Freedom is a word that at first glance seems simplistic. Although not tangible, it is commonly thought to be easily accessible, so easily accessible that it is often taken for granted. The United States is defined as the land of the free and the home of anyone brave enough and strong enough to define that freedom. It is a pool of liberating opportunity to mold the experiences you want from it. Many American citizens take their privilege for granted as well as the access we possess to simple things like driving, financial assistance for education, or traveling outside of the country. While there is a substantial number of negative attributes that come with the American freedom, there is a lot of positive and in the right eye it’s a field of dreams.
At SIU, there are around 40 students that were a part of the DACA program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals allows these students that are brought into the country illegally under the age of 31 and before 2007 to stay in the country if they have no criminal record and renew their application every two years. Engineering student referred to as Liam Smith is one of those DACA recipients. Smith is a senior at SIU, expecting to graduate in May 2018. He came to SIU in the fall of last year as a transfer student from Triton College in Rivergrove, IL.
Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico is where Smith was born and raised until he was 12 years old. Tepic is the capitol of Nayarit. He considers his family to be lower middle class. His father is a third-generation pottery worker who now also owns four restaurants, in Illinois, Missouri, and Texas. The chain businesses are ran by his family including his mother and himself in his off time from school. His mother went to college in Mexico and received her degree in Agricultural Engineering. Before their transition into the states, his father would go back and forth to the U.S. using his tourist visa working in his brother’s restaurant while his wife ran their pottery shop in Tepic. From time to time he’d visit his father and on those getaways, were some of the best times of his life. “He would take us to the store and tell us get anything we want and we’d leave with two shopping carts full of stuff and we would go to the beach and spend the day there with my family but that ended when we moved here.” An adolescent’s happiest moments never forgotten.
October 28, 2005 was the pivotal moment for his family. This was the day they moved to the United States. His mother single handedly had two months to sell everything and leave behind the only home he ever knew then. “My mother, she was hesitant at first and my father told her that they either move to the States or they would divorce,” Smith reflects on the moment. Behind every successful man is his zealous wife with the ability to carry any weight on her shoulders. He can recall the many times he had been to the states but knowing that he’d never return produced a different feeling inside of him after leaving the last time. He was overwhelmingly excited to leave but at the same token heartbroken for the life he had left behind. ”You can’t take everything” he remembers being told when preparing during the move. Leaving behind his 6th grade graduation shirt was the hardest he says it was symbolic for the life he was never coming back to. He could only take what he could pack in his backpack and take to the airport and it had not registered quite yet the journey that he had ahead of him. The Simpsons, an adult cartoon series was one of his favorite shows in Mexico and when his father said pick out your bed sheets he was happy to find his favorite cartoon but he says it only got harder from there. His new school was Gompers Jr. High in Joliet where his family now resided. Thankfully he wasn’t held back a year like most students from Mexico because his knowledgeable mother requested for a transfer. He says that compared to his school in Mexico he was ahead of his education. He was an honor roll student within a semester and continued to hold to that degree. School in Mexico is quite different than school in America. He attended private school, Juan Federico Herbert, from kindergarten to 6th grade and 54th public school which is referred to as secondary school 1-3 which he only experienced for a semester. It wasn’t hard for him to tell the difference of the quality of education between public and private school. He says that sometimes his teacher didn’t show up for a week which left room for other kids to act out by ways of drinking at school or not even showing up themselves.
Obviously English wasn’t first nature. He had an English course once a week which taught him the basics of colors, shapes, numbers. “It was nothing strong enough to hold a conversation or even to send directions to the bathroom.” He would watch American shows with English subtitles and learn from his family from the states who would teach them when they would visit.
“At the end of high school is the toughest time for dreamers,” he says. Preparing for college, Smith was without many options or anyone to turn for help. The only person who knew to ask was the guidance counselor who ignorantly advised him to consider moving back to Mexico after explaining his disposition of being undocumented and having no options for himself. He was filled with much anger after this conversation. After talking with his sister he was convinced he wanted to go to school in Canada but settled for going to community college for the time being but how?
In 2014, when the DACA program was presented, most undocumented individuals felt it to be a trap. “It felt too god to be true,” he explains. All their information was to be laid out on the table for the government’s disposal. He reminisces on a time where many gathered at the Navy Pier in Chicago to learn more about the program and receive applications. Although he was late to the event and couldn’t get ahold of an application there, he was hopeful for the future ahead.
As he can recall, at the age of 19, when he found out that he was able to get a driver’s license was the happiest day of his life. “I’m not going to lie, the day I got my license I cried,” he confessed. He had been arrested and mistreated by police officers in the past. Smith had been arrested only a handful of times for driving without a license that he couldn’t obtain yet. He had been pulled over while completing daily tasks like going to work or church and was never given a break by an officer. “I felt like a complete criminal.”
It all became real after he received his worker’s permit and social security card in the mail. The process leading up to this included a money order of $500 to the government, obtain a Mexican ID, a passport and a prompt appointment for his biometrics. He also had to prove his residency by providing school records which he says was a hassle to get ahold of.
Liam took on an immense amount of responsibility at a young age, having to represent his family in public settings by speaking for them in places like grocery stores and restaurants. As well, getting through this process of applying for DACA and getting into college. He was diligent nevertheless. With the joy of having a sense of American liberating comes the loopholes. Although he pays taxes and social security he wouldn’t be able to reap the benefits of either or even apply for financial aid. His father offered to fund his schooling but he was determined to pay for his own way through school by way of a student loan. He was unfortunately denied because he wasn’t a citizen and couldn’t prove his stay in the States for at least four years.
“One thing I realized is that college applications aren’t meant for dreamers,” applying to SIU he found it hard to identify himself. He explains that the university knows who their DACA recipients are because they are listed as International students receiving Illinois tuition and sign an affidavit stating they will apply for residency/citizenship after they graduate. Finally stepping foot on the campus, he recalls it being a culture shock. “I craved listening and speaking Spanish to some familiar faces,” he says.
Smith works harder than most Americans to stay on top of his game. He currently holds a 750-credit score, top student in the college of Engineering, vice president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, acquired a few valuable internships as well as keeps a clean record.
He can’t afford mistakes and few did he make on his journey so far. Liam Smith is an outstanding student and young professional whose only direction is forward. He is persistent in achieving his goals. He believes that the highest form of freedom is financial freedom but he would never compromise his morality for any amount of money. Over the summer at his internship in Arkansas he was offered a position after delivering a remarkable presentation to board members of this fortune 500 company. “As a Hispanic person you must work that much harder to prove yourself,” he explained. He declined because of the lack of diversity in the community and workplace as well as his desire to gain more experience.
His motivation is his family, everything he does is for them and anyone watching him. He is a role model to Hispanic youth as well as minorities. He doesn’t fear the future and will do everything in his power to keep it secure. Although his family couldn’t help him in his process to get where he is but they support him wholeheartedly and push him to stay afloat even in uneasy water. Liam Smith to say the least is the underdog who overcame all the odds and obstacles put in his path. Where most see a dead end, he sees a detour but cannot be deterred from his dream.
“I’m just as American as anyone else.”