Karla Rojas crossed the Mexican-American border nearly 12 years ago with her parents. The trip took them a week.
“It was really hard and complicated. There are a lot of cases just like mine out there. They come because they are running away from poverty,” the 18-year-old said. “Once we hit the desert, some people don’t make it.”
She was one of the lucky ones who made the trek and ended up settling at Seventh and Ritner streets. Though she no longer faces some of the hardships she tackled in Mexico City, she’s found there is a new set of struggles in America.
“People ask you how come you have a Mexican ID? How come you used this to get in this country. It’s kind of uncomfortable. My family, my parents, still go through the same thing,” she said.
Rojas, however, now has a Social Security card that allows her to be legally employed in the States. She was granted this temporary protection this fall after the laborious process of applying to President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, making her the first in the area to be granted the reprieve.
“If I could pick one thing [to change immediately], it’d be immigration reform for everybody,” she said. “It’s not fair that I have citizenship, well, not even citizenship, just a privilege to work, and the rest of my community doesn’t.”
Under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the program, which launched in June, grants illegal immigrants a Social Security number for a two-year period if they meet certain requirements, which include entering the U.S. prior to age 16, residing here for at least five years and either being currently enrolled in school or having completed high school. Rojas’ family and friends do not meet many of the requirements.
“Many people think without a Social Security number you have no rights, but we have many rights,” Rojas said.
The dissemination of this information is one of Rojas’ primary missions, something she completes in conjunction with Juntos, 2029 S. Eighth St., a Latino immigrant community organization, which means “together” in Spansih.
“I’m a cofounder of Fuerza, we founded it a year ago,” she said of the Juntos subgroup, meaning “strength” in her native language. “Basically, what we do is we fight for people to go to college. A lot of students don’t know a way to go to college. It’s a big problem in the Latino community.”
Speaking from experience, Rojas helps to inform South Philadelphians about ways to enroll in higher education, along with other rights they may not be aware, but to which they are entitled. Rojas is familiar with the plight of her fellow community members, almost having left high school herself, which would have made further education impossible.
“I started it because I was in a situation my junior year. [My friends] go to school and they think they have to be perfect. I learned my junior year, as [it] is in most cases, I want to drive and I want to have a job and we think, ‘OK, we can’t because we don’t have a Social Security number,’” Rojas, who attended the Academy at Palumbo, 1100 Catharine St., said. “It made me start Fuerza, that struggle where people usually tell us we can’t do anything with our lives and we might as well give up.”
Luckily, Rojas took matters into her own hands and has since been covered by government effort and enrolled in the Community College of Philadelphia for a two-year degree as an ultrasound technician.
“It was easier for me to find out info [about applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals]. It was a long process with a lot of requirements. I fit all the requirements so I was able to apply,” Rojas said. “Some of my friends had been here five years, but they dropped out of school because of family problems. They made a mistake before and it’s causing them not to be accepted by DACA.”
Every Wednesday, Rojas tackles these issues, and others, trying to empower her community members.
“Today, we’re talking about the whole school system. We’re trying to do a workshop for other students on their rights and how to apply to DACA,” Rojas said of a Dec. 19 meeting at Juntos. “They’re scared and we’re here to let them know that they’re not alone.”
Escaping poverty, the Rojas family made the long journey and found a new home in the Latino community in South Philly. Among the sacrifices they made for a new chance was leaving behind family members.
“I still have my grandpa in Mexico. I haven’t seen any of my family in almost 12 years,” she said. “Hopefully, one day, I’ll see him, but people tell me I should go back and cross the legal way. But how can we come here the legal way when they aren’t letting us?”
The life they have set up in America is still plagued with struggles, and upon her original arrival at age 7, Rojas said she wasn’t ready to accept her fate.
“My dad, he’s in the adult Juntos and works with the adults. He was talking about some things I didn’t want to hear,” she said. “I didn’t want to see my situation — what it was really about, what we have to go through. He showed me the reality. When I saw [the truth], I saw how much my community is in pain just to get by each day.”
Despite the hardships Rojas is impressed with the resilience she sees in her community.
“My Latino community, even though they have problems, at the end of the day we’re sticking together, helping each other out,” Rojas said. “They’re not cheap with their money. They’ll give a dollar or 20, 15 dollars. When they know that someone doesn’t have enough money, they’ll give what they can.”
Now, Rojas, who said her dream job would be working as an immigration lawyer, is focused on spreading the word, and motivating her fellow community members to know their rights and take action.
“I had a hard life in Mexico. Mostly families come to give their child a better life, money,” she said. “I like it here. I can help my community, let them know they have rights and why should they be put down? There’s no need to be scared. I learned how not to be scared.”
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