By Sabrina Vourvoulias

When María Marroquín first came to the United States at the age of 13, she thought she’d be seeing Mickey Mouse. She was excited and anticipating her first visit to Disneyworld.

That’s what she told the Transportation Security Officer at Miami International Airport who asked which tourist sites she and her family planned to visit during their visit from Lima, Peru. And, in fact, she stayed long enough in Miami to see palm trees for the first time, to swelter in the near tropical heat she had never experienced before and to notice “how clean and beautiful” the streets of this American city were.

Her family did eventually board a bus but it didn’t take them anywhere near the Orlando resort. Instead, it deposited them in New Jersey and into a life Marroquín didn’t expect.

That is – the life a regular American teenager. Except for one thing. They were undocumented. {{more}}

Marroquín’s father had a job lined up already – doing laundry and cleaning at a hotel. It was very different than the work he had done in Lima. The family owned a restaurant there – a going venture for 10 years – and Marroquín’s father drove a taxicab at night to make ends meet. But he came to realize that without radically changing the family’s economic circumstances Marroquín and her two siblings wouldn’t graduate from high school.

The fact that work as a cabbie during the night shift was becoming increasingly dangerous helped to finalize the decision to come to the United States on visas – which the family overstayed. They moved to Pennsylvania not long after their initial foray north. Marroquín was enrolled in a high school in Cheltenham.

“I didn’t realize what being undocumented would mean,” Marroquín said. “None of my friends knew. I felt really isolated (and) like I couldn’t trust anyone. I thought they wouldn’t understand if I told them about my status. I felt embarrassed and ashamed.”

Marroquín’s parents took English as a Second Language classes, they paid taxes, they enrolled their three children in school, and took them with them to Spanish-language Masses – especially the ones at St. William Parish in Philadelphia, at which the community of Philadelphia-area Peruvian immigrants celebrate feast days together. Marroquín’s mother started working as a nanny, and the family settled into building their lives.

They consulted with lawyers early on to see if there was a way to legalize their status, but it proved a fruitless pursuit. After that, Marroquín and her siblings stopped talking to each other about their irregular status. They lived with it, in silence. Even so, she credits her family and her faith with getting her through.

She lived, Marroquín said, scared.

Her junior year in high school was marked by depression. She never knew what to answer when her friends asked her why she didn’t drive or have a driver’s license, or why she couldn’t participate in the many activities that seemed so normal to her peers. Nothing that required a social security number or government I.D. was open to her.

“It was so difficult,” she said. “And I knew I couldn’t build my life on lies. I don’t blame (my parents) for bringing me here. I don’t know what I’d be doing if I were in Peru. They wanted us to have a future.

“They are just regular people who work hard and want to take care of their children.”

In 2004 she graduated from high school and enrolled in Montgomery County Community College. She attended part-time, paying international student tuition rates – much higher than in-state or out-of-state ones – out of pocket. No financial aid was available to her. Then, like now, she earned money by babysitting and at odd jobs, and put it all toward her tuition.

It took Marroquín five years to get her associate’s degree while she worked and saved money and took what courses she could. She maintained a 3.98 GPA, and majored in social science. She’d like to continue on to get a four-year-degree – she’d be the first person in her family attain that – and to some day go to law school.

But no matter how hard she works and what she accomplishes academically, Marroquín knows the future she faces is limited by her undocumented status.

“I consider myself an American,” she said. “Everything I know – all my friends, my ideals – come from this country. I want to make my life here.”

Marroquín had hopes that the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act) – bipartisan legislation that would have made an estimated 65,000 young people eligible for permanent legal status upon completion of two years of college or two years of honorable service in the military – would pass in Congress. That dream was dashed in December of 2010, when the Senate rejected the bill.

The DREAM Act would have not only given Marroquín an eventual path to legalization, but would have made it possible for her to continue her education at an in-state tuition rate.

“My parents sacrificed everything for me to be able to continue with my education,” Marroquín said. “To know I couldn’t felt like I was letting them down.”

And, she had tired of hiding.

March 19th she and six other undocumented youths “came out of the shadows” and told their stories at a rally at of Philadelphia’s Independence Mall.

“We decided to share our stories,” she said. “All we want is to continue our education. We want to do the right thing, we want to contribute. This is the only country we know and we consider it home, and we wanted to put a face to the immigration issue.”

“I know that there were undocumented youth listening” in the crowd of 150 people that gathered, she said. “I wanted to talk to those (in the crowd) who feel as alone as I had.

“A state DREAM Act bill would be great – then (young people) could afford to go to college and not be dropping out of high school.”

The crowd at the rally, mostly high school and college age people, according to Marroquín, were receptive. “They give me hope,” she said.

Her advocacy for a pathway to legalization for immigrant youth (she is the co-founder of DreamActivist Pennsylvania and has been supported by many people – representatives from Catholic organizations who have stood by her at press conferences, her Filipino boyfriend (who is also undocumented) and her siblings.

Marroquín’s sister, 21, dreams of becoming a pediatrician; her brother, 20, a Navy SEAL. Both are experiencing the same frustrations Marroquín has, and the same thwarted desire to give back to the nation they love.

Her parents, though proud of their eldest daughter, are scared for her, she said.

Marroquín was one of seven young people who delivered a petition to the president of Georgia State University April 5 asking him to keep the institution’s doors open to undocumented students – something GSU is slated to stop doing as of the fall semester.

The seven proceeded to engage in civil disobedience – including marching through the campus and disrupting Atlanta traffic. An hour later, according to the Dream is Coming web site all seven were arrested and placed in an Atlanta jail. They were allegedly questioned by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), but according to a release issued by the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC) they were released several days later.

“(Deportation) is always in the back of your mind,” Marroquín said during our interview March 24. “But this is something that is much bigger than myself. Our cause is just and it is right. That’s enough for me.”

Sabrina Vourvoulias is the managing editor of the Catholic Standard & Times. She can be reached at