A student runs through the hallways of Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary.
A student runs through the hallways of Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary in 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

When I was a high-school senior, the school guidance counselor told me I couldn’t go to college. I was a top student, but after I informed him that I was an undocumented immigrant, he said I wouldn’t be able to enroll in college without a Social Security number.

That would have been it, had a Spanish-language newspaper not published a story about my dashed dreams. A stranger – also an undocumented immigrant who was enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin – read the story and reached out. Of course you can go to college, she said. She showed me the path and changed my life.

I was grateful for the stranger’s help and outraged that many other young people like me were forgoing their dreams due to bad information. Since then, I’ve dedicated my life to ensuring that young immigrants have the knowledge and access they need to realize their full potential. And I’m grateful that my adopted city, San Antonio, supports me in this endeavor.

This year, the city appointed its first ever immigration liaison, Tino Gallegos, who is connecting City officials, community stakeholders, and faith leaders to raise awareness about immigrant issues. This is part of an invigorated commitment by the City to ensure that San Antonio’s immigrants have the information and assistance they need in areas such as housing, health care, and legal issues. The City is building on a solid track record, which is reflected in a Cities Index recently released by the bipartisan nonprofit New American Economy. The NAE analysis, which measures how well city policies are helping to integrate immigrants, gave San Antonio a score of 4 out of 5 in livability and 3 out of 5 in economic empowerment, community, legal support, job opportunities, economic prosperity, and civic participation.

I moved to San Antonio in 2010, after graduating from UT-Austin. For six years, I worked in Teach for America’s San Antonio office, where I became a managing director before co-founding ImmSchools, my education nonprofit.

ImmSchools works with school districts in San Antonio to ensure that our schools are safe and welcoming places for all kids. We provide training to teachers and school administrators to help them provide the support that their immigrant students need.

In this role, I’ve been fortunate to work with Gallegos and the San Antonio Independent School District to address an issue that has long hindered the relationship between immigrants and city officials: trust. We found that when parents have questions – be it about their own immigration status or their child’s vaccinations – they are reluctant to ask public officials they don’t know. Instead, they call upon the people they trust: specifically, their children’s teachers.

So in September, we distributed a document to all public school teachers and employees, which answer immigrant parents’ most common questions – from “Where do I get my child vaccinated?” to “How do I file my taxes?” Armed with this knowledge, schools across the city are now empowered to provide thorough and accurate information to parents.

We are also providing young immigrants with the critical information I didn’t receive 14 years ago: how to find a pathway to college. In doing so, we’re not only helping individual students achieve their goals but are helping the city develop a deep pool of skilled workers. The top three professions among young college-educated immigrants are accounting, teaching, and nursing, which New American Economy has also found to be among those with the greatest worker shortages.

I have personally seen the benefits that young educated immigrants bring to their communities. At Teach for America, I worked with recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). I watched numerous Dreamers go on to college, choosing to become schoolteachers, often in the same schools they attended. Permitted to work under the DACA program, they chose to return to Texas and address the state’s critical shortage of teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). This saved school districts from having to hire foreign nationals, at a much higher cost.

Young immigrants in San Antonio’s schools have a lot to offer this city. In fact, our high percentage of young people is one reason Forbes magazine named San Antonio one of the top cities of the future, noting that the city’s demographics make it one of the 10 most likely to boom in the next decade.

We need to get it right in San Antonio, and I’m very optimistic that we will. We are making the immigrant community more visible and making clear that they are an integral part of the city. We’re having conversations that weren’t happening only a few years ago.

Most important, we’re helping to create a world where young people will have the freedom to dream big without worrying about their immigration status. It’s not just what’s best for these kids; it’s what’s best for all of us.

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Viridiana Carrizales

Viridiana Carrizales immigrated to the United State from Mexico at age 11 and became a U.S. citizen in 2016. She is the co-founder and CEO of ImmSchools, an immigrant-led nonprofit that ensures immigrant...