By Sam Wheeler
for the Mail Tribune
ASHLAND -- Diana Banda didn't begin to grasp the plight of her status as a United States resident until entering high school.
Banda's family, whom she wished to keep anonymous, immigrated to Southern Oregon from Mexico City when Banda was 3, she says, settling in Ashland because acquaintances and family lived nearby.
"Growing up, some things were always different, but I started to realize I was in a unique situation going into my sophomore year," says Banda, 22.
Last year, when Banda made the decision to come out of the shadows as an undocumented alien, her parents were confused by what was motivating her and frightened for their daughter, she says.
"They aren't ready to open up about their status," Banda says. "They don't want to lose their jobs. " When you're undocumented, there are moments that you live in total fear."
The ever-present risk of publicly provoking federal immigration authorities and drawing attention to her family, who made the move in 1993, weighed heavily on her, she says.
"I was always told to not talk about my status," she says. "My parents worked hard assimilating me into American culture and, at the same time, keeping me rooted in our own."
Banda said she was angry with her parents when she was young because she was never given a honest explanation for her and the family's differences.
As a child, she was caught dusting herself with baby powder in the bathroom, she says, attempting to turn her skin white. She cried with her cousins in the driveway as her parents and other family members left for daunting trips over the U.S.-Mexico border to care for dying grandparents. Banda has lost two grandparents since moving away from Mexico, and never met some of her cousins there.
Since leaving Mexico, Banda has never been back because the hike through the desert and heightened security on the border make it too dangerous, she says.
Banda has been arrested once since publicly declaring her status as an undocumented youth, she says, on May Day, by Portland police during an Undocumented and Unafraid march of about 1,500 people, organized by Northwest Immigrant Youth Alliance.
She was charged with interfering with a police officer and disorderly conduct, and started the booking process with three other arrested marchers at Multnomah County Jail, she says, but was released without charges before having her mug shot taken. The others also were released.
A crowd of protesters and some news media gathered outside the jail after she was detained, which was the primary reason she was released, Banda believes.
Like Multnomah County authorities, the Jackson County Sheriff's Department cooperates with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency's Secure Communities program, which allows ICE to scrutinize individuals arrested by local police in communities across the nation.
Most local police departments don't operate jails and don't deal with ICE, Ashland Police Department Chief Terry Holderness says, but the alleged criminals Ashland police transport to county jail are processed by ICE. Even so, Holderness says, his department isn't an arm of federal immigration authority.
"At a young age, I feared the police because I was taught to," Banda says. "Even though there are different types of officers, I couldn't distinguish between them when I was young."
Still, Banda doesn't drive anywhere -- that's how most illegals get deported, she says.
In 2008, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed an order requiring applicants to show a Social Security number to obtain an Oregon driver's license, which limited the ability of undocumented immigrants to obtain them. Later that year, the Oregon Legislature expanded the order with a similar law, which required driver's license applicants to show documentation proving U.S. citizenship.
That made it nearly impossible to get one, Banda says.
Banda helped form Oregon Dream Activists in 2011, which has chapters in states around the U.S., helping to raise awareness about deportation cases and immigration policy in the U.S.
Together with about a dozen other ODA members from the Portland area and Washington, Banda was heading to the West Coast DREAM Graduation Ceremony, in San Francisco, where several thousand undocumented youths were expected to gather Saturday to raise awareness about immigration policy.
The ceremony is named for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, which has been re-introduced in several forms since first being proposed in 2001. On June 15, President Barack Obama said his administration would stop deporting undocumented young immigrants who qualify for the latest version of the act.
"We've been fighting for the DREAM Act for about 11 years," Banda says.
Regarding Obama's most recent promise on immigration policy reform: "We've started to lose trust in him; we don't believe him," Banda says. "We can't actually trust him until that happens."
Banda, who studied for two years at Chemeketa Community College in Salem to be a firefighter paramedic, has since had to drop her college classes because she can't receive financial aid, she says.
As a senior at AHS, she revealed her status to a number of her teachers, she says, who have been some of the most supportive people she's had in her life. She was also a star rugby player for the Grizzlies, but her senior season was cut short after she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
Surgery to remove the cancerous thyroid gland was an immediate necessity, and initial treatments signaled success. However, Banda needed radiation treatment, as well, and medical bills piled up for the family.
In high school, Banda was open about her undocumented status to friends but close-lipped around most of her peers and adults, she says.
"I had lived here for a long time by then, and I knew how to show it," she says.
After graduating, Banda interned during the following summer for Sen. Ron Wyden at his Medford office, after he personally pointed her out for the job, she says. Banda was a familiar face to Wyden when he visited Southern Oregon, she says, "because I was always handing him petitions."
She said she thinks Wyden was unaware she was undocumented when she interned with his office.
Banda says she became an activist for immigrants' rights during high school.
"We have to stand up for what's right, and we have to let our communities know that they can drop their fear," she says. "Before, there was never a face to the issue; now, we have that."
Sam Wheeler is a reporter with the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-499-1470 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.