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In Dallas, Latino Students Talk About Immigration

Stella M. Chávez
These students were in Dallas over the weekend for a National Hispanic Institute conference. The organization teaches them skills to become future leaders. From left: Samantha Cordier, Fernando Chavez, Omar Quintana and Jose Torrealba.

Last week, President Obama’s immigration plan suffered a setback, when a three-judge panel upheld a lower court’s injunction against it. The controversial program would have deferred deportation for more than 4 million undocumented immigrants across the country.

It’s a topic that’s on the minds of some youth who are either immigrants or have family members who are -- including some Latino students who were in Dallas this past weekend for a leadership conference.

The 550 students came from around the country and Latin America. They were at the conference in downtown Dallas to learn to how to become leaders and entrepreneurs. And, how to embrace their assets.

A facilitator in one of the training session explains: “What happens in communities of color in particular is that we get plagued with something called deficit thinking. Anybody know what deficit thinking is?”

It’s when someone focuses on the negative, says a student. Like thinking you’re not good enough or telling yourself you can't do something, a facilitator tells them.

Lately, all the talk about immigration has some of the students thinking about their own friends and family. Like Samantha Cordier. She’s from El Paso and says she has many close friends whose relatives are undocumented. She wants to become an attorney.

“I wanna speak for those who don’t have a voice and I wanna just shine a light upon the people who are considered criminals or going against society,” Samantha said. “I wanna help everybody.”

Samantha was at the conference organized by the Texas-based National Hispanic Institute. It’s called Celebración and students learn different ways, like entrepreneurial skills, to solve social problems. Samantha says the conference is teaching her how to view things differently.

“Rather than focusing on immigration and how there’s problems with it, we tend to focus on what we can do to improve our mentalities and to improve our perspectives on what others think about the Latino community,” she said.

For Fernando Chavez, that means becoming an engineer. He’s a high school senior from Colorado. He recently spent four weeks at Yale University learning about nuclear engineering. He says he’s also interested in aerospace engineering. He’s applied to Yale and is also applying to Harvard and MIT.

Fernando and his family are undocumented and says he wasn’t used to talking about his legal status. This year, he was asked to speak to students like him at his high school.

“They wanted to use me as a role model to show other students that we can be successful, that it’s not because we’re undocumented that we’re downplayed,” Fernando said. “It shouldn’t be like that, because we can still be very successful, and I really think students see that as a huge barrier.”

Omar Quintana is a senior at a suburban Chicago high school. When he was only 7, Omar spent a couple of hours a day, for about a month, helping his dad practice his English, so he could take the U.S. citizenship test. His dad passed. When he was 12, Omar helped his mom, too.

“I made an mp3 recording of me reading the questions and then I would recite the answers, so I gave my mom my iPod and she could just listen to it,” Omar said. “And she listened to it when she would go pick us up from school or when she would go drop us off, when she went to the groceries …”

She also became a U.S. citizen. Omar plans on using that ingenuity to become an entrepreneur. He doesn’t have a solution for undocumented immigrants, but he says he hopes to use his entrepreneurial skills to help the Latino community.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.