Immigration. Maybe it’s a word you’ve only heard in history class. Or perhaps you grew up listening to stories about your great-great grandparents who came to the U.S. for a better life. Immigration might even be something you face every day as one of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students — referring to residents who don’t have the proper citizenship papers to live in this country — who graduate from U.S. high schools each year.
Immigration has become one of the major issues affecting the Hispanic community as well as all society, with debates raging over the impact of illegal immigration on the U.S. economy. Young people everywhere are feeling the passion around this hot-button issue and getting involved. One example: High school students from around the country were recently spotlighted by the Tr3s Agents of Change campaign, a youth-driven initiative to empower young Latinos to put ideas into action and make a positive difference in their communities. Here are a few of their stories:
Giving Voice to the Voiceless
Seven years ago, at age 10, Yessica Martinez was brought to the U.S. from Colombia by her parents who had left their country’s violence and poverty to begin a better life in the land of opportunity. “Although I struggled to master the language and assimilate to my surroundings, it wasn’t long before I fell in love with America, the country that I now see as my own,” she says.
Martinez’s status as an undocumented immigrant, however, has created boundaries that she continues to grapple with even now as a senior at Francis Lewis High School in Queens, N.Y. Three years ago she joined New York State’s Youth Leadership Council (NYSLYC), a youth-led organization formed to create a safe space for immigrant youth to work collectively to ensure education and equal opportunity through leadership development, grassroots organizing and advocacy. “There are feelings of frustration that come along with the label of illegal, but the YLC has allowed me to transform those feelings into action that can effect change,” says Martinez.
In addition to working tirelessly to pass the Dream Act, a bill in Congress that would open a path to citizenship for undocumented high school graduates who complete two years of college or military service, Martinez has been involved with training seminars to help immigrant students develop leadership skills.
As a result of her involvement in NYSYLC, Martinez wants to pursue a college education and a career that will allow her to continue helping the community. “I want to be a journalist to make people more aware of the issues or start a nonprofit organization,” she says.
Leading by Example
A senior at Santa Barbara High School in California, Ana Aguilar, 17, enjoys helping and inspiring others — something she hadn’t given much thought to until four years ago. That was when she became involved with Dons Net Café, a Latino-led, student-run social enterprise to educate and empower both youth and community to create change that is beneficial to society and the environment.
As the organization’s CEO, one of Aguilar’s responsibilities is to oversee the 35 student “employees” who volunteer after school, at night and on weekends to provide income tax assistance to the Latino community. “We are serious about what we do and proud to help low-income Latinos who are often scared of the IRS and not sure about what things they are eligible for,” says Aguilar. “We help them get a tax identification number, which is their first step in the citizenship process.”
The company’s goal is also to teach clients financial and computer literacy to help them use technology to better manage their money. They are also working with a local bank to give customers special rates for opening checking accounts.
In addition to helping her community and serving as a role model for other students at her school, Aguilar is also learning what it takes to run a business — from teamwork and customer service to marketing and budgeting. “I’ve learned that anyone can do whatever they set their mind to,” says Aguilar, who plans on going to medical school. “I didn’t get lucky and I’m not the smartest person. I just happened to realize what I wanted in life and what I wanted to do with it.”