Immigration status can put stress on sibling relationships
By Kalyn Belsha email@example.com October 13, 2013 8:52PM
Romeoville, 10/02/13--Elizabeth Cervantes teaches students how to play the vihuela, a stringed instrument used in mariachi music. Elizabeth Cervantes teaches Mariachi Matters, a music class held at the Romeoville Branch Library. | Jon Langham/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 15, 2013 6:21AM
This is the second in a two-part series looking at local Latino families that have both documented and undocumented members.
Idalia Cervantes, 21, remembers clearly the day her mother asked her to sit down on the bed for a talk.
Then a 16-year-old Romeoville High School sophomore, Cervantes had been asking her sister Elizabeth, who is three years older, some upsetting questions.
Why wouldn’t Elizabeth apply for college scholarships, Cervantes wanted to know. Why didn’t Elizabeth get a job? Why was she going to Joliet Junior College, instead of a four-year university?
“I thought she was lazy,” Cervantes recalled. “I remember I used to tell her, ‘Why don’t you drive? Aren’t you ashamed of your parents driving you to college? I’m never going to let my parents drive me to college.’”
Cervantes’ mother started to retell the story of how their family had come to the United States from Mexico when the sisters were little girls. How they’d crossed the border in search of a better life.
“I was kind of like ‘Yeah, yeah, I know, I know,’” Cervantes said.
Then Cervantes’ mother explained that Elizabeth had been born in Michoacán, a west-central state in Mexico. The family had crossed the border twice. Once into Texas, where Idalia Cervantes was born a U.S. citizen, and again when they all left Mexico permanently for Illinois.
Cervantes felt horrible. She cried as the hurtfulness of her words sunk in.
She was a U.S. citizen, but her sister was not.
She had no idea that Elizabeth’s immigration status had prevented her from legally working, driving and affording private-university tuition.
“It’s more shocking when it’s one of your siblings,” Cervantes said.
Cervantes’ mother said she had a similar conversation with her daughter when she was about 12 years old, but Cervantes doesn’t remember it.
Her mother decided to talk to Cervantes again because she could see her daughter “felt a lot of weight, a lot of responsibility” as the only legal driver in the family.
“I told her to keep living her own life,” Cervantes’ mother said. “That we’re not different, that we’re equals. That we are a family.”
Elizabeth Cervantes, 24, says growing up an undocumented immigrant in Cicero, she didn’t feel “any sense of insecurity or having to be careful.” Her mother says Elizabeth knew she didn’t have legal status somewhere between the ages of 6 and 8.
“I sort of grew up with no… there was no real threat,” Cervantes said. “All I knew was that I didn’t have a Social Security number. It really didn’t mean anything because there were so many of us in Cicero in that same boat. I didn’t feel like it was such a bad thing.”
Her mother says she raised Elizabeth to believe there was nothing she couldn’t do because of her immigration status.
“I always told her you have everything you need to do things,” her mother said. “You have your hands, your mind, you have everything. You don’t have any disability.”
And she didn’t tell her other daughter about Elizabeth’s status for the same reason. She wanted them to grow up as equals.
“I didn’t want… for there to be a difference between them,” their mother said.
But then Elizabeth Cervantes’ family moved to Romeoville during her sophomore year of high school. Cervantes felt she stuck out at her new school, where only a quarter of students were Hispanic.
For the first time, Cervantes found herself lying to cover up her immigration status. She told people she liked to walk to school instead of driving.
She worked with her father, who is a musician, in his mariachi band to make money, performing on weekends at parties, weddings, quinceañeras and public events.
“I’d say I was a singer, but I wanted so badly to have a job,” Cervantes said. She dreamed of having normal after-school employment, of wearing an orange apron at Home Depot.
When it came time to apply to college, her high school counselor didn’t know how to advise Cervantes. She applied anyway to schools like DePaul University and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“It was fun getting the acceptance letters, but I knew I wasn’t going to be able to go,” Cervantes said. “I just wanted to be able to tell other people I’d gotten in.”
Cervantes planned to attend a university in Mexico, when she met a woman at a workshop who told her about Joliet Junior College, a community college she could attend without worrying about her immigration status.
Using the money she earned from her father’s band, Cervantes paid the $10,000 for tuition out of pocket and received her associate’s degree in 2009.
Then she transferred to Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago and paid for tuition largely with scholarships she found for Latina and undocumented students. She received her bachelor’s degree in sociology last May.
Cervantes said she knew she wouldn’t be able to afford a private university, so she didn’t get her hopes up. But when it came time for her U.S. citizen sister to apply, it was a different story.
“We were really excited because we thought because she was a citizen everything was going to be so much easier for her,” Cervantes said. “Then we really soon found out that isn’t the case. For example, financial aid — it’s a mess if your parents are undocumented.”
Idalia Cervantes remembers her family being optimistic that she could afford college tuition with government aid. But she realized even with some federal loans she couldn’t pay for private-university tuition.
“I felt left out,” Cervantes said. “They felt that I got it, that I’ll just be fine.”
“Sometimes I have felt the jealousy,” she continued. “Because my sister gets a little bit more attention… because they’re trying to protect her. They kind of just let me run with it because they know nothing bad will happen to me… at least [not] getting kicked out of the country.”
Idalia Cervantes started at Joliet Junior College, then transferred to Lewis University, because it was near her home and she needed to be on call to pick up her sister and parents in the car.
“Everyone started depending on me,” Cervantes said. “It was a bit frustrating, I have to admit. There was one class that I had to leave 10 minutes early once a week so I could go pick up my mom on time.”
Cervantes lied to friends who wanted to know why she was the family’s chauffeur. The other car is in the shop, she’d tell them.
Trying to avoid some of the family stress and responsibilities, Cervantes began attending Northern Illinois University in DeKalb for about a year. But the school was expensive and she couldn’t afford to stay, even with the money she’d saved from working. She racked up $5,000 in outstanding tuition, which she still owes to the school, on top of her loans.
Now she’s saving money so she can go back to school and finish her degree.
“I can’t fail my parents,” she said. “I want to prove to them that their sacrifices were worth it. I don’t want my parents to regret that.”
Elizabeth Cervantes says she thinks her sister grew up with more confidence because she was born a U.S. citizen.
“She feels that she has the rights and that she deserves certain things — in a good way,” Cervantes said. “A lot of times she was my spokesperson even though I was very active and very resilient about my situation.”
Last year when the Obama administration introduced a special program for younger immigrants without legal status known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, it gave Cervantes a confidence boost.
She applied for the program and was accepted in April. She got her Illinois driver’s license in May and is on the job hunt, for the first time, she said. When a police officer is driving behind her on the road, Cervantes said, the panic she used to feel is gone.
“It’s kind of like a new life was given to her after DACA,” her sister Idalia said. “Now if she’s late, she’s late and I know nothing bad happened to her. It’s definitely been a stress reliever.”
Elizabeth and Idalia Cervantes’ experiences have led them both to become involved in their community and in the immigration rights movement.
Elizabeth Cervantes volunteers with the nonprofit Family Focus and has led workshops from Aurora to Joliet to Bolingbrook to help legal permanent residents apply for citizenship.
She also helped found the Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project, a nonprofit that advocates for immigrant rights and has hosted clinics about Deferred Action.
After she found out her sister was undocumented, Idalia Cervantes started to get involved, as well. On a recent Saturday, she and her sister canvassed the Wheaton neighborhood of U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam, asking his neighbors to call him to discuss immigration reform legislation.
Their Romeoville home, which also includes their 19-year-old, U.S.-born brother, has become a go-to haven where other students and families can seek advice.
“People think we’re Google,” Idalia Cervantes said. “Our phone is ringing off the hook every day.”
The sisters advise others in their situation about how to apply to college, seek scholarships and fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, otherwise known as the FAFSA.
“We’ve learned to team up,” Idalia Cervantes said, “and not let our differences make us different.”