Transcription of the episode “Undocumented students: Keeping secrets, navigating obstacles”

[00:00:15] Jon M: Hi, I’m Jon Moscow.

Amy H-L: And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Dr. Gerardo Mancilla. Dr. Mancilla is an associate professor in the School of Education at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin, and the creator and host of the Educators and Immigration Podcast. Welcome, Gerardo. 

Gerardo M: Thank you so much for having me on the podcast, Amy and Jon. 

Jon M: You were undocumented when you came to the United States. How old were you when you arrived, and would you talk about your experiences as an undocumented student and young person? 

[00:00:51] Gerardo M: So my undocumented … is something that I’m starting to share more openly now. There’s definitely a lot that goes into my story, and I think that that’s one of the things that I’m trying to do more recently is trying to figure out how to share my story. There’s a new generation of activists, youth activists, dreamers, who are sharing their stories as well, and there was a huge movement called Undocumented and Unafraid. And so they were coming out of their shadows in terms of sharing their story. 

For me, it was a little bit different. My whole story happens before DACA, and so I have been undocumented in the United States for over 20 years. I came at a young age. I was about seven years old when I immigrated to the United States. I did cross the border without inspection, and so I didn’t have any interaction with the border patrol agents or anything like that. The terminology that gets used is “”entry without inspection.” I, and the reason I mention that is because that’s something that later on, when I was able to adjust my status, was one of the issues that came up in terms of pathways to citizenship or pathways to adjustment of status. They ask you about how you entered and if you have a legal entry into the United States, because then that’s going to determine whether or not you could complete your adjustment in the United States, or if you have to go back outside of the country and do your processing outside of the country before that. 

[00:02:15] Jon M: And what kind of experiences did you have in school as being undocumented? Were you aware that you were undocumented, and was this something that you had to be careful about when you were talking with school people or other students or your friends?

Gerardo M: As I mentioned, my story was before DACA, so a lot of times there wasn’t a lot of conversation about what does it mean to be undocumented. Many educators were well intentioned in terms of trying to help, but not a lot of them knew how to help navigate the educational system. 

I knew from a very young age that I was undocumented. This was a conversation that took place in the household, and it was also something that stayed in the household. So we were very intentional about not sharing our status with anybody else because we weren’t sure what the possible consequences could have been. For example, if I would’ve shared it with somebody, would the police know about it? And if they found out, then what were the potential consequences? So growing up, I was very cautious not to let many people know that I was undocumented. And in K-12 education, oftentimes you don’t need to disclose your immigration status because K-12 education is public and thanks to Plyler vs Doe, the Supreme Court case that establishes that you don’t need to as k a student their citizenship status to be able to have them receive services.

So, from a young age, I grew up in the first [inaudible]. I grew up in California, and I was actually bused to a different school in California from where I was living, and it wasn’t until third grade or so that I moved to Chicago. And in Chicago it was a predominantly Mexican community that I was involved with there. 

And a lot of the times when I think about what were those obstacles or challenges that I was facing, being undocumented or those times that that came up, a lot of times it was during middle school years and during high school years, when you think about different processes or different programs that students are being involved with. So for example, in high school it was thinking about getting a cell phone. So one of the things you need to have a cell phone is to have a social security number, because they’re going to do a background check and a credit score check. So I couldn’t get a cell phone, for example. Driver’s license was another example of where I knew that I couldn’t get a driver’s license in Illinois because I was undocumented. And then there were also some opportunities that I missed out on because I was undocumented. One of the most vivid examples was when I was entering a art competition. I was into videography when I was in high school. And so we entered that competition and we actually won first place in the competition. And the first place prize was to travel to England and a youth exchange program from a videographer group from Chicago or from the United States was going to go over there and then they were going to send a youth group to the United States. When the director of the program called us to let us know that we had received the first place award, I was excited and at the same time, I was very sad, because I knew that I couldn’t travel internationally. And so that’s when it was presented to me about this idea of like, do I share my story? Do I share that I’m undocumented and therefore I can’t travel out of the United States? This is somebody who I hadn’t built a rapport with. I knew the person, I knew the director, but I didn’t have trust in the director in terms of trusting them with my story, with my status. And so I had to really think about what does that mean for me to disclose my immigration status to this person who is part of this organization. I kind of had to disclose it because then if I didn’t, I wasn’t going to be able to go to England and be able to return at that point. [00:06:00] So I took the chance and I said, I can’t. I appreciate having won the first place, but that’s something that I cannot take at this moment because I’m not going to be able to travel. So I don’t want to take that opportunity from someone. And the compromise was that then we received second place for that competition, even though our work had earned us the first place. So I feel like there were many of those stories where you go through life and you know your undocumented status and you have opportunities, you have challenges, you have things that constantly force you to think about, what opportunities am I missing? What things am I not going to be able to get? And I tend to, I reference this as a rollercoaster, that you are trying your best, you’re doing everything you’re supposed to in schools. And then something happens that makes you wonder and makes you question, what am I doing this for? What is this going to look like in the future? And that particular story was one of those. It had me think about like, well, I’ve been working really hard at this video production aspect of my life. I’ve been, I’m good academically, I’m good in extracurriculars. I’m working usually after school as well. So I’m doing everything I’m supposed to, but yet there’s time and time again that I had situations like that where I had to disclose my status and I had to figure out how to learn who to trust in the schools and who I could trust with my story.

[00:07:22] Amy H-L: To give us some context, what years are we talking about? 

Gerardo M: I came in the 1990s into the United States, and then when I was growing up, it was before two thousands. 

[00:07:55] Jon M: I just had a follow up to that story you were just telling about the videography. Was it complicated then to have to explain to co-producers of it, why all of a sudden you were second place rather than first? Or did they do it in a way that nobody else knew? 

Gerardo M: So me and my best friend were the ones who entered the competition together, and we were both undocumented. And so amongst ourselves, we kind of knew where we were and what were some of those challenges. Again, other things that come to mind are trying to get a job for the first time. I think the cell phone is the one that kind of sticks out because it’s something that you needed to have a specific number for. But we had had those conversations internally amongst our friends and amongst the person who I was my mentor, basically, that was helping me. They knew my status as well. And so we were always trying to figure out what does that look like to help navigate that system. But once it came out to the rest of the group or to the rest of the organization, they never knew about that story because as far as they knew it was, it was a conversation that took place between the director that was calling us to congratulate us on the on the first place. And so then nobody else kind of knew that in the background and we didn’t have to disclose it. So at that point, it just became our story that [00:09:00] we knew internally, but we had to just process ourselves. And oftentimes I would always process with my mom as well because then it’s like that question of, I’m trying really hard. I’m doing what I’m supposed to, but yet something doesn’t seem to be working out right now. 

[00:09:15] Amy H-L: How have things changed for undocumented students since the nineties? 

Gerardo M: Right now, I mentioned it earlier, there’s been a lot of huge push from youth specifically trying to pass DACA. DACA was passed because of the youth that were coming out of the shadows. They were the ones going on the protests. They were the ones mobilizing, they were the ones fighting for this nonstop. I think that after the 1990s, DACA was 2012, and so I moved to Madison around at the beginning of the two thousands. 

And so in Madison, one of the things that I remember fighting for is comprehensive immigration reform. And so the Dream Act was [00:10:00] first put before Congress in 2001. And so since that year, this is something that has been being fought in legislation for over 20 years. So I just wanted to contextualize that idea. This has been a fight that has been going on for so many years, and I think that depending on the state and depending on the situations, there were some things that were more affordable than others. So for example, when I first moved to Wisconsin, you were allowed to have a driver’s license even if you were undocumented. So I came here for school. In Illinois, I couldn’t get my driver’s license. And so something as simple as that, that there was the state difference, something that was a different lived experience. And in Wisconsin, that didn’t change until 2007, when the Real ID kicked in. When that kicked in, then you couldn’t get your driver’s license in Wisconsin if you were undocumented. Another thing that changeed was instate tuition, and so again, it’s a different fight and a different battle that had been fought for many years in Wisconsin. We were able to get it for about a year. From 2009 to 2010, we were able to get instate tuition for people who had grown up in Wisconsin, had graduated from Wisconsin high schools, and were going into school. Now for that particular year, they were able to get instate tuition. However, that was taken back by the next governor, and so then that was then removed.

And so while things continued to improve and there were some opportunities, in general, there wasn’t a lot of support at the national level until DACA in 2012. And again, that was a student led movement that allowed individuals to then be able to have a work authorization and to be able to then have an ID and a driver’s license and a social security number. 

And so when that came into play, that opened so many doors for so many people. It’s not a permanent solution, but it is a pathway. It did provide a lot of opportunities for many people.

[00:12:05] Jon M: And now of course there are young people who are now not allowed to apply for DACA. Is that correct, that’s it’s been cut off? Can you talk about that briefly?

Gerardo M: DACA was introduced in 2012. Then there was another extension of DACA. It was called DACA Plus and DACA for Parents. That was introduced in 2014. And so the idea was how do we continue expanding the opportunities for many more people, including the parents? I should back up and say that DACA was an executive action. And so some courts started putting in court cases to try to stop DACA from moving forward. And so as the program was trying to expand DACA Plus and DAPA, there was a court case that was put forward or several court cases that were put forward, and so then that caused that program to be halted. So we never heard more about those two programs because that program was challenged in court, [00:13:00] and then it was stopped. Since then, from 2012 to the present, the way that people have described it is DACA being in limbo because there have been been so many court cases that have been put forward that have been trying to stop it. The former president talked about completely ending the program and putting fear in our communities as thinking about how this program has constantly been attacked. And as each attack comes forward or each core challenge comes forward, then there’s different stipulations that come that push forward.

Since it was launched, there was one opening to be able to put in new applications for new applicants to be able to apply for this program. But as it currently stands, new applicants are not being processed, and anybody who did apply, those are being halted as well. So if somebody applied during that gap, those are being halted. I think that this is something that right now there was the newest news was that DACA was going to be able to continue, but with no new applications. 

There is one part of DACA that I did want to [00:14:00] mention, and that is advanced parole, which allows students to be able to leave the United States and come back if they have specific purposes such as work, education or humanitarian purposes. And so that’s one of the things that I’m working on with a couple of other colleagues, on trying to develop a program to try to take individuals this winter to Mexico for an educational program. And we’re actually going to put that together as part of, we’re calling it MISOL, Mexican International Study Opportunity for Learning. And we’re going to take 17 or 18 participants to Mexico to work with UNAM – Universidad Autónoma de México. And so that’s going to be one way that these students who have DACA are going to be able to leave the United States and then be able to return. And when they return, they will also have a legal entry into the United States. 

[00:15:00] Jon M: You mentioned the issue of in-state tuition. What are some of the key issues for undocumented high school seniors and their families as they prepare to leave the K-12 system?

Gerardo M: Colleges cannot deny you acceptance or admissions just based on your status. What normally ends up happening is the challenge or the obstacle becomes financial aid, depending on which state you’re coming from. Then that might give you some possibilities of possible funding and depending on which state you’re also coming from, that might also put some barriers. Wisconsin is known as a lockout. What that means is that there’s no in-state tuition currently, and there’s no support at the state level for undocumented students or DACA students. There are other states like California that have specific in-state bills, such as AB 540 that support the students who might be undocumented going into higher education through instate tuition. And then they have additional state support [inaudible] to support students going through higher education. The process, while it might be similar in terms of applying for college, the biggest obstacle that I have seen has been the financial barriers of how then do those students, get enough scholarships or enough support to then be able to apply to an institution and be able to have that covered.

And then the other thing is FAFSA. When you have mixed status families, where the students might be US citizens and the parents might be undocumented, then there’s a specific way that you do that. I believe that you put like all nines or all zeros in the FAFSA. That’s another way that the students who have mixed status families can also apply for FAFSA, even if their parents are undocumented.

The other thing that I would add is this idea of motivation or this idea of how do we normalize the conversation with our high school students that college is an opportunity, and how do we make it transparent on what those processes will be? For example, at my current institution, we have a page that’s open to the public that says, if you’re undocumented or if you have DACA, here are the steps that you need to follow. Because even though they don’t qualify for FAFSA or financial aid, there might be a way that we have an internal FAFSA-like application where then we can still determine their need or their family’s need based on their application process. As we think about going into higher education, institutions have to be able to make that more transparent for the students and for their families. And we need to normalize those conversations about what are other worries or what are other things that kids might want to, might have as they think about going away to college. Sometimes it’s a local institution, sometimes it’s an institution that’s farther away, which then brings in the idea of housing and boarding and thinking about what does that look like if you don’t qualify for financial aid. How can you get your housing paid for then? Or what would you need to do to be able to pay for housing while you’re also attending there?

And there are some national scholarship programs that do try to support students that are in lockout states. The Golden Door Scholarship is one of the ones that is able to support across the United States. The Dream.US is another one trying to address this idea of what does it look like to support students who are in lockout states to make sure that they could continue on to higher education.

[00:18:24] Jon M: As security at school buildings tightens, there are more requirements for adults entering buildings to have government issued identification. How has this affected undocumented parents? 

Gerardo M: That’s a really good question. I think that some of the school districts that I’ve worked with here do ask you to present an ID identification for you to be able to come and visit the schools. The school district where I did it, I actually handed them my ID, my Wisconsin ID. They scanned it and then that actually created my ID tag that I was going to be wearing that particular day. And I think as I was reflecting on that experience and my background being undocumented, I thought about what does that look like to then be able to create an environment, that while the practice might be to be supportive and to think about security into our schools, how do we normalize that process to make sure that people and families don’t feel excluded [00:19:00] through that same process?

And so thinking about what other identifications might people use? For example, I’m from Mexico, and so we have the Mexican consulate ID. And so thinking about how do we work with our administrators or administrative assistants and the schools to let them know if the parents or guardians don’t have a US issued ID, maybe they could have a different form of ID, or maybe there’s a different way that we could have that families don’t feel like we are turning our backs on them because we’re requiring this particular document that they might or might not have as well. And so then again, how do we normalize that conversation so it doesn’t become that the families have to self-disclose it, but rather how do we intentionally put that up in the foreground to say, welcome to our school, one of our procedures is to ask for our identification. If you have a a state issue ID, please present that. If you don’t have a state issue ID, here are some alternatives. And so then you’re normalizing that conversation and so you’re giving the communities also that opportunity to say. And ideally, if we know our communities, then we want to make sure we welcome them as much as possible.

[00:20:35] Amy H-L: Putting aside that issue of documentation, many children, asylum seekers, and refugees come from very traumatic situations, in their home countries, en route to the US, and upon their arrival. What kinds of support should the schools be providing?

Gerardo M: My background is in teacher education, but also ESL and bilingual education. And so language access is another thing that usually comes up for me as a immediate need as we think about different immigrant communities.

The schools need to be responsive to how are we welcoming different languages, different cultures, different groups of students, and again, documentation might be part of that. But then in addition to that, it is also how do we get our schools and our school staff to know the diversity of immigrant issues or immigrant statuses as well. 

So we [00:21:00] have undocumented, we have DACA, we have asylum seekers, we have refugees, we have TPS, we have visa holders. So then there’s so many different possible pathways that people might have. And so I think part of it is also working with our school staff to know that there might be similarities in terms of needs, and then there might be differences as well in terms of needs.

If one of the first things is a newcomer center or newcomer support services, ideally, if the school offers ESL and bilingual education, then that might be one way of supporting the students. Another way could be thinking about how we’re supporting the families as well in that whole process.

Depending on what the process is or the migration story is, then there might be some wraparound services that we could also think about in addition to the academic stuff that we’re doing in the schools. What else might be needed in the community? Are there counseling services? Are there social services?

Is there rental assistance? Are there medical clinics? So that they can have a well rounded wraparound services to make sure that we have all the different needs so that make sure that our students are healthy and safe in our schools.

And so that’s another way that we normalize those conversations so it doesn’t become them asking us for those services, but rather when we have a new family come in, maybe we just have a folder that has all of these resources available. With Covid, food pantry and food security was one of the biggest issues.

So thinking about how we are providing food for our families or different food pantries where they’re available to be able to get some support in addition to potentially the rent assistance that we also saw during Covid for many of our families. And so I think for me, it’s always that idea of. What’s going to be good for one community is going to be benefiting all the communities as well.

And how do we then normalize this idea of welcoming somebody, having a welcome notebook or a welcome binder that has these resources available for them. Again, without putting the burden on the family to be the one to have to ask us. And then if by having those resources, then we could say, if you need further assistance with any of these then we can walk you through it or we can connect you to that community agency that’s doing that work. And that’s another way that the families are just receiving the information without having to disclose anything about themselves. And that’s something that works for a lot of our communities.

As I think about in Wisconsin, we have new refugees from Afghanistan. Right now we’re getting a lot of students from Venezuela as well. And so thinking about how we supporting the different communities based on the context that they’re coming from as well. And so thinking about Ukraine and the Ukraine refugees that are coming in as well.

So there’s so many different communities that need support. And so the question for me is how do we standardize that into our school systems so that our educators know that what are the different possible resources that they could share with their families and their communities? 

[00:24:33] Amy H-L: When you say we, are you referring to the schools or the educational community? Is the school kind of the one stop shop for incoming new immigrants?

Gerardo M: I think that the schools are one of the first places that the new immigrants are going to be coming to. So a lot of times there’s relocation services. In Wisconsin, we have the Jewish Social Services, for example, that does a lot of the relocation for our refugee communities.

And so they might take the first support in terms of setting the, the kids up and the families up with housing and with getting them settled. But then after that, one of the biggest places they’re going to go to is going to be the school systems. And so in schools we always worry about the content and what the students are learning.

And for me, schools can also be a place where we could worry about the rest of the wellness of the student. And as I mentioned, by trying to normalize these procedures, we could then work in partnership with a lot of the organizations that are also in our communities. And also know of the services that are available for our communities.

And that’s something that could benefit both newcomers as well as kids who might be in our systems for several years and who have lived in the same community for several years. But it’s up to that point. They might have not needed any of those services yet, but then there might be a moment where they might need them as well.

And so then normalizing those resources for the whole community. 

[00:25:59]  Amy H-L: What are the obstacles that schools faced in, in providing this, these sorts of support? 

Gerardo M: The first one that comes to mind is capacity. I mentioned the, the importance of school staff knowing, having like background information. How do we stay up to date with what’s going on in our news, what’s going on in our world, what’s going on in our communities?

And capacity comes to mind in terms of thinking about how can educational leaders prioritize this particular area of creating those welcoming spaces to make sure that we are responsive to the community needs. In Madison, some other schools have turned into community schools. And so one of the things that they’re doing is that they’re trying to figure out how to capitalize with the educational aspect of it during the traditional school day system, but then keeping the doors open afterwards. Then be able to collaborate with school partners, community agencies to think about what other wraparound services can we bring into the schools, rather than having our families go out into the community to look for them. Is there any way that we could do the opposite and have that schools actually serve as that model?

To then be able to have after school programming for kids, maybe classes for parents, maybe thinking about mental health supports that that could be a clinic or a drop in services, thinking about health as well, and general screenings that that schools can support in collaborating and coordinating. But as you mentioned, the challenge often becomes that capacity and thinking about then how do we then. . . Because we know that there’s going to be a capacity issue. How do we leverage this to make sure that this becomes part of our strategic framework, to have our students be successful and thriving in our schools? If we take care of their wellbeing, if we take care of their wellness, and if we take care of the mental health, then they’re going to be able to be present for the academic in addition to the rest of the stuff too.

[00:27:53] Jon M: What inspired you to start the Educators and Immigration Podcast? 

Gerardo M: Thank you for that question. So I kind of began this conversation by talking about being formerly undocumented and having lived as undocumented for over 20 years. Definitely a lot of my stories, there was a lot of things that I lived through, that again, I, it was before DACA, so I had to kind of figure out how to navigate the educational system myself.

I had to figure out how to apply for school. I ended up doing my bachelor’s degree, how to apply for the bachelor’s degree. I finished my bachelor’s degree in elementary education. So I actually was, had a teaching license in the state of Wisconsin, but I couldn’t teach because I was still undocumented.

So I went to one of my mentors and I said, what do I do now? And so she was like, you could go, you could continue on in school and you could get a master’s degree. And I was like, what’s a master’s degree? She’s like, well, you know, you could continue going to school and just continue doing a specific research study.

It took me five years to finish my bachelor’s degree. So I said, I just finished five years of studying. You want me to stay in school longer? She said, well, yeah, this could be an option for you to continue going to school. So being a first generation and not knowing what the masters program looked like or what it was, I ended applying to various programs and ultimately I enrolled in two. I did a counseling psychology program and a curriculum instruction program. I thought since they were in the same school, how hard can it be? I’m taking classes in the same building. Little did I know that they were two full time programs, that required my full attention each of them.

And I didn’t realize I had to do two theses for each of them as well. And so being first gen, I didn’t understand that. After three years, I did finish both programs, and now I had my teaching license. I had added an ESL license, I had added a bilingual license, and I had added a school counselor’s license. So I had four licenses that were, that were issued by the Department of Public Instruction in Wisconsin. But I was still undocumented. I know that the schools need me, and I know that they need teachers and I know that they need counselors, and I know they need bilingual teachers, but I’m undocumented, so I still can’t work. So I went back to my same mentor and I was like, what do I do now? Like, I’m on another fork in the road. I am trying really hard. I did everything I was supposed to. I graduated, I got these degrees. What do I do now? I have another stomping block in my, in front of me, and she’s like, well, have you tried, have you thought about doing a doctoral degree. And I was like, what is the doctoral degree?

She’s like, well, you know, you continue going out to school and you continue learning about something specific. And I was like, okay. I just finished three more years after the five years that I didn’t think I was going to do, and I got to do a doctoral degree. She’s like, yeah, that’s, that’s an option. So I ended up applying to the same institution, getting my doctoral degree. So I was still undocumented when I started my doctorate degree. And I was fortunate enough that with my two masters, I had so many qualifications that it opened a different pathway for me to get my status adjusted.

So one of the pathways that you can get adjusted is through employment based adjustment. And so that means that you have to have qualities and skills that “no other US American has.” And so then you have to prove that there’s no other US American that has the same skills and the same abilities that you have.

Luckily, I had four degrees. They were all in education and in counseling and in ESL bilingual. And so that presented me with an opportunity to think about, this is an opportunity to show that I have skills and knowledge that no other US American has, because you would need to have been doing the same process that I did to be able to get those four degrees at the same time, basically.

And so with that, I was able to prove that there was a job opening that no other US American could fill because of my degrees. That’s what allowed me to get my legal permanent resident card, my green card. 

And so with the podcast what I wanted to do was bring those conversations to the public going beyond this idea of Immigration 101: What is being undocumented? What is a Dreamer? What is DACA? to what else can we talk about that is going to provide those key pathways or these key resources for our students to be able to continue thriving in our communities? One example of those was, I recently had a guest talk about how to create your own LLC if you’re undocumented. So as an undocumented person, you can’t work. But if you create a business and then you work for that business, then the business can. And so it’s the same person doing the same work, but if you make it into a business, now you could work, and now you could have contract, and you could work as a 1099 as opposed to you working as yourself.  

We need to have more of those conversations to normalize different pathways. What are different programs that we could take advantage of, and how do we continue pushing each other to make sure that we could create success for all of us and we could all move forward together?

[00:33:23] Jon M: Thank you, Dr. Gerardo Mancilla of Edgewood College and the Educators and Immigration Podcast.

Amy H-L: And thank you, listeners. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with friends and colleagues. Subscribe wherever you get your podcast and give us a rating or review. This helps other people to find the show. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles and to subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes. We work with consultants to offer customized social emotional learning programs, with a focus on ethics, for schools and youth programs in the New York City and San Francisco Bay areas. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Until next week.

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