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A Virginian’s Fight for Citizenship: The Story of Dr. Isabel Castillo

By Mike Signer | May 26, 2011 | No Comments

Call her Dr. Castillo–and her story and courage should inspire us all not only to support the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform, but to reflect more deeply on citizenship and our constitutional values.

NDP recently sat down with Isabel Castillo in Harrisonburg to hear her story. Isabel’s parents brought her to the United States from Mexico when she was six years old, so her father could participate in the guest worker program.  After time in California and Illinois, they moved to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where her father worked in the poultry industry. Isabel has several siblings, and her parents wanted to give them the tools to succeed.  “They told us, you guys don’t want this,” she recalled.  “You want to become professionals rather than working in these poultry plants.”

Isabel had a hunger for learning and for self-improvement in high school, where she ultimately earned a 4.0.  But it was also in high school that she learned she was undocumented–she doesn’t have a Social Security number and couldn’t get one, so it would be very hard for her to go to college.

Luckily, Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg allowed Isabel to matriculate there and to graduate with a degree in social work — magna cum laude.

But it didn’t get any easier while she was there.  She worked for a year after high school to save money to pay for college.  She went on to graduate in three and a half years, paying for each semester so she could attend the next with her savings and with donations from friends and community members. “I graduated through advocating for myself,” she recalled.  “I went around community to business owners I knew, told them this was my situation and my story, and asked them to give me a scholarship and donation.  Some of them did said, we’ve never done that, nobody’s asked.  But we can do that.”  She remembered that one man even donated a thousand dollars for her education.

Since graduation, she’s worked a variety of jobs, including waiting tables, but has dedicated herself more broadly to the cause of comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act, which would give undocumented students like herself a path to citizenship.

It was this cause that brought Isabel achieved national recognition recently in this New York Times profile titled “DREAM Advocate Turns Failure into Hope.”  The profile led to stunning developments — Isabel has been contacted by leaders around the country for advice and leadership, even traveling to Ohio.

But nothing prepared her for the recent call she received — from the president of the University of San Francisco, who said he’d like to award her an honorary doctorate. You can read more about this incredible event here.

What does the future hold for Dr. Castillo?

“I’m going to continue fighting for the DREAM act and fighting for this act,” she said.  She sees the doctorate as a beginning, not an end.  “It wasn’t just for me,” she explained.  “It was for my friends, for all undocumented youth across the country.”

Her work doesn’t come without risks.  On the contrary — it’s a perilous path. “Obviously, I started getting involved because it affects me personally,” she explained.  “I was either going to wait in the shadows, or I was going to come out of the shadows… It’s not easy.  It’s a risk.  It’s hard saying you’re undocumented publicly.”  But she’s not deterred.  “But we’re not criminals.  We don’t have anything to hide.  We haven’t committed a crime.”

It was this combination of courage and directness that led Isabel to a now-famous encounter with Governor Bob McDonnell in a recent visit to JMU, where she explained her story and asked for action on the DREAM Act.  You can watch her ask this question — and Governor McDonnell respond — in this video.

She’s brought a combination of courage, creativity, and hard work to her work life, to her educational accomplishments, and to her activism.  Citizenship should never be easy, and we should never take membership in our great Commonwealth for granted.  At a general level, the story of Isabel Castillo should remind all of us of exactly what’s at stake in our democracy.  And with regard to the challenge of undocumented young people, her story shows exactly why the DREAM Act should be passed.  We’re off to a good start in Virginia, with Senator Mark Warner strongly supporting the legislation.

But with anti-reform forces strongly positioned, advocates should always keep in mind the human beings behind the cause — and the stories of folks like Isabel that should inspire all of us to work for progress.

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