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Her Dream: To Help Other Immigrants

February 13, 2011

Listen to an interview with Isabel Castillo in English or Spanish.

By Jeannette Porter
Capital News Service

RICHMOND — She earned a bachelor’s degree in social work in 2007, graduating magna cum laude from Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg. She accomplished that feat in just three and a half years while working 30 hours a week.

Today, she is a waitress, babysitter and sometime interpreter.

She also is an undocumented immigrant – the kind of person some say should be kicked out of the United States.

Meet Isabel Castillo, who hopes to persuade Virginia lawmakers to shelve legislation aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants.

“I’ve lived in Harrisonburg since I was 6 years old,” said Castillo, now 26, who is fluent in Spanish and English. “Virginia is home. I am an American.”

Her father first came to the U.S. as a guest worker in the agricultural industry, and her mother came later. They worked in a poultry processing plant for 10 years.

“That’s a really hard and messy job that a lot of people don’t want to do,” Castillo said. “My parents brought us for better economic opportunity, and for better education. Where my mother is from, you could only go to school up to the second grade. My parents wanted a better future for their kids.”

Castillo wants to earn a master’s in social work and work in the Hispanic community, but she cannot because of her undocumented status.

“Our parents always instilled in us to get an education,” Castillo said. “‘You don’t want to do this work,’ they would say. ‘Do good in school and become a professional.’ My grandmother came up from Mexico to see me graduate from college. I am the first person in my family to do that.”


Castillo has spent the past year working to get Congress to pass the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors) Act. It came up five votes short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster in the U.S. Senate in December.

The federal act would have opened a path to citizenship for people like Castillo, whose parents brought her to the U.S. illegally when she was too young to understand the implications of her status.

“Most people — when they’re 6, or 5, or 4 — they don’t think of those things,” Castillo said. “People say, ‘What part of illegal do you not understand?’ What part of illegal should a 4-year-old understand?”

Now, Castillo is organizing in Virginia’s Hispanic community against a spate of immigration bills passed by the House of Delegates and awaiting a hearing in the Virginia Senate.

The legislation includes House Bill 1465, introduced by Republican Delegate Christopher K. Peace of Mechanicsville. It would require Virginia’s public colleges and universities to have written policies against enrolling “an individual determined to be not lawfully present in the United States.”

“We’re talking about people who are qualified,” said Castillo, who graduated from high school with a 4.0 grade point average – putting her near the top of her class. “We’ve already proved ourselves. We don’t get benefits. We don’t get federal financial aid or in-state tuition.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Castillo said of the bill. “We want an educated Virginia. An individual with a college degree earns more and pays more in taxes. I like to help people. I want to give back. Why not give me that opportunity? I am not to blame for my parents’ actions.”

At a legislative hearing last month, lawmakers on the immigration subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee were sympathetic but did not yield.

“Many of us believe we need to address immigration reform in a comprehensive manner,” Peace said in an interview. “But the federal government is asleep at the switch. We need a bright line.”

But even staunch opponents of illegal immigration acknowledge that Castillo’s inspiring life story can make it hard to draw that line.

“Isabel’s story breaks my heart,” said Delegate David B. Albo, R-Springfield.

But he added, “We have limited resources, and one of the hardest things to do in this job is to have to look people in the face and say no. …

“I get letters every year, with language I can’t use here, from people whose children don’t get into George Mason (University). And when they find out that people not lawfully in the U.S. do get in, they are going to freak.”

Castillo is not deterred.

“Many organizations around the state are working hard to have our voices heard,” Castillo said.

“I started doing activism because the issue affected me, but now I do it for the thousands of people like me who are scared to stand up. I have a sense of relief. I’m not ashamed or scared. I’m not a criminal. I’m no longer going to hide in the shadows.

“I’m Isabel, and I’m a human being, just like anyone else. I’m not ‘an illegal.’ No human being is illegal, just because they lack a piece of paper.”

Immigration Bills Before Senate

The House has a dozen bills dealing with immigration. On Friday, they were assigned to an immigration subcommittee of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee. The subcommittee has not set a hearing date for the legislation. The bills are:

HB 1421: Requires all localities to abide by federal immigration laws.

HB 1430: Citizenship of arrestee; if accused is not committed to jail, arresting officer to ascertain.

HB 1465: Requires public colleges and universities to have written policies prohibiting enrollment of illegal aliens.

HB 1468: Citizenship or legal presence required for public assistance; verification required.

HB 1651: Driver’s licenses, permits, and special identification cards; issuance only to U.S. citizens.

HB 1727: Virginia Fair Employment Act; certain public contractors, etc., to enroll in E-Verify Program.

HB 1775: Requiring school boards report to Board of Education number enrolled in English as second language.

HB 1859: Public Procurement Act; state agencies to include in contract that contractor use E-Verify program.

HB 1934: State Police to enter into 287g agreement with U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement to enforce civil immigration law.

HB 1997: Accused released on recognizance; report to Central Criminal Records Exchange.

HB 2332: Citizenship of arrestee; arresting officer to ascertain.

HB 2333: E-Verify program; preference given to services, etc., by persons for employees who work in State.