Sometime when we write about the issues that pertain to the immigration debate, the same comments come up. “Why don’t you just do it the right way like everybody else!?” These statements frustrate me because the notions of how one becomes a U.S. citizens are deeply misconstrued and misunderstood. I became a U.S. citizen through my mother. My parents came to this country in 1984 with very little. In 1986, Reagan signed a monumental amnesty legislation that was meant to be a crackdown on border security yet aimed to provide a road to legalization for the undocumented immigrants that had been in the country prior to 1986. My mother was granted amnesty as part of this program and the road was paved for us to someday become U.S. Citizens.
This experience led me to pursue a law degree. I remember sitting at a Catholic Charities office and feeling so grateful as an attorney filled out our paperwork. I remember crossing back and forth between Juarez and El Paso and having to pretend that I was asleep so we wouldn’t get caught as we drove through. Once, I saw Border Patrol beat a man near the crossing in El Paso. That image burned in my mind and I remember crying and asking my parents why they were hitting him.
The process took a long time. I remained undocumented all through high school. I learned I was undocumented and what it meant to be “illegal” when I was in kindergarten. I had entered and won an art competition for an organization called Limbs for Life. I attended a fancy dinner with my parents and they gave me a big cardboard check with my name on it. In the following days, I remember my kindergarten teacher, Ms. Moreno, taking me aside during recess and telling me that I was not going to receive the scholarship because I did not have a social security number. Her tears made me realize that this must be serious and I immediately began to rattle off numbers, hoping that one of them would by my “social security” number. By the time I got home that afternoon, my parents had already been informed and my grandmother was waiting for me. She didn’t say anything about it, but her silence was all I needed in that moment. I was angry. I decided that I would not feel this anger ever again and allow someone to take away something that was rightfully mine.
I worked hard in school and many of my friends never knew I was undocumented. My parent’s instilled in me a tenacious work ethic and I excelled in my academics, leadership, and sports. I knew I had to excel in order to receive scholarships for college. My parents each worked two jobs when I was growing up and I didn’t want them to pay for my school. By the beginning of 2000, I received my permanent residency. It took 14 years for me to receive my “Green Card.” 14 years of living in the shadows and lying to friends everyday. 14 years of living in fear of police officers and deportation. 14 years of watching my dad break his back as a mechanic so that we could live a normal “American” life. I was the undocumented Homecoming Queen of my high school and very few people knew the anxiety and nervousness that I lived with. I never allowed it to deter me from any of my goals and continued to persevere.
You never know what brings someone to this nation, and in reality, most people who are here, do want to go back home. If you don’t want amnesty, then perhaps compromise on creating visas that allow migrants to enter to work temporarily and return to their home country. When I speak with immigrants in New York City, they tell me similar stories. They all want to just save up some money and go back home to be with their loved ones. The current labor visas are usually for highly specialized or trained immigrants such as professionals. It’s not easy to try and do it the right way because there are few options that allow this and even if you are eligibly, the wait time is almost 50 years for some categories! I waited 14 years in one of the “fast-moving” immigrant categories. If you can think of a faster way for people to become residents or citizens then let your legislators know, but in the mean time,understand that this is not a simple and fast process and for many families it takes years for the entire family to become “legal” residents.
On March 24, 2010, I finally became a U.S. Citizen. It took me 24 long years to become a citizen the “right” way. In August of 2010 I graduated with my law degree from the University of Denver. It’s not easy doing it the “right” way because even when you do, you’re at risk of deportation, but people try. Nobody likes living with this anxiety and fear. So have some compassion and try to understand their plight, before you begin to judge.
For a better chart on this process visit:
A guide to America’s labyrinthine immigration bureaucracy
By: Shikha Dalmia & Michael Flynn