LatinaLista — The story of 20-year-old, undocumented student Olga Zanella is not your typical tale of a “Dreamer” student, raised in the U.S. since the age of 6 and now fighting deportation to Mexico.
Olga’s story is different and it’s that difference which may be just enough to keep her in the only home she knows.
It wasn’t until Olga was a 17-year-old high school junior filling out the FAFSA form to receive federal financial aid that Olga discovered she was undocumented.
The counselor helping the students fill out the form told Olga she needed her Social Security number to finish before it could be electronically submitted to the government.
Olga didn’t know what a social security number was but it wasn’t long before she fully understood the impact of not having one. It was then she realized that the hardships she and her family had endured throughout her life were because of one reason — they were undocumented.
Yet, Olga says it was something her parents never discussed and Olga, herself, never asked about it. That was just life, their lives.
It wasn’t until one day when she was driving home from her job as a motel receptionist clerk that the real hardship began. Olga and her family live in Irving, Texas. It’s a city that gained notoriety in 2007 when the Mexican consul issued a travel advisory for Mexicans to avoid traveling in Irving because police were stopping drivers for being Mexican, as part of a criminal alien program the department was operating in partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
In 2009, the Irving police were still stopping “Mexican-looking” people. They stopped Olga. Olga remembers there were five police officers at the checkpoint where she was stopped. They asked for ID and she gave them her Mexican ID card and her student ID. She confessed she had no driver’s license.
Olga spent the next three days in jail before she was released on her own recognizance and paid a steep fee to get out. Yet, because Irving is part of the Dept. of Homeland Security’s program that allows officers to turn suspected undocumented immigrants over to ICE agents, Olga was handed to ICE. The irony of the program is that it was created to catch undocumented criminals.
Olga had no criminal record but an ICE agent was put in charge of Olga’s case as if she were. She was told she would have to report to the agent at assigned times. It wasn’t long before Olga came to rely and befriend the ICE agents, especially after four lawyers and Catholic Charities all turned down her case. She ended up turning to the only people she knew understood her case — the ICE agents.
The friendship that developed over the last three years between Olga and her deportation agent and other agents was evident with documentation that shows they advised her on what legal steps she needed to take and she, in turn, would help translate for them when they worked with Spanish-speaking clients.
“I think they helped her because they saw that they basically had a good kid on their hands who didn’t deserve to be deported,” said Ralph Isenberg, a Dallas businessman and Olga’s immigration advocate.
But even the good intentions of these agents couldn’t be enough to spare Olga from an order of removal when she missed her Removal hearing because the notice had been sent to her employer at the motel.
The employer didn’t want authorities to know that undocumented immigrants were being hired and paid below minimum wage. So, the letter got tossed and Olga never knew the kind of trouble that was brewing because she wasn’t there.
In the meantime, the employer got scared and fired Olga over her “immigration issue.”
Because Olga wasn’t at the Removal hearing, it was determined she should be removed in absentia.
Having never missed a check-in with her deportation officer and turning up for a regular check-in five days after her Removal hearing, agents knew that Olga’s absence at the Removal hearing was unintentional and they advised her on what she could legally do to help herself.
By this time, Olga was frantic and finally was able to find Ralph Isenberg to help her with her case. Though not a lawyer, Isenberg has educated himself with immigration law to the extent that when he saw Olga’s case he immediately saw red flags that should have been enough to warrant a second look at granting her a stay in the United States.
Unfortunately, though Isenberg has presented motion after motion as to why Olga shouldn’t be deported — 1. The only extended family she has in Mexico refuses to take her in for fear of being targeted by local criminals; 2. The area of Mexico, San Luis Potosi, where she would be deported to is the same high-violence area where an ICE agent was murdered and his partner wounded by a drug cartel; 3. She has acted in good faith for the past three years with ICE agents believing them to be her friends and acting on their counsel; 4. Meets the criteria for a DREAM Act student; and 5. Was initially arrested through racial profiling committed by the Irving police dept. — the field director has systematically refused to grant any “administrative relief” to Olga.
The field director’s reasoning has been: Because Congress didn’t pass the DREAM Act, that argument is moot, and Olga has failed to show she’s in danger of returning to Mexico since people are deported there all the time.
As a result, Isenberg has taken Olga’s fight to another level. He recently filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on Olga’s behalf against the Irving police department and Nuria Prendes, the Texas field director for ICE.
So, now Olga waits, but not like before. For three years, she was told by ICE agents not to go to school because she wouldn’t know when she would be deported. So, Olga wasted three years sitting around following other people’s suggestions. Now, she has a few of her own that she hopes Congress will hear:
“We always live in fear, not knowing what will happen to us, ” said Olga. “They need to make a law that would protect us, give us more opportunities (to better ourselves) and make us U.S. citizens.”
Olga is due to start community college this semester.