Colombia

Photos by Sam Allen and Caroline Starczewski

As they serenely looked up into the night sky, recognizing star formations taught to them in high school, Catalina Restrepo and Jorge Galvan held hands.

Under the moonlight, the two discussed their past, hobbies and funny habits. Then Restrepo told Galvan she was an undocumented immigrant.

Galvan’s reaction was shock.

“I didn’t expect it out of her,” Galvan said. “I just thought how can we get this resolved? What extra care she would need in the future, how I can help out in anyway?”

Restrepo, 20, on the other hand, felt relief opening up to Galvan.

“I just decided to tell him. We were talking about a lot of stuff and it just came out. I didn’t plan it or anything,” Restrepo said. “It sucks to be an immigrant with this status, but I have to be positive. I am driven and motivated. I can get the grades; I am in the extracurricular activities regardless of status. I can still be good, even though I can’t have that 9-digit number [Social Security].”

Galvan, 21, who is a United States citizen, understands the difficulties of having an undocumented status.

“My father was one at a time until him and my mother got married back in the 80s. She has dual citizenship with Mexico, which is how she got him citizenship.” Galvan said. “I also had an uncle here at a time that came here illegally to do work then went back to Mexico. A lot of our workers are undocumented in the landscaping business my family owns,” Galvan said.

The future

Galvan knows his future. He wants to transfer from Elgin Community College in the Chicago suburb to finish his secondary education degree at DePaul University in Chicago.

Galvan then plans on moving back to Elgin, where he grew up, to help kids at his alma mater, Larkin High School, as a biology teacher.  He wants to pay off his student loans, and buy his parents’ house so he can renovate it and live what he calls a solid life.

Restrepo, not one to sit quietly, has dreams of her own. This January, she transferred into the psychology major at University of Illinois-Chicago from Elgin Community College, where she received an associate degree in science. She wants to earn a doctorate degree in either clinical or organizational psychology.

However, as an undocumented immigrant, she faces many confusing hurdles in deciding what she can do.

Restrepo admits it’s hard to look past what limits her but she tries to focus on the positive. She became involved on campus at Elgin Community College through different clubs and organizations, like United Way where she helped raise money to give kids free books. She was also given the honor of being the commencement speaker for her December 2015 graduation.

“I can value things more. In class, it’s not just about getting the grades; it’s about understanding the knowledge,” Restrepo said.

Without the passing of a legislative act called, “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” or DACA, in 2012, Restrepo would not be able to work, drive or apply for scholarships.  

Only certain undocumented immigrants are eligible for DACA. For example, they must have graduated high school and have been undocumented in the United States before their 16th birthday. DACA allows those who qualify, like Restrepo, to have a two-year work permit, as well as exemption from deportation.

Coming to America

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Restrepo’s immigration story starts like any other. Her parents, Luis and Monica Restrepo made the decision to leave Colombia in 2000 for a better life and access to better education for their family. They brought with them, a then 5-year-old Catalina, her older brother Carlos, 11 years old at the time, and Restrepo’s grandmother Ophelia Norena, who was 76 years old.

The Restrepos entered the United States legally through a tourist visa. This visa allowed them to stay up to six months in the United States. When the Restrepos stayed past the allotted time, they became undocumented.

Because of the limitations of how many visas the United States issues every year, it is hard to be approved for a legal permanent residency visa. According to Restrepo, at the time they immigrated to the United States, Colombia’s waitlist for a legal permanent residency visa was at least five years.

Growing up undocumented has more consequences than just fear of deportation, according to Ruth Gomberg-Munoz, an anthropology professor at Loyola University Chicago.

“There are a lot of psychological ramifications. The undocumented youth normally have difficult economic situations and chronic stress,” Gomberg-Munoz said.

There are a number of causes for stress.

“They have to worry about the fear of deportation and separation from their parents,” Gomberg-Munoz said. “This can be really straining and depressing. When you realize you are undocumented and everything you have been told: from college, to traveling, to buying a house, everything, doesn’t apply to you. It doesn’t matter how good your grades are. You are coming of age with a jarring reality.”

Restrepo found out she was undocumented as a teenager when she wanted to take driver’s education.

“It was really hard. I wanted to start going to driver’s ed, and you see all your friends learning to drive with their parents and you ask, but you can’t do it and you can’t tell your friends why not,“ Restrepo said.  

This realization changed the way Restrepo acted.

“It really made me more afraid of doing certain things, out of fear of consequence, any decision I take, it’s about whether or not I am going to get caught, arrested or deported,” Restrepo said. “I couldn’t do things that my friends did, which made me feel like I wouldn’t get as far as my peers.”

Along with any mental strains that Restrepo has had to go through, her family has suffered some major health issues. Restrepo’s father, Luis Restrepo, 56, who had worked as a truck driver, had to stop because of a spine and disk injury caused by pulling heavy merchandise.

He then found out, by chance, that he had colon cancer when a doctor had insisted on a colonoscopy.  He was required to undergo surgery, and the family has had to pay off the bills without the help of health insurance.

Restrepo’s grandmother, Ophelia Norena, who will turn 92 this year, is relatively healthy besides a fall that broke her hip. Restrepo’s mother, Monica Restrepo, 54, has also stopped working to take care of her husband and mother.

Luckily, Norena has been able to get legal permanent residency through another daughter who sponsored her.  

The other daughter received her legal permanent residency status during the passing of the last comprehensive immigration legislation, the “Immigration Reform and Control Act” or IRCA in 1986.

Legal Permanent Residents are allowed to sponsor what the United States defines as immediate relatives. In other words: a spouse, unmarried children under the age of 21, and parents.

Under the “family preference category” Norena is sponsoring her other daughter, Monica Restrepo, who can in turn sponsor Catalina Restrepo until she turns 21 in August 2016.  In the last few years Congress has limited the amount of “family preference category” legal permanent residency visas they have issued.

Currently the Restrepos have been approved and are waiting for the next step of the registration process.

Although the family is still undocumented, with the exception of Norena, the path to citizenship looks a lot less thorny. For example, Norena now qualifies for health insurance, taking many undue burdens off the families’ shoulders.

The homefront

Inside the two-bedroom Restrepo family home are mementos hanging on the wall from Colombia.

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Sectioned off from the family room is Catalina Restrepo’s bedroom. In it hangs a picture of Restrepo reminiscent of Barack Obama’s famous “Hope” poster. Only underneath Restrepo’s image is the word “Jefe”-boss- in Spanish.

She has medals hanging from her light fixture from her years on the swimming team and the clubs that she has joined or help lead.

Restrepo has put her swimming skills to good use and is working as a pool manager at the Streamwood Park District in suburban Streamwood, a position she was promoted to and something she never thought would happen.

If you asked Catalina Restrepo to describe herself –similar to President Obama’s now winning campaign slogan, plastered proudly on his infamous poster – she would say, “Hopeful.”

A former general assignment reporter who is now exploring the world of online blogging. I basically write about anything that crosses my mind for more than a second. Enjoy!

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