How a Warren Township grad, undocumented immigrant is fighting to stop term 'illegal aliens'

  • Bothered by the "Illegal Aliens" status ascribed to him and others, Oscar Cornejo Casares of Park City took on the Library of Congress.

      Bothered by the "Illegal Aliens" status ascribed to him and others, Oscar Cornejo Casares of Park City took on the Library of Congress. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 9/22/2020 10:01 AM

He's lobbied in the halls of Congress on behalf of undocumented immigrants, and briefly won a concession from the Library of Congress, but 25-year-old Oscar Cornejo Casares of Park City never forgets the fear and the dread of being separated from his family.

"My brother and I went with the smuggler's wife," says Cornejo Casares, who was age 5 when he and his 2-year-old brother crossed the border from their home in Mexico to San Diego 20 years ago with a female driver who had fake paperwork. "You have two children left to the devices of human smugglers -- strangers. I was the one crying, but I told her it was my sibling. I was scared. I was afraid."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Now working on his doctoral degree at Northwestern University in Evanston after a distinguished undergraduate career at Dartmouth College, Cornejo Casares seems fearless. But growing up, he told only his closest friends he was undocumented and feared a wrong move could split apart his family.

Sitting next to a laundry rack jutting out from an old car wheel in the yard of the Park City mobile home where he lives with his parents and three siblings, he says there is power in breaking the silence and speaking out about the humanity of undocumented immigrants.

He helped produce an award-winning documentary, recently released on Vermont Public Television, titled, "Change the Subject," about the movement to rid libraries of the "Illegal Aliens" subject heading.

"I'm a privileged undocumented immigrant, but I want to help others," he says.

As a child in Mexico, Oscar Cornejo Casares lived in economic and political turmoil until his parents paid smugglers to bring the 5-year-old to the United States.
As a child in Mexico, Oscar Cornejo Casares lived in economic and political turmoil until his parents paid smugglers to bring the 5-year-old to the United States. - Courtesy of Oscar Cornejo Casares
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The specter of being discovered and deported hung over his childhood as he started his academic career in Waukegan public schools. His father, a clinical lab technician in Mexico, worked as a cook in the suburbs, and still does. His mom, who trained to become a nurse in Mexico, stayed home with the four kids.

At the start of his fourth-grade year, his family moved to a different apartment in Park City that was in the more affluent Woodland Elementary District 50 and Warren Township High School in Gurnee.

"That's when I started to realize, 'Oh, I'm different,'" remembers Cornejo Casares, who balanced his duty as an unofficial "third parent" with his school work. "I speak Spanish with my parents. With my siblings, I speak English. I sort of had to figure out everything when the school called, when the bank called, when the landlord called. I was the translator for parent-teacher conferences. I could very much be lying."

But the family had a dream.

"Your job is to focus on academics. This is why we came here," said his father, who worked for a year picking vegetables and fruit in California to make enough money to hire the smugglers for his wife and kids.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Only 5 years old when he was smuggled into the United States, Mexican native Oscar Cornejo Casares discovered snow when he got to Waukegan.
Only 5 years old when he was smuggled into the United States, Mexican native Oscar Cornejo Casares discovered snow when he got to Waukegan. - Courtesy of Oscar Cornejo Casares

"They wanted me to go to college, but they didn't know how to get there," Cornejo Casares says of his parents.

That part of the family's dream was made possible by the Schuler Scholar Program, a charity founded in 2001 by Jack Schuler and his daughter, Tanya Schuler Sharman, to help motivated students in need reach their college goals. That program, which graduates 93% of its students from college and has 1,521 students in the program, accepted Cornejo Casares as one of their scholars at the start of his high school career.

"We're really proud of him," says Joanne Bertsch, managing director for the 15 partnership high schools in the Schuler Scholar program. "He's driven. He inspires others. He's articulate and someone who recognizes an opportunity to make a change."

In summer 2012, Cornejo Casares attended a camp at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

"I didn't know Dartmouth existed until junior year of high school," he says. While the Schuler group doesn't give students money, the organization helped Cornejo Casares earn a full ride just as the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals gave him protection against deportation. "I got my DACA the same week I got into Dartmouth and turned 18," he remembers.

Cornejo Casares learned from Schuler "how to buy an airplane ticket" and flew from Milwaukee to Boston, where he caught a bus for the 3-hour ride to Hanover. "My parents never went to Dartmouth -- to drop me off, or graduation," he says, explaining how they were too scared they'd be apprehended during the trip. "I started and ended by myself."

His parents were too scared of deportation to attend his graduation from Dartmouth College, but Oscar Cornejo Casares of Park City has become an activist for the rights of undocumented immigrants.
His parents were too scared of deportation to attend his graduation from Dartmouth College, but Oscar Cornejo Casares of Park City has become an activist for the rights of undocumented immigrants. - Courtesy of Oscar Cornejo Casares

He started his college career with a bang, by founding a new student group now called CoFIRED, the Coalition for Immigration Reform & Equality at Dartmouth, which works for the rights of immigrants and undocumented students.

"It wasn't until college I realized the empowerment of silence, and the necessity to break that silence," he says

To make sure their demands for recognition and more services were heard, the group occupied the college president's office for 2½ days. "That was the beginning of my political consciousness," Cornejo Casares says.

They not only made progress, they enlisted Dartmouth's help in a fight to change the college library's catalog subject heading of "Illegal Aliens" to "Undocumented Immigrants." Since all libraries use the subject headings set by the Library of Congress, Cornejo Casares and a handful of other activists petitioned the Library of Congress to change the subject heading they found pejorative and offensive. Students went to Washington, D.C., and met with Democratic U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Joaquin Castro of Texas.

Earning his doctoral degree at Northwestern University, Oscar Cornejo Casares lives in his family's Park City mobile home, and continues to work on immigration issues.
  Earning his doctoral degree at Northwestern University, Oscar Cornejo Casares lives in his family's Park City mobile home, and continues to work on immigration issues. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

The Library of Congress, which initially denied the request, agreed to the change after other colleges and the American Library Association joined the students' efforts, noting the Library of Congress had abolished terms such as "Negro," "Oriental," "lunatic" and "retarded."

But a Republican letter in opposition sent by U.S. Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Ted Cruz of Texas and U.S. Reps. Lamar Smith and John A. Culberson of Texas to the Library of Congress in May 2016 kicked off a political firestorm and funding debate that resulted in the Library of Congress keeping "Illegal Aliens" as the subject heading, though the fight for change continues.

The documentary, "Change the Subject," created by Cornejo Casares, fellow student Melissa Padilla, filmmaker Sawyer Broadley, and librarian Jill Baron, can be viewed for free by visiting vermontpbs.org and searching for "Change the Subject."

Cornejo Casares is in his fourth year at Northwestern University, where he plans to finish his Ph.D. in the "sociology of law, race and migration" in 2023. He longs for the day when undocumented immigrants have a path to citizenship.

"I would not have had that fear and terror of possible family separation. I wouldn't have had the dread of the apocalypse coming," he says, adding that he wants to be a U.S. citizen. "It would affirm a lot of what I already believe. I am a member of this society. I've contributed. I belong here."

bconstable@dailyherald.com

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