By Diana Leyva
Growing up, Trevecca sophomore Norma Soto didn’t know she was undocumented. She has vague memories of crossing the border, hiding from immigration officers but she didn’t know what those things meant.
However, she did notice certain things.
She would overhear conversations had by her parents about being cautious when driving – talks of not having a driver’s license and fear of being pulled over.
“I knew that wasn’t normal. That’s not something I heard kids at school talk about. So I knew that was something different about my family,” said Soto.
It wasn’t until she was in high school, and struggled in obtaining her driver’s license that she realized she was different from those around her.
“That’s the first time I really noticed,” she said.
Soto was born in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Growing up she had dreams of being a doctor, specifically a pediatrician. She dreamt of going to school, having a career, getting married, and having a family of her own day.
“The normal things that everyone talks about. The basic dreams I guess,” she said.
When she was 8-years-old, she emigrated from Guatemala along with her mother and her younger sister, Mayerly Soto.
For Soto’s parents, leaving their home country behind was difficult and complicated, but they made the decision of immigrating due to a lack of opportunities and seeking a better future for their family. Her father immigrated to the United States first in 1999 and then again in 2003. In 2005 Soto’s mother arrived with Soto and her sister.
Although Soto’s mother was happy that her children would be reunited with their father, leaving her home country caused her great sadness because it meant leaving her family behind.
“My daughters cried and said they were never going to see their grandmother again, they didn’t want to leave. I told them, ‘Yes you will see her again,” she said.
However, two years ago Soto’s grandmother on her mother’s side died.
“She died along with her wish of seeing them again,” said Soto’s mother.
Soto’s family settled down in Dickson, Tennessee.
In high school, Soto was active in HOSA, played soccer her senior year and took a youth leadership class.
In 2016, Soto was granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA.
She had plans to attend college when she heard about Equal Chance for Education, a non-profit organization that supports undocumented students in Tennessee, but became discouraged when she never heard back regarding her application.
Regardless, she didn’t let that stop her from working toward achieving her dreams.
After graduating high school Soto took a 6-month medical assisting course in Goodlestville, Tenn. paying out of pocket, with some assistance from her father. Soto worked as a waitress in order to pay for the course, and then at a nursing home where she obtained her CNA license.
Eventually, working night shifts and going to school during the day all got to be too much for Soto, so she quit working and dedicated herself solely to school.
But seeing her peers accomplish what she always wanted for herself caused her to feel frustrated and “stuck.”
“That’s where I wanted to be, and I couldn’t do that. Instead, I’m having to do this … I didn’t want to just have my medical assistant license. That wasn’t enough for me. I wanted more,” she said.
Much of Soto’s drive was fueled by the pressure of having to succeed, or having to “become someone” in addition to the strong desire to give back to her family. Otherwise her parents’ sacrifices would mean nothing, she said.
“You have to, there’s no choice. You have to make them proud because that’s what they expect from you,” said Soto.
But there was also another factor contributing to her drive. She was pregnant with her first child.
Soto was married prior to having her son, but separated shortly after he was born.
Determined to go to school, she took two part-time semesters at Nashville State Community College, where she was charged as an out-of-state student. Soto only took three classes per semester and paid approximately $12,000.
According to the Higher Ed Immigration Portal, the Tennessee Eligibility Verification for Entitlements Act requires students to verify their citizenship or lawful presence to access in-state tuition. Those who cannot verify U.S. citizenship or lawful presence are denied in-state tuition.
Currently, undocumented students as well as DACA students, do not meet EVEA’s “lawful presence” requirements.
Eventually, when it was time for her younger sister to start college, Soto accompanied her to inquire about her ECE application and why she never heard back.
After speaking with Executive Director Molly Haynes, Soto was encouraged to apply a second time, due to her first application most likely getting lost among the many others.
This time, she was accepted. Still, she worried how she would handle being a single mom while attending school.
“Being at Nashville State was already hard in itself, and just thinking about Nashville State compared to a 4-year college, it was nothing really. I thought, `How am I supposed to take care of him and be a mom and get good grades and handle everything?” she said.
She thought that if she had gone to school immediately after graduating high school, perhaps she wouldn’t have gotten married. Then perhaps she could have gotten her education, gotten married and then started her family. Everything happened “backward,” she said.
Regardless, Soto is a believer that God “puts everything in order, the way that it’s supposed to happen,” and credits her family with helping her raise her son while working toward her degree. They watch him during the day and put him to bed while she does homework.
“They’ve been supporting me this whole time. And if it weren’t for them, I really don’t know if I would be able to do it. They’re the only reason why I’m able to really do everything that I do, because of my support system,” she said.
Now a biology major, Soto hopes to one day be a physician’s assistant to help others like her.
“I remember going with my mom to the doctor and having to translate for her at like 9-years-old. Nowadays kids don’t want to help their parents, a lot of the kids that I’ve seen they’re embarrassed to speak Spanish or just don’t want to help them,” she said.
Her career would be a way to give back not just to her community, but to her parents as well. A way to give back to them for all their hard work in raising and providing for her.
Soto’s father said they were elated upon hearing the news that she had been accepted to attend a university, not only because it was a great opportunity for her, but because they had finally broken into a space that they once thought was impossible.
“As parents, we don’t do anything solely for ourselves but more so so our memory can live on through our children. So in the future, they’ll be able to say ‘My parents really worried about me going to school, so I wouldn’t have to do what they did.’ That was a great achievement, it was very important for us,” he said.
While Soto is thankful that both DACA and ECE were able to assist her with having the right documentation to be able to work and study, there is still that fear of the unexpected. Fear that one day DACA could be taken away and possibly being deported, separated from her family and the only home she’s ever known.
“We’re trapped. We don’t have that freedom. Yes, it [DACA] helps us in so many ways, but we’re not completely free from the chains of being an immigrant … We’re still considered undocumented. When we go to fill out an application there’s the options of undocumented, permanent residents, or citizens – we still have to check the undocumented box,” she said.
While there are those who are opposed to passing the Dream Act, the legislation that would create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented students, Soto believes it is all a matter of perspective.
“Put yourself in my shoes, or imagine your kid being in this situation. Would you like to see your kids struggle like this? To have their hopes and dreams crushed because they don’t have this document? … They don’t know what we’ve gone through, all the hardships we’ve had to overcome,” she said.
If the Dream Act was passed tomorrow, Soto said the first thing she would do is go back and visit her family in Guatemala, specifically her grandmother.
“She’s the one person that if I just had one day to go back or even a few hours, she is the one person I would go see. Because I just don’t know if I’ll see her again,” she said.
Soto’s grandfather passed away last year and despite not having a close relationship with him, his death deeply affected her. Her father couldn’t be there in person for the funeral, he watched via Facetime.
Seeing her father suffer affected her because it made her realize that his whole motive for being apart from his family, was her.
Now Soto’s primary goal is finishing school and raising her son.
“I’m doing all this for him and my family, but mostly for me because I want to provide a better future. I want to set an example for him that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to,” she said.