College of Saint Mary graduate lived with uncertainty as undocumented immigrant
Mitzi Infante Magaña is an example of the good that has come from DACA. Brought to the United States by her parents at age 7, she grew up with four siblings in Kansas City, Mo., oblivious to the fact she was an undocumented immigrant until she was a senior in high school.
"It was devastating," Infante Magaña said of that day. "But I also got this urge to not quit."
As an undocumented immigrant she couldn’t obtain federal loans for school, complicating her search for the right college. But she found her way to the College of Saint Mary in Omaha, receiving help through the school’s Misericordia Scholarship program for undocumented immigrants and its Marie Curie Scholarship for students in the sciences and technology. In July she earned her "white coat" as a graduate student in the physician assistant studies program, transitioning from classroom to clinical patient care.
"I knew I had to find a way to get the education my parents worked so hard for us to get," Infante Magaña said of her journey.
Although she was supported by her family, faith, Catholic schools and the church, Infante Magaña lived with the uncertainty of not having legal status.
But several months into her 2012-2013 freshman year, she applied for and received temporary protection from deportation under then-President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive action.
And now she is watching as President Donald Trump announces an end to that program in six months. She is worried about her brother, under protection of DACA as a freshman in college in Kansas City. And about many of her friends, also protected from deportation under DACA, still able to attend school and hold jobs, but now uncertain about their futures.
"It’s heartbreaking," Infante Magaña said. "It really is heartbreaking seeing all these bright individuals in my life, they don’t know what to do. If it (DACA) goes away, it would be devastating."
Even DACA was hard.
To apply, undocumented immigrants had to be under age 16 when they arrived in the United States, and lived in this country since 2007. They could not have been older than 30 when the policy was enacted in 2012. It had to be renewed every two years.
And it was not a road to permanent residency or citizenship. One avenue could be taken that offered that opportunity, but held risks: leave the country under advance parole, granted for humanitarian, educational or employment purposes. Lawful re-entry into the United States through advance parole allowed people to begin the legal work needed for permanent residency. But any immigration official at the border could deny re-entry, for any reason.
"An immigration official could have a suspicion about something, a story doesn’t seem to add up," Infante Magaña said. "Or they could simply be having a bad day."
It was the route Infante Magaña decided to take toward permanent residency.
TAKING A CHANCE
She was a junior at the College of Saint Mary, a newlywed in the fall of 2014 when she learned her sister in Mexico lost her second child shortly after childbirth. It was time to return to Mexico, as a support and comfort.
And on the way back, hope and pray for re-entry into the United States. In her carry-on bag: a medal of the Virgin Mary, one she usually keeps in her car.
"I was praying the entire way," Infante Magaña said. "When I left the United States and as I came back. So were my parents, my sister and her husband.
"I do believe in the power of prayer, and that day it definitely helped."
The moment of decision came in the airport in Atlanta, port of entry for Infante Magaña as she and her husband, Angel Vasquez, married the previous January, traveled together that October day from Mexico City.
Infante Magaña entered the line for noncitizens. Vasquez entered the line for citizens.
She didn’t know if she would come out the other side – or be sent back to Mexico.
"I was really scared," Infante Magaña said. "I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. I tried to paste on the best smile I had, and I presented my documentation."
The immigration official asked Infante Magaña why she had been in Mexico, where she had gone while in that country, if she had any items with her that should not enter the United States, and her ultimate destination.
Then he let her pass through the gates.
Greeting her husband, she began to cry. So did he.
"We hugged each other. I couldn’t stop saying, ‘Thank you God, thank you God.’"
With the required legal entry, she applied for her green card – permanent residency – and received it two years later.
Currently, Infante Magaña is doing clinical work at One World Community Health Centers Inc., which serves low-income, often undocumented immigrants in the Omaha and Bellevue area.
She loves her job – and the place. It was where she sought help as an undocumented immigrant when she became seriously ill at the beginning of her freshman year.
"Oh my gosh, it was such a relief," Infante Magaña said. "They wouldn’t turn me away for not having a Social Security card. To know they would take care of you and not judge your legal situation. It was comforting."
Now, she can help others in the same spot she was five years ago, Infante Magaña said. Her first rotation at One World was in family medicine. Now she is working in pediatrics. There will be more rotations in other medical organizations, and she graduates in August as a full-fledged physician’s assistant.
She’ll carry her faith with her.
"It’s having compassion for people, being able to treat everyone as equals," said Infante Magaña, a member of Our Lady Queen of Apostles Parish in Council Bluffs. "A lot of those teachings I carry with me into the job."
HOPE FOR OTHERS
Home for Infante Magaña is the United States, not Mexico.
"I left there when I was 7 years old," she said. "Kansas City was my home for 16 years, and still is. You lose touch with relatives. My parents and siblings (brother and two younger sisters) are here. I am bilingual, but my Spanish is not what it should be."
And Infante Magaña, now the mother of a 1-year-old son, Aaron, hopes others will be given the kind of opportunities she received.
Somehow, something like DACA needs to continue, particularly for people who did not illegally cross the border into the United States on their own, but came as children, she said.
"We’re not bad people. We were kids who were brought here not knowing. We’re trying to better ourselves."