Brave Thinkers 2011 November 2011

Isabel Castillo

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Immigration activist
Harrisonburg, Virginia

Risking deportation, an undocumented immigrant confronts the governor in her fight for reform.

To be an undocumented immigrant is to weather a perpetual storm. It’s a tempest rarely of your own making. Isabel Castillo was 6 years old when she was smuggled across the Mexican border. While her parents picked apples and the family sold tacos out of their home in the Shenandoah Valley, Isabel dreamed big—but only so big. After all, she did not have a Social Security number. Unable to apply for financial aid, she worked for a year, off the books, to save money for college.

After graduating magna cum laude from Eastern Mennonite University in 2007, she was unable to legally find a job. Undocumented immigrants are supposed to keep a low profile. Castillo chose not to. Last year, at a town-hall event in her hometown of Harrisonburg, Virginia, Castillo challenged Governor Bob McDonnell on his opposition to the DREAM Act, which would give undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. at 15 or younger a path to legal residency. Then, at the risk of deportation, she told the governor and the audience that she’s undocumented.

Brave Thinkers 2011I first read about Castillo earlier this year, around the time I began writing an essay about my life as an undocumented immigrant. In the outlines of her life, I saw mine: the struggle to prove my worth; the desire to be counted; the love for America—very much my home, though not my birthplace. In a recent phone conversation, I asked her, “Are you scared of being so public, of perhaps being deported?” She thought for a moment. “Just as much as you are.” We laughed, both nervous and proud.

Being an American means more than just having the right documents. Being an American, for Castillo and me, means fighting for it, even if that means putting yourself into a storm.


Illustration: Anje Jager

Jose Antonio Vargas is a former Washington Post reporter and the founder of Define American, an immigration advocacy organization
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