Would you expect a 19-year-old to be a) in college; b) working full-time; c) partying at every opportunity; d) a homeowner? Thinking back to what I was doing at 19, answer c would likely be the top answer. But Brenda Ruiz is no ordinary 19-year-old.
Just two years ago, Ruiz was a student at Arvin High. Today she is entering her third year at Cal State Bakersfield with a major in petroleum engineering while holding down a full-time job as technical director for the local Telemundo newscast. And she is a home owner. At 19!
If I skipped the partying part, it's because Ruiz has little time for carousing.
How has she accomplished so much when she began life with so little?
Ruiz was brought to this country by her parents, Javier and Paula Ruiz, when she was 3 and an undocumented immigrant from Michoacan, Mexico. The family lived in a one-bedroom house in Weedpatch, along with an uncle and his wife. Two years later, they moved up -- into a two-bedroom house.
This was pretty much the norm for years until Javier Ruiz accepted a job with an agricultural employer in the Coachella Valley. Brenda was about to enter her senior year at Arvin High and with the help of her mentor, teacher Johnny Watson, both convinced her parents to allow her to stay and finish the year at Arvin High.
She continued to live with her uncle, his wife and by now two more cousins in the two-bedroom house in Weedpatch.
It wasn't until she hit middle school that Ruiz began to realize what it meant to be an undocumented immigrant child. She was already thinking about pursuing college. But she would not be eligible for many of the public financial aid programs that help students. Ruiz refused to despair.
"I was going to find a way to be successful," she said.
Her father became a U.S. citizen and petitioned the court to allow his daughter, then 16, to also become a citizen of the only country she's ever known.
Continuing to live in a cramped two-bedroom house with four others soon gave way to problems with the landlord. Things had to change.
"I just said, 'Let's get a house,'" Ruiz told her uncle. "I just went for it, let me give it a shot."
She went through the whole financial process, got pre-approved for a loan and began looking for a home big enough for her family. And just recently, Ruiz was given the keys to a modest four-bedroom home on the city's south side.
Neither her parents nor her uncle are homeowners.
"I know a lot of young people my age aren't thinking of buying a home. They're thinking about partying," said Ruiz.
Ruiz is among hundreds of onetime undocumented youth in Kern County who are living proof they can succeed and be contributing citizens. Other undocumented students have applied under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. The program gives qualifying undocumented immigrants younger than 18 temporary protection from deportation and allows them a work permit, social security number and driver's license.
"DACA has been tremendously positive for students," said Jim Young, chancellor emeritus of the Kern Community College District and president of the DREAM fund, which awards college scholarships to undocumented students. "They're allowed to work legally and get a license."
Young proudly points to some of the schools students from Kern County attend: UCLA medical school, Brigham Young University, UC Berkeley, CSUB and Bakersfield College. Students are majoring largely in health care programs such as in medicine, biochemistry, biology and psychology.
Despite having lupus, 20-year-old Mayra Nunez of Delano is entering her junior year at the University of Pennsylvania. A 2012 graduate of Robert F. Kennedy High, Nunez is majoring in biology and plans to return to Kern County after graduation.
"I want to give back to the community where I came from," said the 20-year-old, who is also under DACA.
But no good deed goes unpunished. Last month, House Republicans voted to end DACA, angering Young and puzzling students such as Nunez.
Young takes aim particularly at House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, who allowed a vote on the bill.
"I am very critical of him. He does not understand the situation these young people are in," said Young, his voice rising.
"Well, everybody is entitled to difference of opinion," McCarthy said in response.
McCarthy claims the bill, passed by Republicans only, is aimed at recent childhood arrivals from Central America and prevents them from obtaining similar consideration as young people under DACA.
I asked McCarthy if DACA should continue. The best indirect answer he could muster was, "I think the best system that we should have is legal immigration."
Eleven Republicans, including Rep. David Valadao of Hanford, refused to follow the party line and voted to keep DACA.
The bill has no chance of passing in the Senate, where Democrats rule. And there's no way President Barack Obama would ever sign such a bill.
It's the vulnerable who, as usual, are caught in the middle of the immigration debate, a fact not lost on Nunez. She is perplexed why McCarthy would continue to push to end DACA.
"Aren't we helping the economy?" she asked. "Why would he want to stop this?"
-- Jose Gaspar is a reporter for KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.