At age 5, Laura P. Minero left her home in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, with her mother, to join her father, who'd traveled to California two months before. In Tijuana, she posed as another family's daughter for the trip over the border, separated from her mother, who stowed under the passenger seat of a different car. "I still remember the sights, and the sounds and the smells, and just how scared I felt," Minero says.
Today, Minero is a graduate student in counseling psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she has received a Ford Foundation fellowship to study the mental health of undocumented transgender individuals held in U.S. detention centers. Hard work—and a rare scholarship available to undocumented students—gave her access to education. Meanwhile, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, enacted in 2012 to offer protections to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, provided her a work permit and a measure of security she'd never had before.
But since November, that sense of security has eroded, and Minero has become a vocal advocate for herself and other undocumented students on the UW–Madison campus. She spoke to the Monitor about her life and work, and how both have changed in recent months.
How has being undocumented affected you?
Growing up, I knew that there were a lot of things that we didn't have access to because we were undocumented. My mom started working in the fields right away, and my dad has worked in dairies pretty much since he arrived in the United States. We haven't been back [to Mexico], there are family members we haven't seen in 21 years. My parents have experienced a lot of exploitation, particularly my mom. She's had lots of laborious, back-breaking jobs, and we didn't have access to health insurance. Thankfully my family was pretty healthy, but I also know that there were times that there was something most people would go to the doctor for, and we just tried to get better on our own.
As for me, I was tracked into honors classes since I was in sixth grade, but when I started applying to colleges, I got stopped on the very first page where they ask for your Social Security number. My high school counselors helped me call the colleges and universities to navigate that. But then, even though I got accepted into four universities, my family didn't have $25,000 per year for my education, and I didn't have access to state or federal financial aid. Thankfully, I was offered a full ride to a local community college, West Hills College Lemoore, and that provided me access to higher education. Then I was able to transfer to California State University Fullerton to finish my undergraduate degree and then master's degree.
How did you become involved in advocacy for other undocumented students?
Last spring, I found out that 15 undocumented undergraduates at Madison were at risk of losing their scholarships. A few of us went to talk to the vice provost directly to ask him or her to reconsider. I felt like I had to use my privilege — I'd gotten to a place where I felt safer, and I felt like I had to speak up.
The students were able to retain their scholarships, and that success prompted me to co-found the first group for undocumented students on campus.
What does this group do?
We've been fundraising for the first scholarship for undocumented students and organizing an event with the Latino Health Coalition in Madison to help families develop safety plans for the possibility of deportation. We're going to have lawyers there to help people who are at risk of deportation, and who have U.S. citizen children, sign power of attorney over to a family member who wouldn't be affected by deportation, so that their children could stay with them instead of being put into foster care.
How has your life changed in the past few months?
With the anti-immigrant and xenophobic executive orders, I've definitely changed the way I behave at home. I don't play music as loud, I don't play it at all some nights. I look out the little keyhole if I hear noise. If someone knocks on the door, it startles me — could that be ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]?
It's been an incredibly emotional process, but it has also pushed me to advocate for others. When Trump was elected, I was contacted by professor [Cindy I-fen] Cheng and one of my colleagues, Sergio González. And within an hour we developed a letter and sent out a petition imploring the university to protect undocumented and international students. In just a couple of days, we had more than 2,000 local signatures.
The university staff initially responded with "we can't offer those protections." But then we asked to have a meeting with them. And we brought a resolution that we thought would be helpful, and they were actually open to it, and ran it by their legal team, and pretty much put it into policy.
How has this changed how you think about your research?
I have a passion for intersectionality and linking experiences, particularly of undocumented and LGBTQ individuals. So, one area where I see a gap in the research is in looking at the experiences of undocumented trans individuals, especially those in detention or facing deportation.
We know that these individuals are put in cells that don't align with their gender identity, so they are at high risk for physical and sexual abuse. Or they are often held in solitary confinement, supposedly to keep them safe. My hope is that if we have data to suggest that this is incredibly traumatic and dehumanizing, we can change that.
I haven't collected any data myself yet; I've been doing a lot of literature review to try to connect pieces and I have been looking at secondary data. Now, I question whether it's safe for me to walk into detention centers to collect data. Would I be putting myself at risk of detention and deportation under the new executive orders?
Still, the study is really important, so it's forcing me to be more imaginative and think about whether I train people or send other people who can do this safely to collect the data. It's still work that needs to be done.
By Lea Winerman
This article was originally published in the June 2017 Monitor on Psychology