When the Department of Homeland Security announced a policy change for young immigrants earlier this summer, Maria Jimenez said she felt “a little bit more secure.”
Her mother said, “This could give you hope to keep studying.”
At age 21, Jimenez has come far but still has far to go. She is one of the first children served by the Maryville District Hispanic ministry that began in a trailer park in rural Monroe County. When college looked impossible because of her undocumented status, her pastor said, “We can make this happen.”
Jimenez graduated from Hiwassee College in December while hearing God’s call to become a missionary nurse. Now, she’s cleaning rooms in a hotel with her mother, waiting and praying for the opportunity to continue her education in the only country she has only known.
“We try to be as perfect as we can, to follow all the rules,” says Jimenez, explaining how she and her family live day by day with the threat of deportation, avoiding encounters with law officers.
In high school, classmates liked to scare the shy girl by saying, “I will call the number for immigration, and they will come and get you.”
On June 15 – just two days after Jimenez returned from the Holston Annual Conference as an at-large member – she and other young immigrants got some good news. The Obama administration announced a “deferred action for childhood arrivals” policy allowing undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to remain in the country for two years without threat of deportation.
The new policy does not grant permanent legal status or a pathway to citizenship as proposed in the DREAM Act. However, the "deferred action" policy could clear the way for students to work legally and obtain crucial documents they have lacked. Applications will be accepted beginning Aug. 15. (Read about a related community forum at Concord UMC in Knoxville on Aug. 9.)
A BETTER LIFE
“Nobody said this path is easy, but if it’s in God’s plan, anything can happen,” says Jimenez. She’s sitting in a pew at Casa del Alfarero (Potter’s House) United Methodist Church, a congregation that emerged from vacation bible school in a trailer park.
Although her family is Catholic, Jimenez went from vacation bible school to attending youth group and worship regularly at Casa del Alfarero. She eventually told her pastor, the Rev. Daniel Castillo, “I think I feel ready to become a member.”
“The United Methodist Church is like a whole family together,” she says. “There are a lot of different churches but you always feel welcome.”
Jimenez was two years old when her parents brought her and her two sisters to the United States from Mexico. Her parents worried that her nine-month-old sister wouldn’t survive the dangerous journey on foot across the border.
“They had three girls to raise and no money,” Jimenez says. “They wanted a better life for us.”
The family did survive and two more children were born in the U.S., but the years to follow were difficult. Jimenez’ mother worked as a seamstress until she lost her job because of her undocumented status. Her father picked oranges, repaired cars, picked up trash and cut grass along the highway. He now works on a farm.
“Their dream, their hope is that when they get here, they will work and make a lot of money,” says Castillo, referring to poor immigrants from his home country of Mexico. “Ninety-nine percent hope to go back to their country. When they get here, they learn they will earn just enough to pay for their meals.”
Obtaining a work visa in the United States could depend on having money, property, or special skills, Castillo says. Once undocumented immigrants are in the U.S., they risk having to return to their original country for years until they can gain residency (if at all), separating them from their families.
“It’s not easy, but they risk their lives to come here, and some do save enough money to send back to their families in Mexico,” he said.
“I’m glad they made that decision to come here,” Jimenez says of her parents, who raised five daughters in their mobile home. “If we were in Mexico we wouldn’t even have a house, or it would be made of mud. I probably wouldn’t have an education but would be married with children.”
The worst part about working as a housekeeper, says Jimenez, is cleaning bathrooms and trying to work quickly without making mistakes that could cause hotel guests to complain.
“I don’t like it,” she says. “My father says, ‘Now you know how hard your mother has worked to get you money.’ My mother says, ‘I want a better job for you.’”
When a high school home-room teacher talked to her about attending college, Jimenez desperately wanted to. She cries when she remembers the first time she tried to fill out a college application.
“I hoped it wouldn’t ask for a Social Security number and proof of where you’re from, but I knew it would.”
Castillo and his wife Kayce encouraged her not to give up, to keep praying. “We can make this happen,” the pastor said. Jimenez was also encouraged by an elementary school teacher, Bonnie Langner, who noticed her on the early mornings she waited for the bus to high school.
“Maria used one of the school computers to do her homework,” Langner said. “We got to talking about her poetry notebooks, and she said she wanted to go to college.”
Langner contacted her own pastor, who happened to be one of the first people to teach vacation bible school in the trailer park where Jimenez grew up. The Rev. Jerry Russell, senior pastor at Fairview UMC, worked with Langner, Castillo, and others to get the girl admitted to Hiwassee College as an international student.
Since Jimenez is not eligible for financial aid, Langner paid for her tuition on a monthly basis from her teacher’s salary. Hiwassee also provided assistance, and Jimenez worked in the school cafeteria.
Now that Jimenez has completed a two-year pre-nursing degree, Langner hopes to pay for her to attend nursing school. The teacher has contacted three colleges with nursing programs, including United Methodist-related Tennessee Wesleyan College.
“She is helping me accomplish one of my greatest dreams that I thought could not happen,” Jimenez says of “Miss Bonnie.”
“Maria has stayed dedicated to her education and goals,” Langner says. “She sees the problems, but she still wants to work hard and make it.”
The deferred action policy could help Jimenez in her uphill climb. If her application and required documents are approved, the young student could possibly receive a temporary Social Security number, work permit, and driver’s license. In 2008, Tennessee made it illegal for undocumented individuals to drive.
“There are a lot of worries every day,” Jimenez says. “But if you wait patiently and pray continually, God will answer to those who love him and have faith in him. I believe miracles can happen.”