José Ángel, author of ‘Illegal,’ to discuss experiences as an undocumented immigrant at La Casa

By Elizabeth Sayasane, Staff writer

José Ángel is one of the millions of immigrants who came to the United States undocumented. To share his struggles assimilating in Chicago, Ángel wrote a book.

“Illegal” is a novel not about Ángel’s journey across the U.S. and Mexico border, but about his life after settling in Chicago. He recounts his difficulties learning English, struggles he faced without proper identification, challenges he encountered with achieving his degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the general feeling of isolation.

Ángel is visiting the Lewis Faculty Center Thursday for the event “IPRH Reads: ‘Illegal’ with José Ángel” in part of La Casa Cultural Latina’s Lunch on Us series. The program allows students to discuss pressing issues in the global community. The International Program for Research in the Humanities is co-sponsoring the event.

Ángel will offer insight into his immigration story and engage in a discussion with those in attendance.

Since its publication, Ángel’s memoir has been used to study and further understand what it means to be undocumented in America.  

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    “When it comes to the way that this country views immigrants, sometimes they’re stripped of their humanity,” Jorge Mena Robles, assistant director at La Casa Cultural Latina, said.  

    Robles works closely with undocumented and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, students on campus, helps with Illinois Coalition Assisting Undocumented Students’ Education and leads DACA ally training.

    “People talk about undocumented youth or undocumented immigrants and they don’t picture human beings, and they don’t picture families, they don’t picture community,” Robles said. “When they talk about immigrants sometimes it’s very idealistic or its very judgmental and it’s not necessarily that they see them as humans.”

    One specific experience Ángel recounts in his novel is that of obtaining a higher education. He had problems finding the right fit for him and even struggled with what to do with his degree after graduation.

    The plight of undocumented students on campus is a reality many members of campus struggle to manage.

    “We do see that undocumented students, when it comes to mental health, do experience anxiety at higher levels, and there are many reasons for that,” Robles said.

    A great deal of these difficulties stems from financial struggles. Documented students can receive federal financial aid and grants. Undocumented immigrants, however, are not eligible to receive federal financial aid.

    Even with these barriers, the importance of higher education has continued in its value.

    “So much can feel up in the air or out of your control when you’re undocumented in this country,” Robles said. “But regaining some control via an education, I think, can serve as a way to strengthen yourself.”

    La Casa has become the epicenter of awareness and advocacy for undocumented immigrants in their education.

    Dr. Gioconda Guerra Pérez, La Casa director, believes it is her job to aid the undocumented and underrepresented individuals and ensure they receive high-quality education from the University.

    “It is our responsibility to provide support to all students regardless of their identities, all of them, and that’s why we need a center for that,” Pérez said.

    Pérez said she is optimistic about the future.

    “Something will happen and then, whatever happens, we will work with whatever we have to move forward,” Pérez said.

    Ángel’s novel bears the frustration, humiliation and struggle that comes hand-in-hand with many undocumented immigrants. He opens a conversation that allows for a discussion to begin on the tribulations facing those like him and how equipped the country is for delivering a humane response to this crisis.

    “Story sharing is one of the most powerful tools to be able to understand each other,” Robles said.

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