Jessica Hughes is a member of UNL’s chapter of Define American, which focuses on immigration and politics.

By Ashley Wolff

At the age of 12, Jessica Hughes lost the two most important people in her life when her father was deported to his home country of Mexico and her mother left shortly after to join him. Jessica was raised by her grandmother in Grand Island, Nebraska. Now a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she has only recently reconnected with her parents after finding her mother on Facebook.

Stories such as Hughes’ are often left untold out of fear of judgment and bigotry. But a new organization at UNL is working to break through those barriers and help people tell their story.

Define American is a national organization focused on creating discussion about immigration, citizenship and identity. The organization uses the power of stories to bring awareness to what it sees as a broken immigration system.

“The main purpose of this organization is to get more people talking about immigration and the politics surrounding the topic,” said Joél Orozco-Almeida, the adviser for UNL’s chapter of Define American. Members are often immigrants or children of immigrants, but he said the organization also includes people who want to learn more.

“Everyone is affected by immigration whether they realize it or not,” he said. “Part of the experience is not having the experience. This is a safe place for people to discuss their opinions no matter their history.”

How chapter formed

The person behind starting the UNL chapter was UNL student Valeria Rodriguez. She was an undocumented immigrant until Feb. 14, 2012, when she passed the naturalization test to become a U.S. citizen.

Rodriguez had been considering starting an organization to fight for immigrant rights on campus when, in September, she attended a Define American event at UNL, where the group’s founder, Jose Antonio Vargas, was speaking.

Vargas encouraged UNL students to start a chapter of their own, and Rodriguez saw the opportunity with Define American as a perfect fit. Some of her friends at the event agreed and are now active members of the organization. They appointed Rodriguez president and asked Orozco-Almeida to be their adviser.

The UNL chapter of Define American became an approved campus organization in January and is the first chapter to be officially recognized by both a university and the national organization.

The chapter held its first official meeting on Feb. 23 in the City Campus Union, where about 50 people gathered. During a group discussion, moderators posed questions such as “What does citizenship means to you?” and “How do you define American?”

“There are no right or wrong answers,” Orozco-Almeida said. “We use guided questions to help people think critically and come to their own conclusions.”

 Stories that enhance their message

Hughes told the group her story of how her father got deported and what it was like growing up without her parents. It has been 10 years since Hughes has seen her mother or her father, but now she has some communication with them. Hughes says getting in contact with them can be difficult, especially with a busy college schedule.

“I feel alone sometimes,” she said. “College can be hard. But I am doing this for my grandma because she is my rock.”

Hughes said that she shared her story in hopes that others will share theirs. She hopes the Define American chapter can attract a diverse population of students open to discussing topics, such as those discussed at the group’s first meeting.

Orozco-Almeida said that sharing personal stories can be some of the best learning tools because they are more meaningful, which is part of why he took the position as the adviser. He uses his own story to contribute to the conversation.

Born and raised in the state of Chihuahua in Mexico, Orozco-Almeida was brought to America at age 14 by his parents to avoid the dangers occurring in Mexico. He and his family came to the U.S. as documented immigrants. A year later, when they reapplied to lengthen their stay, the family was denied because the laws had become stricter.

“I do identify as an undocumented immigrant,” he said. “I am in a very privileged space. I am a house director of a fraternity; an instructor; I am a graduate student; and often time people do not associate that with my status.”

An opportunity for many

Orozco-Almeida has come a long way from his home and has formed a passion for higher education.

“Education is something they can’t take away from me,” he said, “so I am making the best out of my opportunities.”

Using this chapter as an opportunity to inform others is exactly what this group intends to do. Rodriguez believes that Define American is about reversing stereotypes about immigrants. As a group, the chapter wants to get people interested in the conversation and talk about how the country’s demographic is changing.

“Immigrants make a huge impact on everyone’s lives in America whether they realize it or not,” Rodriguez said. “Often times, immigrants are the ones picking food, paving roads and fixing your roof. These immigration issues do affect all of us.”