After Graduating as an Illegal Immigrant, a Struggle to Navigate the System

The Baruch College commencement ceremony set for Wednesday will mark five years since Lesslie Alvarez and Walter Barrientos graduated from the city university’s business school as the first in their immigrant families to attend college. But even as they celebrated, they were terrified commencement marked a conclusion rather than a beginning: The two were in the U.S. illegally.

When they graduated, it seemed as if the Dream Act would become law and provide undocumented young people like them -- who arrived in the U.S. as children -- a chance at legal status. But the law repeatedly failed to pass.

Instead, over the past five years, as their classmates climbed the corporate ladder, Barrientos and Alvarez negotiated a maze reserved for those in the shadows of American society: fighting the detention system, wading into the black market and mulling sham marriages.

Alvarez — with her unshakable Brooklyn accent — just barely remembers crossing the Mexican border in her mother’s arms as a two year old. Barrientos, a natural communicator with an infectious smile, arrived at JFK as an 11-year-old boy after his parents sent for him from Guatemala. The two are among thousands of undocumented students who graduate from college each year, most of them with no option to work but the underground economy.

Walter’s Journey

On the night they graduated, Barrientos cried himself to sleep. He managed to get a job in a Brooklyn warehouse packaging luxury sheets and towels. But his parents — a housekeeper and a construction worker — couldn’t stand to watch their college-educated son spend his days folding cardboard. So they supported him, and he began organizing other young people without papers.

He took an Amtrak train to Chicago in the fall after graduation for a conference with immigrant leaders. At around 3 a.m., Walter was shaken awake as the train neared Canada, and the Border Patrol was doing a sweep.

“For the first few seconds I was like, ‘This is not immigration,’ and then I was like, ‘This is it,’” he said.

Barrientos told the officers he was not a citizen, and had no visa or green card. He said he was then handcuffed and spent the next two nights in a detention dormitory with about 60 other immigrants.

Walter described the experience in a letter to friends as “extremely eye-opening and empowering.” What he didn’t tell them was he was panicked and embarrassed.

“I was like the kid that was getting detained so that’s what everyone was asking about,” he said. “It was like you have cancer.”

He was released on $10,000 bail, but he knew could be deported to Guatemala at any moment.

Lesslie’s Journey

Authorities never discovered Alvarez was in the US illegally, but she also felt imprisoned by her status. “I was an illegal alien,” she said. “I wasn’t like I was Lesslie, I’m XYZ.”

Upon graduating, she had to refuse all her elite finance job offers, and instead tended bar in Soho. But the sophisticated young woman who adored kayaking in Long Island Sound and read biographies for fun, was determined to put her degree to use.

“I finagled my way to working into working in corporations,” she said.

One Connecticut firm paid her in petty cash for financial analysis, another for marketing.

“I had to have connections,” she said. “People who knew my situation. People who literally paid me under the table.”

Mulling Sham Marriages

Then, two years ago, a legal path in the labyrinth appeared: marriage. Before it had not been a viable option for Alvarez since she entered the U.S. without a visa. But she discovered that her father had submitted a special petition, which meant that if she wed an American citizen, she could remain in the U.S. legally.

The opportunity brought with it new challenges: she did not want to get married just for papers.

“I actually was engaged for a while with somebody and he just kept pressuring me, and I just didn’t feel like he was the right one,” she said. “He could not understand why I wasn’t marrying him.”

At around the same time, Barrientos’ parents were urging him to marry a citizen, and to do it quickly. While he knew people pay thousands for fake marriages, he had friends who would do it for free.

Since he arrived on a tourist visa it was an option, and with the prospect of deportation looming, he was tempted and thought about it a couple of times a day. But he did not want to break a law and marry for papers.

And as it turns out, neither Barrientos nor Alvarez needed to. Alvarez met an American of German background.

“I finally fell in love. We got married,” Alvarez said. “And then we got my papers.”

Barrientos also fell in love — but he fell for another undocumented immigrant.

Cristina, a petite and spirited woman he knew from college, arrived from Ecuador as a child. They hatched a plan to move to Australia – where another friend had gone to receive legal status — with Walter leading the way on a student visa.

A Terrible Turn And an Opportunity

But then something terrible happened: Gang members allegedly assaulted Barrientos. He went to the police even though he felt mixed about turning in his attackers who were also Latino youth.

When he got called to testify in court, he was scared that he could be deported. But instead, getting assaulted became an opportunity for him: Barrientos qualified for a special visa for individuals who are victims of violent crimes. And if they got married, so did Cristina.

The American Dream

Both Barrientos and Alvarez attained legal status.

Just five years after graduating, Barrientos, at 26, has almost completed his Master’s in non-profit management, and works for a community foundation in Manhattan.

Alvarez, 28, is halfway through her MBA at the University of Connecticut and expecting her first child this fall.

But the ideal of the American Dream has been tarnished for them.

“There’s all this pride and all this saying that this country rewards hard work,” Barrientos said. “The story that we believed in, that drove us and our families for so long.”

His reality was very different: “Technically they’re just rewarding to me now that I’ve gotten beaten up. And if this hadn’t happened I could have been undocumented for years, for another decade.”

Neither is a permanent resident yet, which means they rely on work permits that expire and still have no opportunity to leave the country. And yet they know they’re the lucky ones.

“I’m still frustrated because our two stories kind of got resolved,” Alvarez said. “And there are just thousands of kids out there and they’re graduating right now, same thing and they’re going to go through the same process.”