BLUFFTON — Isabel Castillo’s life is at risk every day, yet she isn’t afraid to speak out for herself and other undocumented youth who fear the day they might be deported from the country they have lived most of their lives in.
“We feel the more public you are about your status the safer you are,” the Mexican native said at Bluffton University on Tuesday. “So we encourage youth to come out as undocumented and unafraid and to know that if anything were to happen you have this whole community behind you. If people know your story, they are more willing to help you.”
Castillo, who helped found the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, has led rallies, organized a march on Washington, D.C., and staged a nonviolent sit-in, which led to her arrest, at U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office.
Castillo has been in the United States since age 6, 21 years ago, yet she is no closer to being a citizen today than she was then.
“My story is not unique,” she said. “There are millions of stories across the country similar to my story.”
Castillo, who lives in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, worked hard in high school, only to realize she couldn’t go to college because she was undocumented, having been brought to the United States by her parents as a child. She was considered illegal.
“I don’t think any human being is illegal,” she said. “We are undocumented because we lack a piece of paper but I don’t think we are any different than anyone else.”
After a year, she discovered Eastern Mennonite University, which accepted students in her situation. After graduating college with a degree in social work in 2007, she faced the hurdle of not being able to work because she is not documented.
Castillo has since become an advocate for the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act. The 11-year-old bill would allow immigrants with good moral character who came to the U.S. as children, lived here continuously, graduated from high school and completed either two years of college or military service to obtain legal status. The measure failed in late 2010 by five Senate votes.
“To find out that five people put millions of dreams on hold was very hard,” said Castillo, who was there for the vote.
Castillo can now apply for a two-year work permit. An executive order signed by President Barack Obama in June allows her to do so and makes it impossible for the Department of Homeland Security to deport undocumented immigrants under 30 who came here before they were 16 years old, and who fulfill other criteria regarding their moral standing and education. While it helps now, Castillo said it is not enough.
“It does not lead to us becoming U.S. citizens,” she said. “That is why we still need the DREAM Act or some form of comprehensive immigration reform.”
Castillo also advocates against Secure Communities, a federal fingerprint-sharing program designed to identify and deport dangerous immigrants. Immigrants with no prior records have found themselves jailed and facing deportation because of very minor offenses.
“I’ve seen people taken to jail over a broken taillight,” she said. “Many people face deportation proceedings over very minor things.”
While in jail after protesting at Reid’s office, Castillo met a man arrested for that broken taillight. While she and supporters were released that day, the man remained. The group started a public campaign for the man, leading to his release.