Karen Reyes

Becoming visible

Karen ReyesMy name is Karen Reyes. I am a DACAmented teacher with Education Austin.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals has been life-changing for me and for 800,000 others. Before I get into how it has changed my life, let me start by telling you who I am.

I am an American. I might be an undocumented American, but I am an American. I came to this country when I was 2 years old. The only recollection I have from Mexico is from when I visited as a young child. I have not gone back in 20 years. I grew up here. I formed a life here. I made friends here. I received my education here.

As an undocumented student, I didn’t always know, and didn’t really realize, what being undocumented meant. When I did, I knew it was going to be a challenge to do what my mother told me: to “work hard and follow your dreams.” She always said anything is possible with hard work.

By being undocumented, I felt that the opportunities were not really there for me. I thought they would be, because I was just a typical American kid, who just happened to be from a Spanish-speaking household. I thought nothing was different for me.

But once I realized what it really meant to be undocumented, I held back. I held back from friendships, I held back from activities, I held back from applying to the universities that I really wanted to attend, because would they want me even with my status? How could I ever afford this? I did end up going to my local community college and, later, to a university—but those weren’t my dream schools.

Before DACA, I was fortunate enough to attend college with in-state tuition. I knew that I wanted and needed to keep pursuing higher education because if I didn’t, my hard work wouldn’t really pay off. I wouldn’t be able to work legally in this country, and I wouldn’t be able to use my degree in education.  

Before I received my bachelor’s degree in 2012, I applied and was accepted into the Deaf Education and Hearing Science program at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. After finding out that it was funded through a federal grant that paid the tuition, I knew that another opportunity was about to pass me by, because I could not receive the money and would not be able to afford it. I remember that I told program faculty members Dr. Trautwein and Dr. Ammerman that I wanted nothing more than to join their program and be a teacher of the deaf, but that I was undocumented and wouldn’t be able to receive the money. I couldn’t take someone else’s spot in the program—because it did not belong to me. I was ready to see another opportunity go. They later came back and told me that they had found a private scholarship. To this day, I am extremely grateful to them.

Then, June 15, 2012, happened. I remember this day so clearly. I was driving home from picking something up for one of my classes, and my mom called. She told me to pull over. I did. She said that President Obama had just announced DACA and that she had already called a lawyer. There we were, both of us crying on the phone because maybe, just maybe, things would be looking up. I filed in August, and by December I had my Social Security card, my work permit, my driver’s license, my state ID. I wanted to get it all—because after so many years of waiting, I could.

That is what DACA did for me. It made me visible. It made me realize that those opportunities that I thought were not for me were now possible. DACA made it possible for me to be able to find a job in teaching. If I wanted to, I could now go for a doctorate. It made it possible to be able to earn money to help out my mom while she went through numerous health issues. DACA made it possible for me to teach children who are deaf and hard of hearing. I am helping these students and families on their journey to being able to communicate and achieve their dreams. It made it possible for me to be more vocal for those who still don’t think they have a voice.

I don’t think many people know the amount of fear and anxiety that a person who is undocumented lives with. DACA made me find my voice and made me be able to live without fear. DACA made me visible, it has empowered me and made it possible for me to come out of the shadows and fight for myself and for the other 800,000-plus Dreamers. We must #DefendDACA because, after living here for 26 years, I am here to stay.