highlights

• Young Arizonans from mixed-status families and Dreamers working with organizations like Aliento — which fights for the rights of undocumented youth and their families — successfully advocated to get a partial repeal of Proposition 300 on the ballot.
• Part of the proposition, passed in 2006, denies undocumented students in-state tuition no matter how many years they've lived in Arizona.
• The initiative will be on the November 2022 ballot.

Helen Sánchez looks at the calendar every day. She slowly turns the page, adding one more month to her life.

She’s 19. The daughter of Mexican migrants. She watches the clock, waiting.

Helen Sánchez, 19, is the daughter of Mexican immigrants. She’s studying to enter medical school at the University of Arizona and is a member of Aliento. Photo courtesy of Aliento.

Every second.

Every second.

Every second.

Time means one more step, one more dream toward reaching the age she’s waiting on: 21 years.

Helen is studying pre-med at the University of Arizona. She wants to be a doctor. For most of her classmates, turning 21 is a time to celebrate and finally be able to enter a bar legally.

But for Helen, finally turning 21 means being able to breathe and feel safe. Because for Helen, having undocumented parents is like living between two worlds, counting every second. Every breath. Until she’s old enough to sponsor her parents and see if they qualify for legal immigration status.

In one world, she and her siblings live with all the rights that come with being born on this side of the Arizona-México border. In the other world, they live with the pain, fear and trauma of knowing their beloved parents do not have the same protections under the law.

In both worlds, Helen feels protected by her family. But she understands the realities for many Latinos who live with undocumented loved ones in Arizona.

In English: Mixed-status families. In Spanish: Familias con estatus mixto.

The language does not matter. The fate is the same. Helen knows her parents do not have the civil or human rights she enjoys.

“I come from a mixed-status family — that means that my parents do not have legal status in this country but my siblings and I do,” she says.

Listening to young undocumented students talk about their lives changed how she saw her own privilege.

“I have a voice in the community. I have legal status. I should be able to do something about this,” she says.

It is estimated that 16.7 million people belong to mixed-status families, and that 8.2 million people who were born in the United States or are naturalized citizens live in these households.

In Arizona, thousands of citizens like Helen, with loved ones without citizenship, are raising their voice. They are taking their mothers, fathers, and friends by the hand.

They are working together to change the laws in Arizona and the U.S. They say they’re fighting for each other’s lives.

Video by Daniel Méndez, an award-winning editor/producer with more than 15 years of experience covering news in English and Spanish. He has worked with Telemundo and 12 News. His professional experience contributed to a better understanding of fair and comprehensive coverage of Latino communities, including collaborating on the production of bilingual stories that spawned 12 News en Español.

Their efforts are paying off: Political action for undocumented immigrants and their future in education has gained momentum in Arizona — something few people thought possible in a state with such an anti-immigrant history.

They are advocating for a measure, referred by the state Legislature to the November ballot, that could help immigrant students.

It is up to Arizona voters to decide whether undocumented high school graduates who have lived in the state for at least two years will be able to pay in-state tuition at universities and community colleges.

At least 19 states have systems for offering in-state college tuition to undocumented students, including Texas, Florida and Arkansas. The ballot measure is an opportunity to improve the economy for everyone in Arizona, academics and political experts say.

But it would be a seismic shift in Arizona, the state that former President Donald Trump chose as a model for promoting xenophobic rhetoric. The state where SB1070 was born in 2010, allowing police officers during stops to question the immigration status of people if they suspected that they were in the country illegally.

The Republican-majority Legislature surprised many when it voted for the initiative that lets voters decide whether to repeal part of Proposition 300. That 2006 proposition, which was supported by voters in Arizona, denied several social services to undocumented families.

But 15 years have passed.

Now, the force of these young people: some from mixed-status families, some “Dreamers,” citizens and non-citizens, is showing as they go door-to-door speaking with Arizona community leaders and politicians.

United with organizations like Aliento, which fights for the rights of undocumented families, they are working to modify Arizona laws, creating strategies that sent the legislative measure to the 2022 electoral ballot, and to sway voters over the next nine months.

They have new support from state organizations dedicated to improving education for Latinos and Arizona’s economy. For the first time, they also have support from a small but significant number of Republican politicians who voted with Democrats in the Legislature in favor of the education measure.

It’s a historic moment and a signal that there are plenty of Arizonans willing to speak out against Arizona’s anti-immigrant past, advocates say. The four Republicans who supported the measure said it is an important step for Arizona’s economic future.

Whether the growing coalition will convince Arizona voters remains to be seen. But leaders like Stephanie Parra, executive director of ALL in Education, say the state is experiencing a moment when people are considering justice and equity, including for Latino youth. And people want better economic and educational opportunities for all students in Arizona, she said.

“They are our future workforce, they are the drivers of our economy, they are our future leaders who will be responsible for forging what Arizona will look like,” Parra said in a 2021 report on education. “I call on each one of you to take a stand, and join us in creating the change we need in our communities.”

“It is time for transformational change,” she said. “It is time to prioritize equity, justice and opportunity for ALL students.”

An economic benefit for Arizona?

Increasing the number of college graduates would contribute $660,000 per graduate to Arizona’s economy, including through increased earnings, paying more in taxes and relying less on social services, according to studies by College Success Arizona.

Increasing the number of people of all ethnicities and races, specifically Latinos, graduating from college to the same number of the White population, results in a $2.3 billion economic and social gain for each graduating class.

The ballot measure could help thousands of undocumented students who want to continue their college education and contribute to the economy.

Young people are already in the fight, explaining to Arizonans why they should repeal part of Prop. 300, which made it difficult for undocumented students to attend college because they were forced to pay for their education as students living out of state — triple what an Arizona resident pays — no matter how many years they have lived in Arizona.

If voters support the measure, it will change the lives of approximately 2,000 undocumented high school graduates annually, according to studies by the Migration Policy Institute.

In all, 27 Republicans, some using the same xenophobic rhetoric that has dehumanized people without legal immigration status, voted against the measure in May. The Arizona Legislature is controlled by the Republican Party.

Rep. John Fillmore, a Republican and businessman of Apache Junction, voted against it and denounced undocumented immigrants.

“Americans should not have to pay for non-American citizens, illegals, giving them favored status for their trespass and invasion into America,” Fillmore said.

The sentiments of Arizona Republican politicians like Fillmore, is what prompted young Dreamers and their allies from mixed-status families, like Helen’s, to launch a fierce fight to educate legislators about the importance of obtaining human rights, including rights to an education in the U.S.

Those efforts spurred four Republicans to join with 29 Democrats to vote for the ballot referral.

A Republican legislator and teacher stands with immigrants

Rep. Michelle Udall

Rep. Michelle Udall, a high school teacher and Republican of Mesa, voted with Democrats.

She explained her vote on the House floor, saying that the measure is an economic benefit for Arizona and a humanitarian solution to support children who are undocumented.

“I believe it means a lot to the well-being of our state going forward,” Udall said. “We have more companies relocating here and new companies starting here. But without an increasing number of college graduates to sustain those companies these trends cannot hold.”

“We need more college-educated youth to become tomorrow’s teachers, healthcare workers, lawyers, engineers and a host of other occupations, especially if we want to continue to lower taxes.”

Udall said it’s time to consider the effects of Arizona laws targeting immigrant children when the federal government has been unable to agree on immigration reform.

“The youth this bill seeks to help should not be blamed or judged based on others’ actions,” she said.

She spoke about the barriers to education.

“We cannot continue to hold them hostage … stuck in a situation not of their making, where they are so restricted from getting the education they need to be able to support themselves and their families,” she said.

The legislator spoke directly “to the students who will benefit from this bill should it pass with a vote in 2022, which it will.”

“Please take advantage of this opportunity to get a good education. Go to college. It’s not going to be easy,” she said. “You’ve already learned what it means to persevere in the face of hardships.”

In her closing remarks, she thanked a Dreamer from México who helped her understand why the measure is critical and who never stopped believing that they could appeal to the hearts of Arizonans.

“For this bill, the face that I think of each time I thought we couldn’t get it done was Reyna Montoya,” Udall said. “She has been such an inspiration to me and others, and so in her honor, I am proud to vote aye.”

The Arizona Legislature’s Republican majority has supported many anti-immigrant laws. But now, many Arizona voters are supporting undocumented youth.

A poll conducted by the American Coalition for Business Immigration and FWD.us in 2021 found that Arizonans, including those who voted for Trump, support a path to citizenship for dreamers, farmworkers and essential workers. Among the 323 Arizonans surveyed, 61% of those who voted for Trump and 66% of conservative voters said they supported a path to citizenship for Dreamers. In total, 78% of those surveyed support this path for Dreamers.

Political pundits say there’s a progressive movement underway in a state where Latinos helped elect Joe Biden, one of only two Democrats in recent history (since 1948) to have won Arizona’s electoral votes in a presidential election. The other was Bill Clinton in 1996.

Arizona is changing politically. So is the political power of mixed-status communities fighting for civil and human rights.

Solutions for all Arizona children

Parra says ALL in Education is building a coalition to tackle the widespread opportunity gaps for Latinos, including barriers to equal representation in leadership roles in politics, schools and other systems.

She’s educating others about the hardships Arizonans have imposed on students who fear their parents will be deported or who worry their own immigration status will limit their chances in life.

An estimated 46% of Arizona’s 1.1 million elementary and high school students are Latino or Latina, but according to education and economic experts, the state has not equally supported their access to college degrees.

Latino college graduation rates in Arizona were 13.3%, below the national average and well below the 30.8% rate for White residents, according to a 2019 University of Arizona study.

More nonprofit, state and local leaders, and community groups are coming together in Arizona to fight for solutions that achieve equity for all students.

Helios Education Foundation is among those groups focusing on college achievement for low-income and underrepresented communities. They have promoted strategies to support Latino students, including:

  • Ensure that students are reading by the third grade
  • Increase college enrollments
  • Increase attainment of two- and four-year college degrees 

“Helios seeks to ensure that all children in Arizona have the full potential to succeed in an educational pathway that will take them where they want to go,” states the organization’s plan for Latino student success.

“While data on future economic opportunities for Arizona are positive, the biggest challenge our research reveals is how well the state prepares students for college and careers,” states a Helios education report. “From the onset, Latino students seem to be at a disadvantage, especially to their White classmates.”

At 25.5%, Latino students are significantly underrepresented at Arizona’s three public universities, specifically compared to White students at 51%, according to the study.

For Arizona to succeed, Latino children, who are expected to make up 50% of the state’s student population by 2026, must have access to the same educational opportunities as White children, say Helios education experts.

Latino students and activists in the fight

Juan Carlos Cisneros, 20, emigrated from Nogales, he’s a “Dreamer” and studies computer science at Benedictine University Mesa. He volunteers at Phoenix Bioscience High School with the robotics program and is a member of Aliento. Photo courtesy of Aliento.

Juan Carlos, computer scientist

Juan Carlos Cisneros lived with the darkness that immigrants feel when they think there are no alternatives for a better future in this country.

Realizing he could not continue with a professional career, despite years of dedication to his studies, Juan Carlos thought that there were no solutions, no opportunities. No way out.

“After finishing elementary school, the mother of a friend asked me why I did so much volunteering, since as an undocumented immigrant, I would not be able to go to university or work,” he says.

He felt like dying.

“It was really hard to focus knowing what she told me, so my sophomore year of high school I almost committed suicide.”

But a friend connected him with Aliento, where he found support to escape depression, heal and understand that there are different paths to achieve his goals, such as the DACA program.

“They helped me to be happy with who I am, to continue working on what I want,” he says. “And they advised me on ways to pay for my college.”

Dreamers have partnered with citizen allies and learned grassroots tactics for change as they’ve lobbied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Former President Barack Obama created the program in 2012 to offer protection from deportation and temporary work permission to qualifying undocumented youth who came to the U.S. as children.

Juan Carlos emigrated from Nogales, México to Arizona in 2008. His family fled violence and needed help for a medical condition that affected his heart and lungs.

Now, he studies computer science at Benedictine University, volunteers in the robotics program at Phoenix Bioscience High School, and helps migrant youth succeed professionally.

He says he’s a Dreamer fighting for himself and others. He’s in his third year of college. Far from the darkness, closer to the future he imagined when he was in high school.

“The message I want everyone to hear is that there will always be a way to keep working on what you want to do,” he says, speaking loudly, confidently. “You should never let someone tell you that you can’t do something. Let my story be an example.”

Reyna Montoya, 30, is the founder and director of Aliento. She’s a “Dreamer” who advocates through her organization for young people and families without legal immigration status. Photo by Beatriz Limón.

Reyna, CEO, educator and activist for immigrant students

Reyna Montoya did not want to lose her parents. She wanted a platform for the voices of immigrant children. A place for counseling, consoling, sharing and speaking up together.

Reyna is the activist that the Arizona legislator thanked for her work on the in-statue tuition ballot referral.

In 2016, Reyna founded Aliento in Arizona, where she works with other young people to foster leadership, community and healing for families facing the inequalities that come with having a loved one who lacks citizenship.

In 2010, the Arizona House of Representatives passed SB1070, with 35 Republicans voting for and 21 Democrats voting against the measure. Reyna remembers.

The measure known as the “show me your papers” law spread fear in immigrant communities. It allowed police officers during a stop to question the immigration status of people if they suspected they were in the country illegally. People were terrified of being questioned for any reason, including the color of their skin, regardless of whether they had committed a crime.

It was a dark era for many migrant and Latino families in Arizona. They had faced racial profiling, illegal traffic stops and raids, watching their families separated.

Reyna wanted to fight for her community.

“I grew up undocumented in Arizona,” she says. “We watched Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s raids — my father was detained for nine months and I couldn’t hug him.”

Her voice breaks, remembering the injustices and inhumanity experienced for one reason only — not having legal immigration status.

Years later, with Trump’s presidency and the burden of Arizona’s anti-immigrant laws, she saw the worsening outlook for undocumented students without the protection of the DACA program, which Republicans sought to abolish.

“It was difficult for me to study for a degree, so I thought about how to heal those wounds, transform the trauma, turn fear into action and hope,” Reyna says. “That lit that spark to be able to found an organization to invest in young people, not only in their leadership, but in their mental health.”

Reyna was the first in her family to attend college. She earned two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s degree and completed an executive education program at Harvard University. Her humanitarian and advocacy work has earned many awards, including making the Forbes 30 Under 30 list.

In December, she returned to her alma mater. She stood center stage in a sports arena at Arizona State University. She shared her story with hundreds of graduates at the university’s Hispanic Convocation.

“As you graduate and continue to celebrate this milestone, I hope you don’t forget that everyone has a unique light to share,” she said. “We have the choice to be a light in the darkness.”

Reyna shares her own light through Aliento with mixed-status families and undocumented people, and now with legislators and voters, too. Anyone who will listen when she asks them to understand what an education, what human and civil rights mean to people without those rights.

She knows what happens to the mental health of young people when they believe there are no solutions, no opportunities. No way out.

Destiny Duque, 21, is a student at Benedictine University Mesa. She’s an advocate for children and families without legal immigration status and is studying to attend law school so she become an immigration lawyer. Photo by Beatriz Limón.

Destiny, immigration attorney

Destiny knows people might think that anti-immigrant policies in Arizona do not affect her. She’s a citizen.

She’s 21 years old. And was born in Guatemala and lives in Phoenix.

She wanted to study medicine at Benedictine University. But that changed the day she met children from Central America separated from their parents by immigration authorities after crossing the border.

“I met two girls, a 9-year-old and a 5-year-old, who came to the border from Guatemala,” she says, her voice falling softer. “And the Arizona social services just put them on a Greyhound (bus) and transferred them to California.”

Destiny remembers the little girls. Alone and scared. They were traveling with only $20 and a small backpack.

That’s when she chose to change her major. And she joined Aliento, where she donates her time to support and advocate for immigrants.

“That’s why I started studying laws to help children, specifically migrants,” she says.

Studying is the first step — the difference is in the life changes you make each day in the future, she says.

Helen, doctor

In Helen’s world in Arizona, time for a 19-year-old woman, a daughter of Mexican immigrants, passes slowly.

She lives looking at calendars, watching clocks. She’s anxious to reach 21 years, so she can petition for her parents’ immigration status in the U.S.

Although Helen’s future seems promising, the reality is that her family has never stopped living scared.

Helen and her siblings Gema, Isaac and Alfonso were born in Phoenix, but her parents have lived undocumented in Arizona for more than 20 years.

Longer than Helen has lived on the other side of a border line that means everything and nothing. She was a little girl when she started learning what that border meant to her family.

“From a very young age I realized that our family was a little bit different from other families,” she says. “I realized a fear that would overtake my parents the moment we left the house.”

Helen studies physiology and medical science at UA. She spends her time in Tucson, often thinking about the past and the future.

She was finishing high school when she understood what could happen to her family if her mom or dad were deported.

“At that moment, I knew we were in a grave situation,” she says.

A bad stop, a broken taillight, a complaint at a store, could turn into a reason for deporting her parents, so she turned her fears into caution. Into secrecy and protection for her loved ones.

But she knew there would soon be a chance to save her parents. A chance to fix her mom and dad’s “papers” when she turns 21.

There are various ways that undocumented immigrants can obtain legal status in this U.S. One is for an adult child to petition to sponsor their parents for a green card, as Helen plans to do.

But the reality is it’s a difficult process without guarantees.

In order for a father or mother to be petitioned by a child and qualify for legal status in the U.S., the child must be a citizen, unmarried and over 21 years of age, according to immigration attorney Ayensa Millán.

But the attorney warned that to achieve a successful legalization process the parents must have entered the country legally, either with a work or tourist visa, and not have left the country. Millán said that there is a lot of misinformation about the immigration process to petition for undocumented parents to be in the country legally.

“Many people, due to a lack of information, think that just by entering with a visa they can fix it, but if the I-94 has already expired and they leave the country, the process becomes complicated,” she said.

The most effective way to arrange immigration status for parents is to enter legally, not leave the country, not commit any crime and wait for their son or daughter to come of age and be single to file a family petition, she said.

“They have to take into account that each case is different and this process may be more complicated than they think,” she stressed.

For Helen and her family, the seconds, months, years are long.

“Everything feels very slow, as if time is not passing,” she says.

Helen continues to fight for solutions for undocumented youth and families. Using Twitter to push for justice and motivate the Arizona State Legislature ahead of last year’s vote, she said:

“I urge you to please take this crucial step towards educational equity and allow for high school graduates all over Az to have an equal opportunity towards a college education! #SCR1044

Young people in Arizona are showing the strength of mixed-status families, with and without citizenship.

“We’re making a very big impact, we’ve been trying to make that impact for many years,” Helen says. “I think our time is coming.”

“Little by little, our effort will begin to bear fruit in the community and eventually in the entire country.”

Helen’s still watching the clock, waiting. Still dreaming of turning 21. So she can make sure her family is never separated.

Translation by Executive Editor Dianna M. Náñez

Beatriz Limón

Beatriz Limón es una periodista independiente que fue corresponsal en Arizona y Nuevo México de la Agencia Internacional de Noticias EFE. Licenciada en Ciencias de la Comunicación, fotógrafa profesional...