by Jared Bean

In his series Immigrants Are US, award-winning photographer Mark Tuschman photographed and interviewed over 100 immigrants across varied socio-economic and documentation status. The grandson of Russian Jewish immigrants, he hopes to highlight the contributions and humanity of those who are now the target of rampant discrimination.

Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Take life by the horns. If need be, go ahead and turn those lemons into lemonade. You’re the architect of your own fate; best plan well.

Decades of individualism and narratives pushing white picket fences convinced generations of Americans that they, too, could have it all if they just worked hard enough. It is a narrative so historically persuasive that the satirical nature of this post’s opening line has all but been whitewashed in our lexicon.

Nobody truly makes it on their own. We’re all each the sum of our hard work and failures, but we’re also the product of the opportunities and setbacks afforded to us by our friends and families, our communities and colleagues, our workers and those we work for, and - perhaps most significantly - the policies and priorities of the governments we live under.

With this in mind, it should be obvious that it takes much more than smarts and resilience to realize our dreams, and this often rings even more true for those who have struggled with undocumented status.

Jirayut “New” Latthivongskornis, by all accounts, is the embodiment of what it means to be living the American Dream. The salutatorian of his high school despite pulling 30 hours a week at his family’s Thai restaurant, he channeled his hard work and determination to become a medical student at both UC San Francisco and Harvard. Of course, this simplistic narrative overlooks the complications that New ran into along the way.

Jirayut New Latthivongskorn (Photo credit: Mark Tuschman)

Despite initially winning a full scholarship to attend undergrad at UC Davis, the school’s admissions office revoked it three months prior to the start of the semester when they realized he didn’t have a social security number. While he still worked long hours and was fortunate enough to have a family who had enough capital to help him through his first year of college while he lined up private scholarships, the experience left him with an undeniable sense of how fragile the American Dream is, especially for underserved communities.

The alienation he felt as an undergrad only compounded as he advanced to med school and realized how rare it was for undocumented students to be enrolled at that level - so rare, in fact, that he jokingly began to term such students as unicorns. This led him to co-found Pre-health Dreamers, an organization dedicated to supporting undocumented students in the health and sciences.

Ariana Aparicio similarly grew up with a hyperfocus on education. The daughter of Mexican immigrants who brought her to the United States at the age of four, she was encouraged to go as far as she could with school in order to take advantage of job opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t be feasible. She strove to excel, particularly from middle school and on, but ran into two big hurdles as she began the college entry process: the lack of funding for undocumented immigrants and a guidance counselor uninterested in helping her navigate the process.

Ariana Aparicio (Photo credit: Mark Tuschman)

Fortunately, she found guidance through a low-income college access program now known as 10,000 Degrees that helped fill this void and was able to secure local funding to attend a teaching program at Santa Rosa Junior College and used private scholarships to transfer to Sonoma State University after two years.

Despite this initial success, her hopes of enrolling in the university’s teaching credential program were dashed due to her status, and it wasn’t until the passage of the DREAM Act a year later that she was able to pursue further professional development.

She went on to work as an academic advisor at both 10,000 Degrees and Sonoma State before earning her BA in sociology, and she has gone on to train teachers how to interact with and support undocumented students, first at Immigrants Rising and now at Harvard, where she is pursuing a PhD.

While the previous two families came to the US in part due to the economic and educational opportunities they and their kids would have access to, Darwin Velasquez’s family came much more explicitly because of the support he needed in order to succeed. Born with cataracts in both eyes and coming from a small village in El Salvador, he lacked the resources and interventions that would have enabled him to appropriately compensate for his poor vision.

Darwin Velasquez (Photo credit: Mark Tuschman)

His mother convinced him that moving to the United States was the best thing for his education when he was twelve, at which point they joined her in San Francisco, and he was ultimately fortunate enough to get corrective eye surgery after doctors raised $50,000 since he couldn’t qualify for other programs due to his status. He also started receiving guidance from College Track, a national nonprofit he now works for that serves first generation students, when he was in 9th grade, and he was able to get continued guidance as he went to community college and eventually transferred to the University of San Francisco.

It can be hard enough achieving our dreams even in the best circumstances, much less when we or the people we love are struggling to make it in a system that denies access to upward mobility due to factors such as economic well-being or documentation status. Not only did these Dreamers rise to the challenges that stood in the way of their professional development, they internalized the support they did have and went on to support others through their own journeys.

Jarred Bean is a writer and analyst working in the New York City Department of Education. Coming from a working class family in North Carolina, he has gone on to live in and serve working class communities in the US and abroad. He has previously written for Brand New Congress.