SANTA ANA, Calif. – Graduating from high school is considered a huge milestone for students, but it can be difficult to celebrate when your family is dealing with a looming deportation date.
Eighteen-year-old Yesenia Camacho and her 20-year-old brother Omar Camacho graduated a few days ago from Century High School in Santa Ana. The siblings managed to excel and graduate within three and half years, all while learning a new language.
The siblings and their mother, Irma Alvarez Torres, fled their hometown in Michoacan, Mexico, in December 2015. They say they were threatened with violence by a drug cartel who asked them to pay for protection. In May, an immigration judge denied the family’s request for asylum and ordered the family to be deported back to Mexico on June 10.
“They say they want money or we have to leave. If we don’t leave or give them money, they kill us,” said Yesenia Camacho.
Torres’ daughter says the cartel came by their house in Mexico two times before following her to school. Afraid for their lives and safety, Torres and her children fled to the United States and asked for asylum.
The family says they lost everything including their home when they left. While they waited for an immigration judge to review their case, Torres enrolled her two children into Century High School.
Her daughter recalls being worried about not fitting in because she didn’t speak or understand English. However, she decided she was going to take advantage of the opportunities in the States that she didn’t have in Mexico and started working hard in school. With help from one of her teachers in the English Learners Program, Camacho joined the E-Business Program on campus.
“I was thinking to continue my studies to go to college and if possible go to the university so that’s why I decided to work hard every day,” said Camacho.
The educator, Alan Gersten, who spearheads the class took notice. It was the first time Gersten had accepted English Learner Program students into his academy.
“She won several awards at the state and national level. She was incredibly competitive. She was very organized. She was an incredibly hard worker and spent several hours every week after school just perfecting her craft and learning the things she needed to learn.” said Gersten.
The siblings’ teachers didn’t know that the siblings were seeking asylum until they inquired about the ankle bracelets they were forced to wear after an immigration hearing.
“I think in my 30 years, she’s the only student that I know that has gone through and has applied for the asylum. Most of the students here are either DACA kids that are new here to the United States, but they are living in the shadow world. Yesenia and her family stepped up, relied on the system and the system let her down and I was heartbroken,” said Gersten.
The siblings’ hard work and focus in school paid off. Both of them graduated a few days ago and had plans to continue their education. Camacho got accepted into the University of California, Santa Barbara and planned on majoring in accounting. Her brother planned to juggle work and going to a community college. However, with the judge’s ruling, their future plans remain uncertain.
“My dream is to stay here and go to UC Santa Barbara. I want to graduate from there and help my family. I want my brother to go college and help my mom because she has always worked hard so we can get our careers. I want to give her that dream,” said Camacho.
The family recently secured a new immigration attorney with help from their high school teachers who created a fundraiser and an online petition that has been signed by more than 4,700 people. Despite the uncertainties and stress, Camacho says she has hope that their new attorney can appeal the judge’s decision and give them more time to stay in the United States to further their education to give their mom a better life.
If you’d like to sign their online petition and find out how you can help the family, you can find it here.