Land of broken dreams

Seniors at Longview High School in Texas face uncertain futures after losing opportunity to join Army

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By Lauren Bally and Estrella Gonzales

Four hours.

In four hours, seniors Julio Arroyo and Luis Vargas would leave Longview behind, would make their families proud, and would fight for their country.

They packed their belongings and said their goodbyes. Their futures were laid clearly ahead of them, and everything was falling into place.

Four hours.

Four hours before their departure on Jan. 12, a call and a confrontation.

“We’re sorry,” the message said, “but you can’t join the Army because you aren’t a citizen of the United States of America.”

Four hours.

“We were actually in the ROTC room, me and Vargas, and we got the message saying we weren’t able to be processed,” Arroyo said. “They told us four hours before our departure to Shreveport to become soldiers. Four hours before we actually signed the contract, and they just told us, ‘Sorry. You’re not a legal resident, a permanent resident.’”

Shock, nervous laughter, and then anger.

In a matter of seconds, everything that Arroyo and Vargas had worked towards since middle school had vanished. Their years of JROTC and their dreams of the army ended in rejection.

“At first, we thought it was a joke, and we were laughing and were like, ‘Are you serious?’ But [the ROTC recruiter] looked at us with a serious look on his face, and that’s when it hit us,” Arroyo said. “After all we did, we were almost there, and this close to getting in, and then they’re not gonna let us in anymore. It was a waste of time, and he just looked at us and said he was sorry.”

Along with his disbelief and anger, Vargas had one question.

“I came to the U.S. when I was two. My GPA is 3.5 and I have taken all AP and dual credit classes. I’ve done my best. I had an 80 on my ASVAB when citizens make 40’s and 50’s. I just don’t feel that’s right,” senior Julio Arroyo said.

“The first thing that came into my mind was ‘Why didn’t the Dream Act work?’” Vargas said, “I mean we were literally one step under the whole ‘I’m going to get a job in the Army’ thing.”

Both Vargas and Arroyo came to America as illegal immigrants with their families, but since then both have become temporary residents under the Dream Act. Before applying for the Dream Act, immigrants must live in the United States for at least seven years and show proof of residence though receipts, bills and credit cards.

“[When I received my residency,] all they gave me was something stating that I would not be deported, that I have permission to be here for two years and I have to apply for a job,” Vargas said. “I got the job giving me permission to be here. Homeland Security got my Social Security with a big stamp saying I’m valid for work only.”

However, it was not the Dream Act that should have given Arroyo and Vargas access to the U.S. Army — it was a bill that was terminated after 9/11. Despite their efforts to change their situation, Arroyo and Vargas found themselves helpless.

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It became a huge part of my life and eventually I started talking to the recruiters about the Army and that’s what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. But now I can’t do anything. I can’t do any of that stuff.”

— Julio Arroyo

“I was more disappointed because we went around asking all the branches to see what we could do,” Arroyo said. “[Before the call,] I was even told I could go to officer school because I had pretty high scores and grades in high school. I started JROTC my 8th grade year. It became a huge part of my life and eventually I started talking to the recruiters about the Army and that’s what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. But now I can’t do anything. I can’t do any of that stuff.”

The school administration and ROTC instructors, who had not realized that the old bill was no longer in effect, could only offer condolences to the seniors.

“It’s unfortunate. A lot of people fall victims to the system, and that’s the way it is,” First Sergeant Landry Peace said. “I don’t want to get to blaming or pointing fingers, but it’s just unfortunate.”

Since the rejection, the two have had to rethink their futures and start over again.

“I’ve grown [up] here for a very long time and sometimes I feel like I belong here and sometimes I don’t,” Vargas said. “There’s good days and bad days. I didn’t feel like I’m from here when the recruiter told me that we haven’t worked and done enough for this country to be able to join the army. That’s what it feels like, like you’re all the way on cloud nine and then he brings you down.”

Arroyo and Vargas feel wrongly judged for the actions of their parents. Arroyo came over the border with his mother when he was two, and Vargas came across alone when he was six.

“My mom didn’t have enough money to get a car, and she had me and my sister, but when she crossed over she left both of us behind,” Vargas said. “I used to live with my grandma and I ran away for a while then one day, they found me. My mom paid somebody [to take me across the border] and that guy ended up leaving me a few miles behind the border. That’s just what they do. Some people are left so immigration can get distracted. So he kinda left me to find my way out.”

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What really sucks is that I can’t join the military, but I’m on the drafting sheet. if you need me in drafting, then why won’t they let me go to war?”

— Luis Vargas

According to the Pew Research Center Hispanic Trends Project, about 11.7 million immigrants are living in the United States illegally. The issue of illegal immigrants has been debated for many years, especially in the border state of Texas. Restrictions on illegal immigration are getting harder than ever, but Arroyo and Vargas came to the country to leave their poor living condition in Mexico behind.

“My mom told me we used to live in a house where the floor was literally hard mud and no door,” Vargas said. “When it rained, you had no floor or carpet, no way to protect yourself from the water. We lived in really poor conditions. It’s not like here in America, where it’s raining outside and you say, ‘Oh thats nice.’ You don’t have to get wet, you don’t have to worry about your floor getting all soaked in mud.”

Gaining legal citizenship as an immigrant is a lengthy process that takes many years: Vargas’ father has been trying get a green card for over 30 years. So, many Hispanics simply come over the border illegally. However, Vargas believes the backlash on immigration lands only on Mexicans due to the country’s close proximity to the border.

“During my registration, there were people of all different races from Argentina, some from Chile, some were Russian,” Vargas said. “The U.S. doesn’t understand it’s not only Mexicans that have this problem. I mean it’s not easy to recognize somebody illegal. You can go see a bunch of Mexicans and call them wetbacks and illegal aliens. That’s what they would call them, right? But what you really don’t know is three out of five people are illegal and the other ones are from here.”

Arroyo also finds it unfair that the U.S. is more accepting of legal visitors who constantly break the law over illegal immigrants that stay out of trouble.

“What I don’t understand is that a Canadian, Justin Bieber, who I believe is 18 or 19, has gone to jail I don’t know how many times and has been arrested for DWI, and he’s still singing and dancing around in stadiums,” Arroyo said. “How does he get to do all that stuff? We’ve been here longer than he has.”

A common complaint both Arroyo and Vargas have heard is that ‘Illegal immigrants take all the jobs.’

“We’re taking jobs that other people with a degree in something do not want to do,” Vargas said. “We’re cleaning pig crap, cleaning up after they kill pigs, and these are jobs that people don’t want to get their hands dirty. We will do it even if it’s for minimum wage. We do it because we need to get money somehow to keep our family up. My mom told me that there were times when she went weeks [barely] eating, so she could bring food to the table so me and my sister could eat.”

Arroyo simply wishes that the process of becoming legal would become easier for immigrants.

“In my position the hopeless thing is a big deal but you just gotta suck it up,” Arroyo said. “What I don’t see though, is like, we’re all humans, we’re all homo sapiens so we’re all basically the same. The only difference is however you want to see it.”

Arroyo’s wish may soon be granted as the government is currently considering a new bill that would allow immigrants to gain citizenship through army service: Bill H.R. 435, The Military Enlistment Opportunity Act. Colorado Republican Rep. Mike Coffman, a former Marine, sponsored the bill.

“America [needs] to take full advantage of the talents of these individuals,” Coffman wrote in a letter to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. “Many young people prefer, like I did, to enter military service rather than attend college right away and those who have the desire and skill to be accepted … should have the opportunity to serve.”

Congress received the bill for review Jan. 29, 2013, but since then, nothing has been done. Arroyo thinks that it’s a great doorway to the army for illegal immigrants.

“It should be put into place ASAP,” Arroyo said. “They would have people like [Vargas and I] running to the recruiter’s office. [There should be] a psychological test to check your state of mind to be able to enter the army, and [entrance should be] based on your record in high school.”

But as the bill seems to be making no progress for now, these two seniors, along with thousands of other illegal immigrant teenagers, must soon decide their futures.

“I would say all the Mexicans [here] that are illegal and got the Dream Act, like we don’t know what to do,” Arroyo said. “Some of them are still juniors and sophomores, and they still have some time to figure out what to do. Yet there are some seniors that are like ‘What now?’ Is it just work?”

The idea of returning to Mexico has occurred to both Vargas and Arroyo, but Vargas doesn’t want to consider his old home of Guadalajara as an option.

“There’s not that much conflict but there are still cartels,” Vargas said. “You just never know when they’ll take you or something from you. They have guys from 11 years old to at least 40s. Any male can go in, and their victims are raped. You just don’t know what to do. I have a younger brother that’s about to be 12 in a few months, and my mom doesn’t want to go back because she’s scared [the cartels] will take him.”

For now, both Arroyo and Vargas plan to attend college. While their residency will allow them to attend college, they’re exempt from all scholarships. Neither can apply for citizenship unless they have a 21-year old immediate family member born in the United States. For them, this means waiting a few more years for their younger siblings’ 21st birthdays.

“If I go to college, right now I’m planning on going to Kilgore, do my basics, and see if next year I could join the military,” Arroyo said. “If I can’t, I will end up opening a shop with my dad, and if that doesn’t work, then I guess it’s back to Mexico.”

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