As a senior in high school, Stephanie Wall was a standout student juggling memberships in five different honor societies and tackling multiple Advanced Placement classes. Her hard work and ambition made it clear that she was going places, and the stack of applications for colleges and scholarships her counselor had collected for her were the next step in getting there.
All she needed was a social security number to get started.
Then Wall learned she was undocumented when she asked her parents for help with college applications.
CREDIT: provided by Stephanie Wall
She never had a reason to believe she was undocumented. Her parents came to the United States from Colombia with she and her siblings in tow. Wall was four years old. For the most part, she had lived what she viewed as a pretty normal life.
“When I found out I was undocumented it was like a veil was pulled over my head,” Wall says.
Recent estimates of the undocumented immigrant population in the U.S. put the number at 11 million in 2016.
On the night she asked her parents for her social security number and learned that she didn’t have one, Wall was disoriented. Her status had suddenly put a titanic blockade between her and her dreams.
“It was a very difficult time and it was incredibly confusing as well,” says Wall. “I was raised here, yet I hit a barrier that I never expected.”
The next day Wall went to her counselor hoping that not all of her aspirations were over.
Then her counselor’s face fell.
“She said she was sorry, but that the opportunities for me had been cut drastically. There was nothing she could do,” recalls Wall.
When it came to college, Wall, who once had a stack of choices, was now extremely limited in options. Her access to financial aid was reduced to private scholarships and now she had to apply to schools as an international student, meaning tuition would cost nearly four times the rate for residents. Then there was the matter of facing colleges that refused to accept undocumented students at all.
Her only viable option was a school with a reputation for opening its doors to undocumented students.
She was admitted to Miami Dade College’s honors program, where she once again excelled in her classes. But she struggled to keep up with the finances. The school’s honors program typically covers student tuition and also provides a stipend, but because she entered as an international student only her stipend was covered. Finding a job to support herself as an undocumented person was also hardly feasible.
Then she met a student who introduced her to Students Working For Equal Rights (or SWER).
CREDIT: Stephanie Wall with members of SWER / provided by Stephanie Wall
The youth-led group works to bring awareness to Miami communities about the importance of immigration reform and equal access to education. Wall came out publicly with her status and spoke about it openly at civic engagement events and eventually made television and radio appearances.
“We were upset and we felt betrayed by the system,” Wall says. “I felt that coming out publicly as undocumented and unafraid would encourage other immigrants to come out of the shadows to show our country just how dire the situation had become… I wanted to do something about it, For myself, my family, and for every immigrant whose wings are clipped by our broken immigration system.”
Then, a month before graduating with her Associate’s degree, Wall received an official letter from the government.
The words “Welcome to the United States of America” topped the page, indicating that she’s now a Legal Permanent Resident and has a green card. For Wall, the timing of her adjustment still remains an enigma.
“We had waited for 15 years, and finally, I was accepted. Why now?” Walls says still stunned and relieved even six years later. “I find myself in an incredibly privileged position, especially now with our current administration’s open hostility towards immigrants and their lack of understanding of who we are and why we matter.”
These days, Wall no longer works directly with SWER but does work with the Florida Immigrant Coalition, its parent organizer.
CREDIT: Stephanie Wall graduating with her BS from University of Central Florida/ provided by Stephanie Wall
She provides Know Your Rights workshops for undocumented communities and reviews documentation for those preparing applications to adjust their status, and for those detained by immigration enforcement as well. She also works with counselors at public schools, providing them with information on post-secondary education opportunities for undocumented students in Florida.
For families and others burdened by the weight of their own statuses, Wall’s message is clear.
“You are not alone. Find ways to be active in your community because we need you,” she says. “Strong and resilient leaders such as yourself drive social change. You have the right to fight for yourself and for the rights of others. You matter. We matter. We always have and we always will.”