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Marcela Zhou: Face of the Young Undocumented

Marcela Zhou, an engaging young woman, is a recent graduate from UCSD, who earned her B.S. in Human Biology in just three years. Soft spoken and polite, she smiles brightly when she thinks about all she has been able to achieve.

Marcela Zhou

Zhou at her graduation from UCSD with her mother.

“I'm working full time now at the UCSD Clinical Research Group,” she says. “Plus, I offer tutoring 10 hours per week. I live with friends and we have two cats. I'm very lucky. For me, everything came at the right moment.”

By “everything,” Zhou is referring to her DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) card. Until a few months ago, Zhou was an undocumented youth.

“Being undocumented sometimes means living with an underlying fear of getting caught—that never goes away,” she candidly admits. “Originally, I didn't plan on applying to UCSD because someone told me that state universities are required to report to Immigration anyone who may be undocumented. But actually, that turned out not to be true.”

This promises to be a big year for immigration reform (and for the 4.4 million undocumented youth who live in the U.S., of which 25 percent reside in California). Last June, President Obama signed a memo calling for deferred action for certain undocumented young people who came to the U.S. as children and have pursued education or military service here. Applications for DACA began in August.

"To be eligible for DACA, something you need in order to work in this country, you have to have been living and going to school in the States a minimum of five years,” explains Zhou. “I was about to graduate from UCSD and needed a job when it was announced, and as it turned out, I was able to apply for DACA because I've been enrolled in school here for 5 1/2 years."

Zhou, whose family is of Chinese descent, was born and raised in Mexicali, a small town just across the border from Calexico. “The nice thing about coming from two cultures is you can pick and choose what part of each you want to adapt,” she says. “My parents didn't want to live in the Chinese neighborhood, so where we lived, we were the only Chinese family. Everyone else was Mexican.”

Zhou remembers her childhood fondly, living with her father, who worked as a cook, her mother, who worked part time in a fast food restaurant, and her older sister, Claudia. But when she reached sixth grade, recognizing that schools were better in the States, her parents gave their daughters the option of continuing their education in Mexicali or going to a private school in the States, and staying with their uncle, who would then become their legal guardian. They chose the latter.

When Zhou was about to enter seventh grade, she and her sister transferred to a public school. "I remember asking the school if this would be okay, figuring they'd tell us whether we were allowed to attend. They said yes, we could enroll.”

But their visas lapsed, and during the holiday break, when Claudia and their father were traveling into the States, border security stopped them. Seeing that her papers weren't up to date, Claudia’s visa was revoked, as was their father’s since he was considered the responsible party.

When school resumed, Zhou had to make a choice: whether to return to Calexico without her sister, knowing that if she did, she'd never be able to return home—not as long as she herself was undocumented.

Marcela Zhou

Zhou (middle), with her sister and mother.

Zhou’s eyes fill with tears as she thinks about this time in her life. “I have not been home in six years to see my parents or sister (who is now getting her Masters in Canada and is in line for earning her citizenship there). Having DACA means I can work and have a Social Security card. A driver’s license, too. But, it also means I'm not allowed to leave the States. So, for now, I can only see my sister and father through Skype.

While she was getting her education, Zhou’s parents continued to support her, sending her money from their modest wages, to pay for her college tuition. As Zhou was undocumented, she was unable to work to help pay for her expenses. Nor could she volunteer for programs in her field, as most of these volunteer opportunities required background checks.

Zhou recalls that it was never easy for her parents to make the payments, and sometimes they had to ask family for help. “Some family members and friends would ask my parents, why do you continue sending so much money to your daughters? They're just girls. In China, a higher priority is placed on boys, but my parents always believed in the value of a good education for us.”

What happens next for Zhou is a big question mark, as she waits to hear what Congress and the Obama administration will do on the subject of immigration. For now, she sits tight and waits.

“I am not an activist. I don't want to get involved, but I have decided to come forward and share my story so that others can put a face to the undocumented and discard the assumption that we are all Latinos. Yes, I am Mexican, but I'm also Chinese. I am educated, and I speak Spanish, Chinese and also English with an accent that is barely detectable. For me, San Diego is home.”

Zhou hopes for the day she will have full citizenship and can travel freely. When that happens, her first trip will be to see her parents. "I owe them so much. I wouldn't be here, in the States, with my degree, if it wasn't for them. Now I send them money, to help repay them for my tuition and to help pay back other family members who pitched in and helped when my parents were unable to, though my father refuses to tell me just how much I owe. I hope to work toward my MD, but I won't until I pay them back, however long it takes."

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