“I just want to help people feel better.” An undocumented Tyler nurse’s story

The Tyler Loop is sharing stories of young undocumented East Texans who are nervous about Texas’s new attack on DACA, the program that allows them to work legally in the U.S., and about SB-4, the new Texas law that requires local police to act more like immigration agents. Read more about this project here. 

Leticia is 24 years old, bubbly and unshakeable all at once. She’s lived in Tyler most of her life, after moving to the U.S. from Mexico with her family, and without papers, when she was two. She’s a registered nurse and a U.T. Tyler grad, and most of her friends and coworkers don’t know about her citizenship status. She wants to get her master’s degree and open a clinic here in Tyler that works with people who don’t have health insurance, something she never had till she got her current job at a local hospital. This is her story.

I came to the U.S. when I was two years old. We lived in Louisiana for a year and a half, where my dad was already working. We went there to be with him. Then we came to Tyler; my dad had heard good things about it from some people he worked with. I’ve lived here ever since.

When I was little, I wasn’t really aware that there was anything different about me. Once I got older, I started asking more questions. My friends had drivers licenses and apparently I couldn’t get one. I was just like, “Okay, what’s the difference?” That’s how I realized that I don’t have papers, and that not having papers meant there were things I couldn’t do.

Leticia at her college graduation

I didn’t let it affect me that much, until senior year. I was valedictorian, and my counselor told me there were a lot of scholarships I could apply for. But once the scholarship programs found out I didn’t have a Social Security number, they said couldn’t apply. I had worked so hard to be valedictorian, but that wasn’t enough.

Through Google, I found out about a scholarship program that works with undocumented students. I decided to call them and make sure I could apply; I didn’t want to waste my time applying and then get denied at the very end of the process. I called them, and they told me I could go ahead. That’s how I got to college.

In high school, I had planned to go to a two-year college and get some sort of certificate. I had already been in school for twelve years and I just wanted to be done. But the scholarship program was for four years, so I went to T.J.C. [and later U.T. Tyler] and started looking for a major. I went from business to biology and then finally became a nursing major. I had wanted to major in nursing from the start, but I knew there would be a background check when I went to get a job, and without a Social Security number or driver’s license, that wasn’t an option.

My mom heard about a program called DACA on the news, for people who came here as little kids like me, and she told me about it. Through DACA, I would be able to work legally. It was kind of unreal at the time. I was a little skeptical. I thought, “Is this really happening?” A lot of people thought DACA was a government trap so they could find out everything about you and deport you. I never thought of it as a trap, but it seemed too good to be true. I didn’t fully believe it until I had all my documents in front of me.

I was 19 when I got DACA, and it completely changed everything. I could get a job. I got a social. I could have a driver’s license and not have to worry about what I’d say if I was driving and got stopped. I could travel on a plane and experience new things. DACA opened all these doors that were closed beforehand.

Once you get something, you kind of forget about how much it meant to you. In November of last year, I was brought back to the reality that it could all be taken away. There was a delay in the processing of DACA renewals [DACA recipients have to submit an application to renew their work permits every two years]. I had known my work permit was going to expire at the end of October, and I had turned all my information in on time. But the whole system was backed up, and I didn’t get my permit in the mail in time. I work for a huge hospital, so I thought I’d just fall through the cracks and no one would notice, and when my new permit finally came in, I’d let them know.

But then my manager got a call from Human Resources saying my work permit had expired and I needed to come talk to them. My manager texted me about it, saying, “Hey, H.R. keeps calling me about you and your work permit, saying that you can’t work. But I think they have the wrong person because I wouldn’t think you’d have to deal with that, would you?” Before this, most people at work had no idea about my status. It was really embarrassing.

I went to H.R. and told them there was a delay in processing. I even called the U.S. Customs and Immigration office, and they told me to take a screenshot of an online approval page on a government website showing that I had been renewed, but just hadn’t gotten my permit yet. I was so relieved.

I showed it to H.R., and H.R. checked with the hospital’s attorney. The attorney said they could not accept the screenshot because anybody could falsify a picture and anybody could recreate a web page. I got off the phone and I just cried. I thought, “I’m a nurse, why would they think I would make that up? I just want to get back to my job.”

I called the U.S.C.I.S. office back and they told me it could take up to three months for the permit. I got really upset; I had bills to pay. In the end, I was off work for two weeks, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Those two weeks felt like forever. The hospital staff was very understanding. They would call me on a regular basis, asking if I had gotten it yet and checking in on me. “As soon as you get it,” they told me, “you can get back to work.”

Remembering it makes me mad, and it frustrates me, because I’m out here trying to make people feel better. I’m a nurse. I’m trying to do something for my community. But it could all be taken away at any moment.

What happens if DACA goes away? I really haven’t given it much thought. I always thought I would cross that bridge when I came to it. I don’t want to get stressed when I don’t know which way it’s gonna go.

To people who say DACA needs to end and people like me need to leave, I want to let them know that we’re just like them. Just because we don’t have a Social Security number doesn’t mean we’re completely different from them. I came to the U.S. when I was two years old. I didn’t have a say. Going back would be like taking me out of my home and sending me somewhere completely different. This is all I know. I’ve grown up here all my life. I know more of the history here than the history of the country where I was born. It would be devastating, a complete culture shock, like taking somebody born here in the U.S. and telling them, “You have to go live in China.”

In the next five to ten years, I plan on going back to school and getting my master’s degree to become a nurse practitioner. I don’t plan on moving. I love Tyler. It’s grown a lot since I first came here, but it’s still a small city. There’s a sense of community that you wouldn’t find in other places. I like that.

I was raised here and I want to help this community as much as possible. I might go to another city for graduate studies, but I would come back. I’ve already bought a piece of land here that I plan on building on. I have a friend who is going to graduate school to become a physician’s assistant and we have always talked about setting up some kind of clinic here together. Growing up, I didn’t have health insurance. I didn’t get health insurance until I became a nurse. I’m interested in opening some kind of clinic to help people in our community who don’t have health insurance.

DACA has been a complete life changer. When I graduated high school I got offered a job. I was all excited and told my parents all about it. They said, “How will you work there without a Social Security number?” I hadn’t really thought it through. Reality hit me, and it was really upsetting. I wanted to earn some money so I could help my parents out and go to school at the same time. Thanks to DACA, I was able to study what I wanted to study. Now I’m working in a hospital and able to help people. I’m able to do what I’ve wanted to do all along. I’ve met a lot of obstacles and barriers along the way, but slowly but surely I’ve gotten here. Most of it’s thanks to DACA.

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Tasneem Raja is the Editor-in-Chief of The Oaklandside. A pioneer in data journalism and local nonprofit news startups, she co-founded The Tyler Loop, a nationally recognized community news platform in East Texas. She was a senior editor at NPR's Code Switch and at Mother Jones, where the team she led helped built the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She started her career as features reporter at The Chicago Reader and The Philadelphia Weekly, and lives in Oakland with her husband and two imperious terriers.