Undocumented But Determined: Twins Seek Path To A Dream

Carolina and Camila Bortolleto know the power of sharing your personal story. It's how they've built one of the strongest forces in the immigrants' rights movement in Connecticut.

The Bortolleto twins, 29, founders of Connecticut Students For A Dream, are two of the country's increasingly vocal undocumented youth population and their success story, reached in spite of the limitations of their immigration status, led them to pursue careers advocating for others like themselves.

And that advocacy has been especially timely with the Trump administration's announcement last week to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that allowed young, undocumented immigrants to live in America without fear of deportation.

"I think anytime you can move an issue from being political to being personal, it softens the image," Carolina, thoughtfully mulling over her words, said in a recent interview. "It's shedding the chains that hold you back and letting people know they're not alone."

The twins, both diminutive in stature with curly, dark hair, came to the United States illegally from Brazil in 1997, settling with their parents in Danbury when they were 9.

In 2006, the Bortolletos graduated at the top of their class at Danbury High School and started looking at competitive and selective universities that matched their academic profiles.

But being an undocumented immigrant challenged those plans.

"You grow up here, all this time, and you assume that this is your home, this is the community where you belong, but you come to realize that it's not because you don't have that nine-digit number. The life you were believing to be [your own], was never going to be," Camila said.

Undocumented students in Connecticut at that time did not receive in-state tuition rates and financial aid was out of the question. With their mother working as a housekeeper and their father at a recycling plant, they turned to private scholarships to fund their education.

"I was unable to go to a lot of the colleges to which I applied, but I was really, really lucky to go to Western Connecticut State University. They gave me a partial scholarship," Camila said. Her sister joined her there.

When they graduated in 2010, it was more than just the end of college, it was the end of opportunity, Camila said. Without a social security number, finding a job, even at the local mall, was nearly impossible.

"We realized we weren't going to have the same opportunities as everyone else," Camila said.

On top of the limited opportunities, the Bortolletos face an immigration system that provides no path for undocumented immigrants to get citizenship. Undocumented people can try marrying a U.S. citizen or having family sponsor their citizenship, or try applying for asylum. However, none of the options have guaranteed results.

"There is no path for us," Camila said. "My family has been trying for 19 years and we haven't been able to and believe me, we would have."

But the twins turned their circumstances into opportunity.

"Being undocumented, you grow up thinking you can't change the world," Carolina said. "In college, we found out about the DREAM Act and I saw the Dreamer movement make waves for undocumented youth and I wanted to be a part of it."

In late 2010, the twins attended a conference in Boston that taught them organizing and advocacy skills. They returned home to Danbury, energized and ready to support the national movement in Connecticut.

They quickly hosted a small gathering in New Milford to start coordinating efforts for the movement and within a few months, they held a "Dream Summit" in New Haven to rally undocumented youth.

"We wanted to start something in Connecticut, but we didn't know anyone else who wanted to do that," Carolina said.

Changing The Narrative

At their first event, the Bortolletos drew over 30 people to their cause. While many of those who came were allies to the cause, the organization soon started accumulating undocumented members.

"It's crazy that something that started as four people around a table in New Milford is so big now," Carolina said. "I don't think we ever intended to start an organization, but that's what happened."

A small beginning led to dozens of regular members and thousands of supporters across the state, including non-profit foundations that fund their efforts.

"What seemed so compelling about Connecticut Students For A Dream was that they were truly, authentically a youth driven organization," Laura McCargar, president of the Perrin Family Foundation, said. "The undocumented youth of the organization sought to build a powerful base to address systematic barriers that undocumented students face."

For the Perrin Family Foundation, which supports under-resourced youth-driven organizations in Connecticut, McCargar said that Connecticut Students For A Dream was a prime example of how youth can create meaningful change in their communities.

"I think one of the things that sets Connecticut Students For A Dream apart is that it has a statewide footprint," she said. "They challenge the prevailing knowledge about the immigration system."

When Connecticut Students for a Dream got off the ground, it was the first organization of its kind in Connecticut.

"There wasn't a place where undocumented students were able to open up about their status and share their stories and openly talk to people about their experiences," executive director Lucas Codognolla, who has known the Bortolletos for seven years, said. "When we started organizing there weren't any other immigrant youth-led organizations in the state."

Before Carolina and Camila organized the group and encouraged their peers to share their stories of being undocumented, Codognolla said he was afraid of acknowledging his status as undocumented.

Meeting with the twins at the Dream Summit in New Haven was a big step.

"I remember I called Carolina to ask for details about the event, because I was so scared to go. I thought 'what if this is a trap?'" he said, chuckling during a recent phone interview. "I said 'hi, I'm undocumented and I'd love to go to your event but I'm a little scared.' And Carolina said, 'Oh hi, I'm undocumented too, that's great.' And it was so comforting."

Codognolla said before he met the Bortolletos, he and many other undocumented people were discouraged from revealing their immigration status.

"I remember adults saying 'you shouldn't share your story because it puts your family at risk ... but we took those risks and started sharing our stories and doing work across the state. And part of that is having folks like Carolina and Camila lead by fearless example."

While sharing stories might garner sympathy and understanding from outsiders, Codognolla was quick to point out that the Bortolletos have created a safe space for undocumented youth to share their struggles and stand in solidarity with one another.

"From the beginning, they have been so instrumental in creating that comfort," he said. "Camila and Carolina have such a way about them being humble, being modest, but doing everything they can to uplift the voices of undocumented people in Connecticut."

Fighting For Undocumented Youth

On top of creating a safe haven for undocumented youth, Connecticut Students for a Dream has helped make changes for immigrants in the state.

In 2015, the group won a major battle with the state when the legislature passed a bill guaranteeing undocumented students in-state tuition rates.

This year, the organization ran an #AffordToDream campaign that urged Connecticut legislators for the fourth year in a row to approve institutional financial aid for undocumented students.

While the bill failed, the campaign was one of their most successful, the twins said. The group has worked for four years to pass the bill with support from unions and the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities.

"Every year we get closer," Carolina said, sighing.

During the past legislative session, the group held weekly events at the Capitol. Sometimes they would drop off postcards at legislative offices describing an undocumented student's hopes and dreams. At other times, they would hold rallies.

Close to 200 people submitted online testimony during a public hearing on the institutional aid bill and over 40 testified in person. When the group wasn't at the Capitol, they took to the streets going door to door gathering signatures in districts where support for the bill was lacking.

"They're just brilliant when it comes to being strategic and being intentional about our work and the campaigns we run," Codognolla said. "It's a quality I really admire in them. I think what's amazing about Carolina and Camila is that they were always intentional about the long haul."

While the bill didn't make it to a vote his year, the Bortolletos said Connecticut Students For A Dream will be back to fight for it during the next legislative session. In the meantime, there are pressing issues on the national stage.

Since the Trump administration's announcement to end DACA, leaving more than 800,000 undocumented youth in America without protection from deportation, the group has been working daily to provide the immigrant communities with resources.

"The big challenge is keeping hope and continuing to fight," Camila said. "I know people are going back into the shadows now."

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