By Lily Jamaludin
This Monday, Deisy Del Real ’07 returned to Grinnell to discuss her experience as an undocumented student. The event comes at an important time in American public affairs, with recently proposed immigration legislation and reforms.
Her talk, titled “Living in Impossible, Navigating an Undocumented Life,” focused on Del Real’s experience since her family immigrated to America, the challenges she faced and the opportunities she forged for herself.
Del Real came to America with her family when she was just six years old. They immigrated from San Pablo Zacatecas, a small town in Mexico, and settled in South Central Los Angeles.
Del Real did not know that she was undocumented until she was thirteen years old. Suddenly, she found that she was ineligible for college prep programs and some colleges rejected her outright over the phone.
“I remember some colleges saying, ‘Don’t apply. Even if you get in I will make sure you don’t get into classes,’” Del Real recalled.
Throughout high school, Del Real worked part-time at a factory in order to save for college.
“‘Living in Impossible’ really means everything is impossible. How do you keep hope alive when everyone is saying you can’t do it?” Del Real said. “I needed to not get discouraged by the physical ugliness and despair of my reality.”
Determination, persistence and luck came to Del Real’s aid when she was awarded a Posse Scholarship to attend Grinnell College. Yet, the difficulties that she faced as an undocumented immigrant did not leave her even in Grinnell.
“My case is unique in that I went to a private liberal arts college,” Del Real said, emphasizing that, while she was able to attend college, many undocumented immigrants do not experience the same opportunities.
“I came to Grinnell with a lot of guilt, knowing I had left people behind,” Del Real said.
The biggest hardship, Del Real stated, was the struggle of having to come up with $12,000 every year to pay for room and board, as well as wonder if her or her family were going to be deported. There were very few people Del Real could talk to.
“Not surprisingly, I went through a lot of depression while I was here,” Del Real said. “The alienation I felt was very powerful.”
Still, Del Real organized events and symposiums in Grinnell highlighting the DREAM Act and problems facing undocumented students.
In her junior year, Del Real’s family received a letter stating that the Green Card application they had filed in the year that they had entered the United States was finally going to be reviewed.
However, at this point, Del Real learned that there was a possibility she would age out of her family’s application, be deported and banned from returning to the United States for 10 years. After appealing to various channels that even prompted a New Mexico priest to start a “Save Miss Deisy” campaign, Del Real received the news that she was a legal permanent resident.
“Sixteen years I had fought and suddenly I was expected to move on and be patriotic and contribute to society,” she said, describing her journey to recover, heal and find the purpose of her life.
Since then, Del Real has created two organizations to support both documented and undocumented immigrants. She also traveled to Cambodia, where she assisted in creating educational opportunities for students there.
Del Real is currently a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow for New Americans, studying for a Ph.D. in Sociology at UCLA, where her research focuses on the mental health challenges faced by young undocumented immigrants.
“I started to heal from my own exclusion,” she said. “By transforming pain into compassion and action, I heal myself and my community.”