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In Pursuit of Recognition: An Undocumented Immigrant's Resilient Fight

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Unlike many undocumented immigrants, Sofia Campos is not afraid to give her real name.

"It's deliberate, and it's liberating," she says. "It's kind of a shock to hear somebody say, 'I am undocumented' or wear the 'I am undocumented' T-shirt, just in your face."

The 22-year-old is a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles, and heads United We Dream — a national network of youth-led immigrant organizations. She's part of an outspoken generation of activists who've lobbied lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike, for changes in immigration policy.

This year, their movement scored a victory with President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows undocumented students to avoid deportation and obtain a work permit for two years. Despite its significance, Sofia and other students say it's just one step in their fight for legal status.

She also acknowledges the critics of the program who think undocumented people are undeserving of the help.

"That hateful language, you know, like 'illegal, alien, wetback, leach,'" she says, recalling opponents. "People were talking about my brother, my sister, my mom, my dad. How can these people, who don't know me at all, who don't know the love that exists within my family, how can you be just so hateful?"

Sofia says that hate is a powerful reason for undocumented youth to speak out and share their stories.

Her story began in Lima, Peru, where she was born. In the aftermath of the Shining Path terrorism, her parents moved the family to California in 1996.

Sofia was just six years old; her brother was four and her sister three. In the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, they learned English quickly. In high school, Sofia played volleyball, ran track, and was part of student government. With top grades, she was accepted into UCLA. But to apply for federal scholarships, she needed a Social Security number — something she didn't have.

At that point, Sofia says her mother revealed to her the family's secret: They had overstayed their tourist visas.

"We were ashamed of being here illegally," Gladys Campos says, looking back. "We were so scared to be doing something wrong."

Sofia says her mother told her the news with frightened eyes. "I was angry at first that she hadn't told me," she says. "But I understand why they did that. It was to protect us for as long as they could, like any parent would do with their child."

Fighting For Dream Act

In 2007, when Sofia began at the university, California allowed undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, but they couldn't get state scholarships. So, her parents poured every penny of their savings to pay for her first quarter at UCLA. Then she had to come up with the money herself — as much as $5,000 every 10 weeks — by waitressing, transcribing for grad students, participating in campus surveys. To get to her classes, she commuted by bus four hours every day.

At ULCA, Sofia joined IDEAS, a campus group of undocumented students like her who were fighting for the California Dream Act — a state law allowing children brought into the U.S. under the age of 16 to apply for student financial aid.

"I want to reach my dreams and get that UCLA degree," she shouted to cheers during her first campus rally. "I want to be able to go back home when I finally graduate and tell my parents 'I did it, I did it!'"

It took her five years, but Sofia graduated with a double major in international developmental studies and political science.

Last year, after the California Dream Act was signed into law, Sofia and other student activists began fighting for a Federal Dream Act.

"There are thousands of students just like me who did not choose to come to the United States, but who have worked so hard to make something out of themselves," she announced last summer during a rally in Washington, D.C., where she lobbied legislators on behalf of 65 million undocumented high school students.

Sofia impressed lawmakers like Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who met her last month during a key meeting on immigration reform in Kansas City. Gutierrez credits the students with pushing the agenda onto the national stage.

"While there were adults doing it, no one quite was able to put the kind of fire and bring the kind of attention to the plight of the immigrant community as they were," Gutierrez says.

Sofia says the student's mission has now expanded to include rights for their parents, too.

Afraid No Longer

At home, Gladys Campos says her daughter is a role model for her younger brother and sister — both of them now at University of California campuses — and she's inspired her, as well.

"I'm so proud of her," Gladys Campos says. "But at beginning, I was so scared. I was really praying every day, and I was trying to stop her. But she didn't. Now, I know that she was right, and I was wrong."

Campos says after watching Sofia's work, she's no longer afraid. Not long ago, she even declared her status at a church meeting.

"I told them 'Yes, I'm undocumented. My kids too,'" Campos says. "I said it openly. That was the first time."

"Wow," Sofia remarks as her mom reveals a new secret. "My mom's undocumented and unafraid!"

Sofia got her Social Security card last week, so she can now work legally for two years. She hopes to get into graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or the University of California, Berkeley.

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