The Immigration Issue: An Undocumented Student Works to Help Others Help Themselves

Yenni Sanchez Perez (right), DREAMer and Grand Canyon University student.
Yenni Sanchez Perez (right), DREAMer and Grand Canyon University student. Sean Holstege

This article is part of Phoenix New Times' issue focusing on immigrants in the Valley of the Sun. See our full coverage here.

Yenni Sanchez Perez has spent much of her young life helping others who cannot always help themselves.

Her actions, and sometimes her words, remind the people she meets that DREAMers like her and undocumented immigrants like her parents are not all drains on society in their new homeland. Despite hardships of poverty, eviction, and the constant threat of deportation, the 19-year-old student at Grand Canyon University remains undaunted, even optimistic, even after the election of Donald Trump.

“A lot has changed. I’ve matured a little. I’ve always been awake. I’ve always known I’m not from here and I could get deported, but that won’t stop my dream of becoming a lawyer,” Sanchez said.

She recalled the moment she made her mind up to practice immigration law.

Her grandmother had entered the U.S. illegally for the fourth time to get medical treatment unavailable to her in her home state of Puebla in central Mexico. She was in prison in Florence on felony immigration charges, about to be deported. Sanchez and the family scraped together the money for an attorney, but too late. The grandmother had already been deported.

“That was a very frustrating moment,” Sanchez said.

That was three years ago. But the moment also proved to be motivational.

Since then, Sanchez has gone door to door to register voters, and now works at a day care helping a gaggle of second-graders. She knows that one day, maybe soon, she might have to take care of her two younger brothers and little sister.

Her father, a welder, and her mother, who cooks in a food truck, entered this country illegally when Sanchez was 2 years old. They had heard stories from relatives of how good life could be, and work in Puebla had dried up.

At first, the small family shared a Maryvale apartment with 10 people. Her parents relied on the bus to get to work. Later, they moved to their own “small and comfortable” house six miles to the west. Then, the Great Recession and the foreclosure notice came.

Sanchez wanted to go to university out of state. An adviser asked her for a social security number to apply for financial aid, and she knew she’d have to change plans. She didn’t have one. So she applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, and worked to put herself through GCU.

“A light went on, and I asked my parents what’s going to happen to us,” Sanchez recalled. “Are we going to get deported?”

So she volunteered at LUCHA, a community organizing group, to sign up voters and “knock on doors and tell people we are not all criminals.” A lot of the people she met were rude. More than a few slammed the door in her face.

Last September, she confronted one man at a Fry’s grocery store in Phoenix. She was there because the Legislature passed a bill declaring voter-registration drives as illegal ballot harvesting.

The man peppered her with arguments that immigrants siphoned tax dollars, services, health care, and education from citizens, she said.

“He bombarded me, saying he was paying for me to be here,” she said. “I told him I had a job and I’m going to school from money I got from scholarships, thanks to my hard work.”

She convinced him to register, even though it was clear he supported a different candidate than she. That didn’t bother her because “it was important for him to be able to express his belief.”

Of course, the presidential election did not go the way Sanchez wanted. On election night, she cried.

“I asked myself, why did I work so hard to knock doors and go to Walmart and Fry’s to register people to vote? My parents told me even though things didn’t go the way you wanted, you still did your job,” she said.

Things yet may not go her way. She and her parents remain optimistic that they can stay in the country because they’ve “done nothing wrong.” So far, the president has not rescinded former President Barack Obama’s executive orders that allows DREAMers to stay in the country. Her parents’ status is much more tenuous.

Sanchez takes a leaf from her parents’ prayer book. They say that bad things happen because God has something better in store for them. And Sanchez says even if she’s deported, as a bilingual Latina, she could practice law in Puebla and help families like hers.

“One day, I’d like to see my parents safe in this country and not threatened,” she said, insisting that the election and the forces behind it have not changed her opinions about her country. “I’m as American as anybody else is, as an American citizen is. This is my home now.”

But her sense of home is imperiled.

“I can never see myself being far away from my brothers, who I’ve tried to raise the right way to help my parents. I can’t imagine everything I thought was my home was taken away from me because of what others believe about that is wrong,” she said, fighting tears.

So she stands up, speaks, and volunteers for those who cannot always help themselves.
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Sean Holstege is the editor of Phoenix New Times. He's been a print news reporter for 35 years. He was an investigative reporter at The Arizona Republic and the Oakland Tribune. He won a Sigma Delta Chi award for investigative reporting. He’s covered transportation, terrorism, the border, disasters, child welfare, courts, and breaking news.
Contact: Sean Holstege