By Simon Hernandez
Jaqueline Villa, an FSW sophomore, spent the first 15 years of her life looking over her shoulder.
Villa and her family moved to Florida from Mexico in 2003, when she was 4 years old. Her parents moved to the United States illegally, so she grew up without a residency permit. Villa knew that when she got older, she could not legally work or get a driver’s license.
“It was nerve wracking,” she said. “I didn’t know if I was going to continue onto college.”
Villa never worked under the table or drove a car. One slip-up and it could all be over. One run-in with the law, and she or her family could get deported at any time.
“Around that age, when you’re a teenager you start thinking I need a job, a car, and some income of my own. And if I did it’d be illegal,” Villa said.
One day, her life changed. She suddenly had a future.
In 2012, President Barack Obama initiated Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which granted qualified young illegal immigrants temporary lawful status. The federal government allowed immigrants who had been brought to the U.S. illegally as children to receive a social security card and to legally work and study in the United States.
“It was all over the news,” Villa said. “I was 14 at the time. It wasn’t until I was 15 that I got it. I started babysitting my mom’s friend’s kids. I didn’t want to face any danger. Now I have freedom.”
DACA gave her legal status, but she was still hobbled by other laws.
At age 15, Villa was not picking out her dream college, like her peers. Instead, she was wondering if she could ever afford to go to college.
DACA recipients cannot apply for federal finical aid. At the time, they were not allowed to pay in-state tuition either, even if they had lived in Florida since they were toddlers and had graduated from Florida high schools.
Out-of-state tuition can be double, or close to triple the cost of in-state.
FSW’s tuition for Florida residents is around $3,500. For out-of-state students, that jumps to almost $13,000.
DACA students living in Florida, whose parents pay taxes every year, were still bombarded with a highly disproportionate cost.
In 2014, House Bill 851 allowed Villa and other DACA recipients and undocumented Florida high school graduates to pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities. But they were still not eligible for financial aid.
“I couldn’t sign up for FAFSA because it’s technically government help that I wasn’t eligible for because I was under DACA. But I could get in-state tuition. And that helped me out a lot.”
In 2018, Villa began her education at FSW.
Many immigrants live in the shadows, cautious about telling anyone of their delicate situation.
“It’s a whole community, Villa said. “The more I was open about it, the more I realized a lot of people are in the same situation that I am.”
Villa plans to give back to the education community and become a teacher, and someday, a counselor.
For the moment, she and others can continue their education.
“In reality, I’m pushing forward and striving for something my parents couldn’t achieve.”