Maria Cortez-Perez has known she was undocumented practically from the time her mother carried her across the US-Mexico border at the age of 2 to join her future stepfather, who was working in the booming construction industry in High Point in the late 1990s.
“My parents told me: ‘You are undocumented — that’s your ticket to a better life,’” Cortez-Perez told me as we sat on a patio facing the stately columns of Reynolda Hall on the campus of Wake Forest University on Thursday. “Education was my sanctuary.”
A sophomore with aspirations to study law who directs the Social Justice Incubator on campus and holds a seat on the Student Budget Advisory Committee, Cortez-Perez is also a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the program established by President Obama in 2012, then rescinded by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Sept. 5, and now batted around as a political bargaining chip by President Trump and the Democratic leadership in Congress.
The stakes could not have been higher when Cortez-Perez’s mother reviewed the circumstances of a life in Veracruz, on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, and decided she could not accept a future in which she could not guarantee that she would not be able to feed and clothe her daughter.
As Cortez-Perez told about 60 people gathered at Manchester Plaza on Thursday evening, her mother’s first attempt to cross the border proved unsuccessful.
“It was late at night, but I couldn’t stop crying, and people were getting angry at my mother, yelling ‘Shut that girl up; you’re going to get us caught,’” said Cortez-Perez, recalling the end of the journey as they approached the border. “I didn’t want to be held by anyone in the group. My mother was exhausted, six months pregnant. And when things couldn’t get worse, I scraped my whole hand on a cactus. You can only imagine what happened. I started screaming at the top of my lungs, and I attracted the attention of ICE immigration patrol. At the sight of this everyone ran to the other side and left us behind.
“My mother had to stop, kneel, put me down and raise her arms in the air, and she asked for help because she needed help because I was vomiting, sweating, cold and she was afraid that I might die,” Cortez-Perez continued. “The authorities later confirmed that I could have died of dehydration. The officers that night gave us food, gave me a glass of milk, and us a jail cell with a small bed. My mother tells me I was so happy and giddy afterwards, she said I started making funny faces at the officers and they started laughing. I’ve always thought that part was kind of ironic considering our circumstance at that moment.”
The conventional narrative surrounding DACA is that while the children deserve compassion because they didn’t a have a say in the matter, their parents exercised bad judgment by bringing them here without legal authorization. That’s not the way Cortez-Perez sees it.
“She’s my hero,” Cortez-Perez told me, “and because of her courage I’m here today.”
When the 2008 recession hit and the construction industry ground to a halt in the Triad, Cortez-Perez’s stepfather found himself out of work. Cortez-Perez and her three younger sisters pitched in to help make ends meet by mowing lawns and helping their mother make plate lunches to sell at workplaces. Her mother started cleaning houses, and a couple years ago started a housecleaning business. The earnings from the business allowed Cortez-Perez to buy her own house on the north side of High Point.
As a high school student, Cortez-Perez assumed hard work would carry her through, but when she graduated she had to reckon with the fact that her lack of access to in-state tuition would make college prohibitively expensive. She decided to be proactive, and resolved to tell her story wherever she got the opportunity. She volunteered at the Latino Family Center of Greater High Point, and landed an internship with the American Friends Service Committee. Eventually, her moxie paid off when she learned she had been chosen for a Golden Door scholarship. She entered Wake Forest University as a freshman in the fall of 2016, following a two-year gap.
While much of the current debate over immigration narrowly focuses on the US government’s betrayal of DACA recipients, Cortez-Perez takes a longer view. She blames both major political parties for dragging their heels on reform over the past decade as a means of exploiting immigrant labor while denying them their full humanity.
“We go to work every day,” Cortez-Perez said. “The majority of us never get to enjoy the fruits of our production. The reason they won’t make a pathway to citizenship for 12 million people is they know that when that happens they won’t be able to use us at their will. If they create a pathway to citizenship, who will they be able to get to work in their meat factories? They pay us low wages. They know we’ll take the low wages because we’re a desperate and vulnerable people.”
Cortez-Perez said the attack on immigrants has empowered her to fight back and organize her community, but she recognizes that many of her fellow DACA recipients are feeling intimidated.
“I’ve seen a lot of anxiety, a lot of tears, a lot of fear,” she told me. “The message I would send is: Don’t be afraid. It’s Washington that should be afraid. We have a right to be here.”