During "A Conversation With President Obama" on Thursday (October 14), a handful of young people were granted the opportunity to articulate their personal hopes and fears directly to the commander in chief. The moment was an especially poignant one for Ana Roa Arrázola, a native of Colombia studying in the United States who is unable to vote because of her status as an immigrant.
Although Arrázola and her family legally immigrated to the United States in 2003, they're still navigating the often long and labyrinthine process of becoming an American citizen. Her precarious position also means she is unable to return to South America to visit her 92-year-old grandmother without running the risk of being denied entry back into a country she has called home for the past seven years, a situation that drove her to tears when she spoke to the president. Arrázola said being able to explain her situation was a "priceless" occasion for the 22-year-old.
"It was kind of amazing. I had prepared a question for him, and then they asked us about our greatest fear and that's something that really was my greatest fear. At 92, you really don't have that much time left," she told MTV News later that evening. "The green card has affected my life in so many different ways. I don't even get a vote, but to be able to have the president himself hear you out — I've interned in Congress and I've been able to be close to that kind of D.C. politics ... but to have the actual president there, that was unbelievable."
Arrázola opened up to viewers about her fear of not seeing her grandmother, who is too old to travel, but she didn't mention the many ways her lack of a green card has affected her life. Arrázola began her freshman year at William & Mary college in 2007 but was later forced to drop out because, as a legal immigrant, even one who works and pays taxes, she doesn't have access to federal financial aid or a private educational loan. After her initial college plans were derailed by the pricey cost of higher education, Arrázola landed internships with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and Seattle Congressman Jim McDermott. The daughter of an industrial engineer and a dentist who run a Washington, D.C.-area business, she's now taking classes at a community college and hoping her credits will transfer so she can return to William & Mary and obtain a degree in government. Her younger sister, who just graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA, is also taking community-college classes in lieu of attending a competitive institution.
However, Arrázola said she's "lucky" that she lives in D.C. and her parents are able to support her while she props up her work experience with internships, as many other young people who lack similar resources are not able to do, an issue a fellow forum attendee brought up to President Obama.
Arrázola maintained that the current legal immigration system is confusing and tough to endure in a post-9/11 climate.
"Ever since 2001, that Homeland Security changed completely. ... You have to go through FBI and all these background checks," she said. "It's kind of [like] being proven guilty before being declared innocent. They're expecting you to be the worst person ever, and then if you get through the background check and you're clear, then you're good."
President Obama mentioned during the forum that he would like to follow up with Arrázola about her experience, but unfortunately, she wasn't able to connect with the world leader directly after the event. However, if she did get the chance to be face-to-face with him again, she would school him on how to improve the current infrastructure.
"I would be more than happy to have a conversation with him about the process itself," she said. "It's a ridiculous process. It's really mysterious. There's no real clear answer as [what to do] next, what's acceptable, what's not, when is your green card coming — there's no such thing."
Arrázola lamented the negative perceptions often assigned to people looking to become citizens and said, ultimately, building an inclusive society is beneficial to everyone.
"Immigrants can be resources," she said. "I actually care about this country as my own; I would do anything for it. I volunteer in campaigns for Democrats, I intern in Congress, I love this country like my own. I just wish I could someday become a citizen. I want to have that honor."
What do you think of Ana's story? Share your thoughts in the comments.