As communities react to the news of the Trump administration rolling back DACA, allies and opponents of undocumented immigrants have been engaged in conversations about what should be done next. While I have strong feelings and opinions about this issue, I am one that believes it is always best to reserve space for those who are most directly affected. In my local leader spotlight, I highlight the journey of a fellow Lynwood alumni who, despite the challenge of being formerly undocumented, worked to become go from undocumented to doctor.
Meet Barbara Elena Sahagun, a second-year medical student at Weill Cornell Medical College, who strives to reduce health disparities and increase diversity in medicine. In 2013, Barbara graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in biochemistry and a minor in psychology. Throughout her undergraduate education, she mentored and tutored at-risk youth. As a social justice advocate, she worked towards making higher education accessible to all. After graduation, she worked in the emergency department as a scribe where she expanded her knowledge of the health inequities in low-income communities. As a medical student, Ms. Sahagun continues to champion diversity in medicine through several organizations including Students for Equal Opportunity in Medicine, Latino Medical Student Association, Student National Medical Association and Women in Medicine. Barbara also volunteers at community clinics for low-income populations and continues to mentor students wishing to pursue a career in medicine.
I was scrolling through Facebook reading posts reacting to the news. Most of them were angry, some were sad, and some were in support of Trump’s actions. It’s safe to say those who were in favor of repealing DACA will not soon be on my timeline again. But so many of the stories and reactions I read hit home. However, one hit home more than others. I came across a post by one of my childhood best friend’s little sister. Here is her post:
“I’ve been hesitant about speaking out about DACA because I don’t want to feed into the bad/good immigrant rhetoric going around. But actually, let me feed into it because I was so so so bad. Here it goes:
1. Worked without a worker’s permit aka hustled. From cleaning sorority houses to tutoring Beverly Hills kids, I worked to get through school. These rich white folks didn’t mind paying me under the table though— the labor was cheap. And at the end of the year, my momma would do my taxes & I paid up because I wasn’t trying to mess with the IRS. Hold up, what’s wrong with this picture?
2. I drove around without a driver’s license. I paid car insurance, state registration, smog check, and the state Did Not Care. Checkpoint! The cop takes away my car (because I don’t have a license) and sends it to his buddies at the impound. [Insert picture of a brown girl taking her huge biology, calculus & chemistry textbooks out of the trunk while cops smirk in the background]. Did you say calculus? Yeah, kid, I wasn’t even drinking and deriving.
3. Turned 18 and stayed in the U.S. knowing that I was undocumented.
4. I drank alcohol before I turned 21. I mean, I didn’t even have an ID to confirm my age and all the citizen kids were doing it. Salud!
So there’s your “dreamer” narrative of how I went from Undoc to Doc. “
This post struck for a few reasons. The first, I had gone to school with her older brother since middle school and had known Barbara as Allan’s little sister since then. I had no clue that she was undocumented; this was true of a few friends I had growing up through Lynwood schools. Her post also served as another clear example of how the approach to immigration is both racist and not based in fact.
I want to make sure we amplify the truth around this issue. Here are the questions I had for Barbara along with her responses:
What was your response to the DACA repeal announcement?
“I was not surprised about the news nor the fact that Trump could not face us himself to make the announcement.”
When did you find out you were undocumented?
“I was 9 or 10 years old. My soccer team had won the championship and were invited to play in Hawaii at a national tournament. My parents were uncomfortable with me traveling because I was undocumented, so I couldn’t go.”
Tell me about your life growing up in Lynwood.
“I grew up like the rest of the kids in Lynwood; it’s a community that will always be dear to my heart. I go home as often as I can. But growing up in Lynwood had its challenges. My counselors in high school were woefully misinformed about undocumented students. I was told that I could not attend college because of my undocumented status. So, I dropped out of high school.”
As a fellow alum of Lynwood schools, I am happy to share that we are now better equipped to support undocumented students because of stories like yours. Being told you could not go to college must have been a crushing blow. What made you decide to go back?
“My mother. She was aware of the obstacles I faced, being undocumented, but was disappointed in me for not taking advantage of what my parents brought me to this country for. Her being disappointed in me was heartbreaking. At the time, I was young and probably didn’t appreciate all she had done for me. The bar she had set for me was to graduate high school, I at least owed her that.”
Looking back at that period in your life, is there anything you would have done differently?
“I don’t think so; things happened for a reason. Interestingly, dropping out of school was beneficial. When I re-enrolled in school, I had to take courses at a community college concurrently. In doing so, I found out that I could attend college. I’m not sure I would have found this out had I not dropped out of high school in the first place.
What made you want to pursue a career in medicine?
“I wanted to tackle the health disparities that plagued communities like mine. Being a social justice advocate led me to believe that I needed tools and education if I wanted to have a direct impact on health.”
What do you say to those proponents of DACA who suggest undocumented immigrants brought here by their parents as children should go home?
“We are home.”
What is your plan going forward?
I plan to use my newfound privilege, my green card, to continue advocating for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States today.
What advice do you have for those who will follow in your footsteps?
“Don’t try to follow my footsteps, choose your own path. But if our paths cross, let’s work together to support our communities. Don’t forget the struggle or the community that helped you get where you are. No matter what happens, we are resilient; the strength in our community is palpable.”
Barbara’s story is one of many examples of the great promise our undocumented immigrants and DACA recipients possess and what they can accomplish if given a chance. I am extremely proud of the woman she has become and excited to see what more great things she will accomplish. In reaching out to her, I told her I thought she is a leader, whether she likes it or not. She does so, by embodying the promise and potential that parents of DACA recipients and undocumented immigrants risk life and imprisonment to give their children. As an educator, I am all the more motivated to ensure we continue to support this vulnerable population of students and their families so that their dreams remain valid. Barbara, thank you for your leadership. Your community is proud of you.