Undocumented students blend easily with peers

A scared six-year-old dressed in dull clothing to avoid attention, Walter Velasquez clutched his mother’s hand as they boarded a bus in San Pedro Sula to cross the Honduran border in hopes of joining his father in Miami.

They bused across Guatemala, walked across the Mexican boarder and entered Texas where they boarded their last bus from Houston to Miami.

“I thought of it as a moving thing. I thought we were going to meet up with my dad, and that’s about it,” Velasquez said. “I didn’t realize the whole ‘immigration’ and ‘illegal’ part until probably around the seventh grade.”

When Velasquez, who had learned English in Honduras, arrived in Florida, he immediately enrolled in elementary school near his home in Homestead. There, he officially became one of thousands of DREAMers, students brought to the country illegally at an early age and quietly hidden in the seams of school society.

Seven years later, Velasquez finally mustered the confidence to “come out” as undocumented to his peers.

Velasquez said his peers made jokes about him occasionally about not being able to travel internationally, but he never considered it bullying.

Velasquez knew he had to keep his head held high and focus on the reason his parents brought him to the United States: for a better life.

“They put me in gifted programs, and those classes really geared me to take even harder classes,” Velasquez said. “They sent me to do all the high-level programs they had.”

Now at Coral Reef High School, not only is he taking Advanced Placement classes, but he is also enrolled in the school’s International Baccalaureate Program.

But his educational journey was not easy. Velasquez said academic rivalry with other students troubles him, but he doesn’t believe the rivalry has to do with his undocumented status.

“There’s no visual difference between legal and illegal status,” Velasquez said. “As long as you can speak English, no one can really tell.”

For DREAMers who enter the United States without knowing English, programs such as English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) are available. But according to Velasquez, these classes are not always the safest choice due to the target it puts on ESOL students.

Shikira Lockette, a Miami-Dade County school social worker, has conflicting views on the matter.

“[ESOL] is beneficial, but there are other factors that contribute to students not being able to understand English culture,” Lockette said.

DREAMers who come to the United States speaking English have a relatively normal school life, but they still face the emotional stress of possible deportation. But those who do not speak English confront a language barrier on top of the stress and fear of the unknown.

Even so, there is a community of undocumented students in the Miami-Dade County school system who comfort each other.

“They tend to stick together,” Lockette said. “When students in high school find out another student is undocumented, there tends to be more support for the student.

“There are more important things to worry about like peer pressure and drugs. If there is rivalry, it usually has nothing to do with status.”

Megan Romero, a rising senior at Coral Reef High School and friend of Velasquez, explained she has never witnessed another student or teacher treat undocumented students differently. She does not believe an undocumented student in the class affects the overall classroom environment.

“It doesn’t make me feel any different than having anyone else in the class,” Romero said. “It’s just another student.”

After finding out Velasquez is not a citizen, Romero said her relationship with him did not change.

“I met him without knowing he was undocumented,” Romero said. “It really didn’t make a difference.”

Although Velasquez hasn’t faced much discrimination, he does encounter barriers to scholarships and other ways to make college affordable. He is not eligible for some of the same benefits as a student who is a citizen or resident.

Velasquez plans to pursue a college degree and dreams of landing a job in the graphic design field.

He said he believes that undocumented students have the chance to make the most out of the opportunities in the U.S. education system.

“[The programs] really allowed me to meet and learn from a diverse array of people,” Velasquez said.

“I doubt that the same could have happened in Honduras.”