(pictured above: Junior Valeria Sotelo on the campus of Salem College.)
Lexington resident Valeria Sotelo has done everything right.
The 21-year-old worked hard during her time at Lexington Senior High School, maintaining the good grades and high level of on-campus involvement necessary to earn admission to Salem College, where she is studying early elementary education.
“Since I was little and people asked me, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ ‘Teacher’ was always the first thing that came to mind,” related Sotelo, a first generation high school graduate. “I guess I’ve just had so many teachers that have impacted me and changed my life, I just hoped that someday I could do the same for somebody else.”
Despite her best efforts, Sotelo’s future is uncertain. Currently, the Mexico City, Mexico-born junior is protected under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) – meaning she has legal status in the U.S. and may obtain her driver’s license – but once she graduates in February 2015, that protection will expire, unless lawmakers implement some form of immigration reform. It is a fact that Sotelo, who immigrated to this country with her family when she was five years-old and has never returned to her native country, tries not to dwell on.
“I try to live right now and think about the future when the time comes,” she said. “I don’t like to limit myself and say like, in two years, I won’t be able to do what I want to do, just because of what I’ve been through.”
Although she knew she and her family were undocumented, her immigration status was never much of an issue, until she began to consider applying for colleges, where undocumented students are charged out of state rates to attend state-supported schools.
“I always had dreams. I never thought that could be like, something that could stop me until that moment,” she said of her status. “When we came to the conclusion that I didn’t have the documentation to be able to go to college, it was just like a deer in the headlights, because I’ve worked so hard my whole life.”
Sotelo is among the dozens of immigrants from across the state who are joining the chorus of voices calling for comprehensive immigration reform on the federal level through the N.C. Justice Center’s “Home to Me: Immigrant Stories from NC,” a multimedia project that explores the stories of immigrants across the state through video and audio recordings that are slated to be released, one at a time, each month.
“We feel that immigrants should be telling their story in their own words, not so much telling their story through other lenses that may not get their stories correct,” said Dani Moore, director of the Justice Center’s Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project of North Carolina. “We believe that as U.S. citizens hear those stories, it will contribute to a more favorable climate for the kinds of policies that we would like to see.”
The project was officially launched on Dec. 18, which was designated by the United Nations as “International Migrants Day.”
“This year, International Migrants Day has really special meaning, as everyone in North Carolina and across the US is fighting for immigration reform,” Moore said. “We wanted to launch it on Dec. 18 to lift up that issue.”
“Home to Me,” which allows immigrants to participate using their full names or by speaking anonymously, is intended to put a human face on an issue that has become increasingly political, explained Moore, who has served the Justice Center for 10 years.
“In the past decade, we’ve seen the debate over immigration become fairly shrill and fairly absent of fact,” she remarked. “I think telling individuals’ stories helps people in North Carolina understand more deeply and clearly about immigration issues.”
Sotelo’s video, which was filmed at Duke University, where she interned in the Freedom Schools project over the summer, served as the premiere for Home to Me. Moore said Sotelo’s story was selected in part because she represents the Dreamers, the younger generation of immigrants who have been indispensable in the debate on immigration reform in recent years.
“The DACA program is such a limited solution,” Moore said. “We really want more lasting and fair solutions, like comprehensive immigration reform.”
Sotelo said she is honored that her video was selected to blaze the trail for the project. Although it isn’t always easy to share her immigration status, Sotelo said she believes highlighting the real-life impacts of immigration legislation is intrinsic to bringing about change.
“I believe that people have different stories, and they’re all worth sharing; that’s the reason why I do like to share my story, because I’ve learned from other people’s stories and I’m hoping that someone will learn from mine,” she said. “It’s always nerve racking, but it feels good to know that your voice is being heard.”
Sotelo says she will continue to contribute to the movement for immigration reform, in hopes that someday, law abiding residents like her parents can become legal citizens of the country that they call home.
“It’s a daily struggle … but it gives me something to fight for,” she said of battling for immigration reform. “That’s my motivation, to one day be able to do something for my parents, as much as they have done for me.”
The Justice Center is urging undocumented immigrants and citizens alike to contribute to the conversation on immigration reform via social media, using hashtags #HomeToMe or #IAMaMigrant. View Sotelo’s story at www.youtube.com/watch?v=clfc-qYN7R8. For more information about “Home to Me,” visit www.ncjustice.org.