“I’m all out of the large coffee mugs,” she says, her apologetic tone and half-grimacing expression clearly conveying the seriousness of the situation.
Jair Juarez seems unfazed at the sudden shortage of drinking ware. He’s used to having things different.
“I could give you a to-go cup,” she offers, holding up a white, cardboard coffee cup, complete with paper java jacket sleeve. “Or,” she gestures to a glass more fit for iced tea than a hot mocha, “I can put the coffee in a normal drinking glass.”
Juarez smiles and points to the white cup. “That one will work fine, thanks.”
The barista fills the cup to the line before capping it off with a plastic top. Juarez sets it down next to my ceramic mug, brimming to the top with milky brown froth.
He shrugs off the incident. The replacement cup will have to do. After all, he’s used to working a little harder for the things most people take for granted. He took the bus for four years, doesn’t own a cell phone and rarely watches TV.
Yet, no matter the cardboard cup or difficulty handed to Juarez, he makes it work. In fact, Juarez does better than make it work—he makes it a success. He graduated magna cum laude from Washington State University Vancouver last spring, even though 90 percent of students in his situation do not graduate from college.
He defied the odds.
Juarez came here with his family from Mexico City when he was two years old. He has since been called “illegal,” “alien,” “undocumented” and “1079.” He’s been asked to “show his papers” and has been told he should “self-deport.” He has listened to others demand he go back to his own country, even though this is the only country he has known. He’s been deemed ineligible for college loans and grants offered to other students, despite spending thirteen years in the same state-funded school system. Now, with graduation behind him, he is no more a legalized citizen than he was twenty years ago.
Yet, Jair Juarez is still here, and he is ready to defy the odds once again.
GROWING UP UNDOCUMENTED
Juarez walks to the back of the café, cup in hand, choosing a seat nestled into a corner alongside a music-strewing loudspeaker. The wails of Aretha Franklin demanding “Respect” reverberate throughout the room, enveloping the cozy Centralia café’s seating area in a wave of stereophonic sound.
The café is a twenty-minute drive from Rochester, and although born in Mexico City, Juarez considers Rochester his hometown. Grinning, he jokingly refers to the town as home to white people, old people and Mexicans. As a child, though, Juarez noticed little difference between his life and that of his white counterparts.
“When I was little, my mom used to get up early and work milking cows. She got paid barely minimum wage, but I remember, as a small child, hearing about the farm owner and thinking, ‘Oh he’s a good person for letting her work there,’” recalls Juarez. “But now, I of course realize he hired her because he could keep her at low wages and she could do nothing about it.”
Moments like this underscore Juarez’s early awareness of his undocumented status—a gradual process of childhood perceptions seeping into reality-focused adulthood. When asked if he remembers a specific moment of realization or understanding, he picks at the cardboard sleeve around his cup, struggling to find the correct words.
“It happened over time,” he finally says. “I knew that I was, but I didn’t truly know what it meant until I was 16.”
That year, Juarez explored the state’s Running Start education program. He never enrolled in the program and missed out on two years of state-funded college after mistakenly believing he needed a social security number. An incident he now refers to as a “missed opportunity,” he credits it to a lack of information.
A visit his senior year from the Latinos Unidos club at Centralia Community College further encouraged him to make college education a reality. The workshop exposed him to House Bill 1079, a guarantee of an in-state tuition rate for Juarez. Equally important, he received an unsettling yet necessary piece of advice: he needed to “come out” to his high school counselor.
“When I sat down at her office, it was so hard to get those words out. To say to her, ‘I am undocumented.’ She’d been my advisor for years, but I honestly thought she would have me deported,” says Juarez, with a nervous chuckle. “But I knew I had to do it. I didn’t have the information I needed to get to college.”
Much to Juarez’s relief, his high school counselor did not deport him.
He’s still here—sitting in this coffeehouse spinning his half-empty cardboard coffee cup between his hands while, fittingly enough, Diana Ross repeatedly belts out “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” His high school counselor did offer him a list of scholarships to apply for, which Juarez completed five minutes before the office closed on the deadline date. Two months later, a letter arrived announcing he’d won a scholarship.
“Man, I remember when I opened the award letter and saw it was $900. I literally ran all around my house waving the letter,” he says, chuckling and shaking his head but proudly smiling all the same. “It was only $900, but for me that was everything. It was a defining moment—I realized I could do this.”
The $900 paid less than one-third of his first year tuition at Centralia Community College. With Juarez unable to obtain legal employment, his parents covered the remaining tuition costs. His dream of a college education, which had taken root his junior year, had found the support and nourishment it needed to grow.
FINDING HIS PASSION
Juarez has a great sense of humor.
During his sophomore year of college, Governor Gregoire recognized Juarez and his fellow All-Washington Academic Team members at a ceremony on the Puget Sound, shaking their hands and bestowing the prestigious awards upon them. Without a doubt, it’s a memorable moment for Juarez.
“I had a mustache back then. So, I have a picture of me, the Governor, and my mustache,” he says, letting his gregarious humor get the best of him as he reflects on the prestigious ceremony. “If I didn’t have that mustache, I would be so proud of that picture—I’d make it my profile picture on Facebook. But that damn mustache!”
For much of the conversation, Juarez has accented his stories with humorous quips and tales of gratitude. Like the songs playing in the café, his life remains rich in lyrical moments of tragedy, triumph and warmth.
There was the gorgeous girl from Nepal who inspired him to join the International Club, only to break his heart when she left a quarter later.
He remembers this with a laugh.
There were his summers volunteering as a junior counselor at La Cima Leadership Camp, where he served as a mentor for Latino high school students, many of who were undocumented and some from abusive households.
“It showed me how blessed I am,” he comments.
There was his final quarter of community college when he sustained himself on a diet of cafeteria food and maintained a 3.87 grade point average.
“Cheeseburger heart attacks off the cafeteria dollar menu,” he jokes.
The two years at community college had taught him how to be a student. He had forged connections and created his own path of opportunities. Yet, when it came time to transfer to a four-year university, the difficulties of his undocumented status quickly pushed back against him.
“I was shot down repeatedly from multiple state universities. I sent out lengthy emails about my situation and got back emails that simply said, ‘Here’s a link to a website you can take a look at’ or ‘Going to school here would most likely not work for you.’ Bottom line, it’s probably not going to happen—the challenges are too great.”
The usually optimistic Juarez now felt an oppressive weight holding him down, consuming his thoughts and ambitions.
Defying him to hold them back any longer, his emotions burst to the surface at the Students of Color conference in Yakima. Through Latinos Unidos, Juarez had organized a group of students to participate in the conference, and he volunteered to speak at a workshop supporting undocumented students.
“I envisioned myself delivering this well-articulated speech, but, as soon as I started speaking, all I could do was cry. The reality of me being unable to transfer—of reaching out for support and getting shut down—came flooding in. It was overwhelming; I couldn’t put the emotion aside,” says Juarez. “I couldn’t even see the audience past the tears in my eyes. All I remember saying is, ‘Two weeks ago I met the governor of Washington State, and I don’t know if I can go to college next year.’”
After the workshop, students who had faced similar challenges came up to Juarez and thanked him for speaking. When Juarez tried to apologize for his breakdown, the workshop presenter offered words of solace saying, “Don’t be embarrassed. Sometimes tears are more powerful than words.”
Back in the café, Andy Williams has finished serenading us with “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” and the loudspeaker has gone quiet.
There are no tears in Juarez’s eyes now—only a smile on his face.
REALIZING THE DREAM
Jair Juarez’s story could have ended in tears in Yakima. Instead, he sits on a sunken sofa in this Centralia coffee shop, an empty cardboard coffee cup in his hand and a bachelor’s degree in sociology hanging on his bedroom wall 20 minutes away.
While Juarez’s college prospects seemed bleak, in May of 2010, just as two more years of school seemed more unlikely, he received a letter in the mail. Not an award letter for $900, but a notification for $6000 to WSU Vancouver.
He had found a way. The momentum was back.
Unable to afford Vancouver housing expenses, he carpooled with two other Centralia Community College graduates, both seniors at WSU Vancouver.
Although the 90-mile drive and 12-hour class days left little time for extracurricular involvement, Juarez volunteered with the Student Diversity office. Through the office, he learned of the student affairs diversity internship, a position that seemed tailor-made for Juarez. If hired, Juarez would receive a full tuition waiver and could continue his work within the Latino community.
“I remember being super nervous for the interview,” says Juarez. “It went well, though, because I didn’t place a ‘do or die’ mentality on it. I told myself that, if it didn’t work out, other opportunities would come along.”
He got the job.
Even now, sitting in the coffee shop, the pride and happiness of landing the position shows on Juarez’s face. The loop of music has kicked back on, and Frank Sinatra croons “Come Fly With Me” as Juarez discusses the opportunities provided to him by the internship.
While La Cima gave Juarez his passion and direction, the internship would become his outlet for creating a positive impact in the lives of others. Through the internship, Juarez went on to create La Semilla—a workshop dedicated to encouraging Latino youths to attend college. He still continues the workshop to this day, offering it at schools across the state.
Yet, Juarez first had to find a way to take care of the expense the internship did not cover—housing. With his carpool buddies graduating, and the new internship demanding a minimum commitment of 12 hours a week, he would have to move to Vancouver.
In order to earn rent money, Juarez did what his family hoped he never would: he acquired a fake social security number.
Although common among undocumented immigrants, his family did not want him involved in the process. After a trip to Portland, a relative of Juarez’s returned with the nine-digit number and resident alien card that would allow him to work.
For the first time in our conversation, Juarez expresses true regret.
Torn-off pieces of cardboard from his empty cup clump in a shredded pile on the table. The melancholy sounds of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” punctuate his remarks. He cringes slightly as he mentions the fake social, even as he expresses a loving appreciation at his family’s actions.
“I didn’t want to, but I felt like I had to,” he concludes.
Through friends at La Cima, Juarez explored housing options and discovered Julie Rawson. A retired teacher from Brewster High School in Eastern Washington, Rawson had previously lent spare rooms to international students and young women escaping violence. After several months of periodic phone conversations, Rawson invited Juarez to stay with her free of charge. He would cook and clean, but she refused to charge him rent.
Even now, Juarez appears aghast at her generous offer, saying, “She hadn’t even met me face-to-face yet, and for her to just open her home up like that for free—wow—it’s like family.”
With his final year of school underway, Juarez says he took early satisfaction in knowing he would accomplish what he had set out to do nearly four years prior. Yet, there still remained challenges to overcome before graduating in May.
Without a car, Juarez relied on his bike and the bus to get to school. Exposed to the unrelenting winds and rains of Southwest Washington, he rode his bike down Mill Plain Boulevard from fall to spring, rain or shine.
“Got me in shape,” he says laughing as he discusses the hour and a half bike-to-bus route he took on a daily basis. “It was cold, man. I would bundle up in my hoodie, scarf and gloves, but I quickly realized that my ‘waterproof’ jacket was not waterproof.”
His final semester, he used his internship to debut his La Semilla workshop. Thirty Covington Middle School Latino students participated in the 90-minute workshop and answered the questions of “Who am I?” “What can I do?” and “Where do I go from here?” Juarez used the workshop to plant the seed of a college education in the middle school students’ minds—the same seed that had grown in his own.
In less than three weeks, he would earn his bachelor’s. He, Jair Juarez, undocumented immigrant, would become a college graduate.
On May 12, 2012, he donned his black cap and crimson-trimmed grown and took his place on stage alongside his classmates. He had become a number again. Not the number 1079, but one of 979 students graduating from WSU Vancouver. Despite misinformation, funding worries, barriers to legal employment, a diet of dollar menu cafeteria food and fears of deportation, he had made it. He was a college graduate.
BEYOND THE DREAM
Juarez may have graduated in May, but he’s still striving towards his greater dream—pieces of which remain unfinished, remnants of a dream that began the summer before he transferred to WSU Vancouver.
That summer, Juarez boarded a plane for the first time and flew to Washington D.C. to assemble with 400 other undocumented students from across the nation. The idea: to hold a “DREAM graduation” in support of Congress’s DREAM Act. Marching through the sweltering streets of the Capitol, clothed in graduation caps and gowns, the students shouted “undocumented, unafraid” into megaphones, a collective force of shared identity and complete anonymity.
Two years after the DREAM graduation, Congress has yet to pass the DREAM Act. Juarez received his diploma but, as he tells me, many of his fellow DREAMers have yet to turn their dreams into reality.
While Juarez’s dream graduation came true, his dream goals remain a work-in-progress that he has continued with despite the naysayers.
“I was really frustrated when one admissions counselor in Seattle referred to my situation as a ‘bummer,’” remembers Juarez of his decision to apply for graduate studies in higher education. “Standing in line at McDonalds and getting the wrong sandwich is a ‘bummer’. This is not a ‘bummer;’ this is my life.”
Juarez was accepted into Loyola University Chicago, but—unable to secure the necessary funds—he would have to reapply to his dream school once he was certain he could attend.
His future will be challenging, but the recent introduction of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals process has left Juarez with a new sense of hope. The program could allow him, and the still-growing pool of more than 300,000 applicants, to gain two years of temporary residency and the ability to legally obtain employment.
Two weeks after sitting down with Juarez in the cozy coffee shop in Centralia, he sends me the good news. There are no jazz musicians, crooners or 1960s doo-wop singers playing in the background now, but the news reads like a lyrical melody all the same.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services department has approved his application for deferred action. By Christmas, he will receive a work permit and a two-year temporary residency status.
It may seem a small step, but Jair Juarez is finally living his dream, and 300,000 others have readied themselves to do the same.