Educated in America: Growing Up as an Undocumented Immigrant
I never imagined it would be this frightening. Or this difficult. Living in the shadows, unable to see my parents drive our car without fear, or to apply for jobs, all because we lack a nine-digit identification number. More frightening, the everyday worry that my parents will not be home at the end of my school day.
Let me start from the beginning. My father and mother decided to leave Tejupilco, a small town outside Mexico City, when I was six. We are not typical immigrants, if there is such a thing. We were not fleeing poverty or violence. My grandfather owned a tailoring business and my father managed one of the locations. Yet my father believed the United States of America held a brighter future for his four children. My parents left their home for us, in search of the so-called American Dream. In December of 1999, my family acquired a 10-year visa. By August of 2000 we were on American soil.
Arriving in a new country with four kids—ages, 12, 11, 6, and 4—was a risk. Since day-one my parents had to find a way to make money to bring food to the table, provide a roof over our heads, and buy clothes for us. When we arrived in Texas in August of 2000, my uncle allowed us to stay with him in his small one-bedroom apartment. My father’s first job was construction work. My mother stayed at home with us until she was able to find a job that paid cash.
The following year, my parents faced harsher conditions. The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, destroyed the job market, and immigration policy became stricter. For three months my mother and father were unemployed. Again, they had to start from zero. From 2002 to 2004 they worked a variety of jobs. The birth of my youngest sister didn’t allow them to be picky; the family was growing. My father worked as a painter, gardener, billiard table installer, cook, and an associate at a dry cleaners. My mother cleaned houses and eventually found a job at St. Edwards University in Austin, until eight months laterwhen the human resources department conducted a routine E-verify check and discovered she did not have a valid Social Security number. She was fired. To keep themselves motivated, my parents looked to their children, most important, to my little sister Leslie, who was born in the United States. Her status as an American citizen would provide her rights and benefits that were beyond reach for the rest of us.
My parents knew we could return to Mexico. Our visa wouldn’t expire until 2010. They considered our future, here and in Mexico, and made a decision: They would remain in the U.S. and work, while their kids received an education. When we failed to extend our visas in March 2005, my life as an undocumented immigrant began.
I learned how to be a spy. When on the road with my dad, he’d tell us to call out “policia” when I saw one. I had to do my part because he had no driver’s license. And while friends said it was the police’s job was to protect us, I was afraid of the power they held—above all their ability to break up my family.
My siblings and I learned a basic rule—never open the door for anyone, because it could be ICE. At the age of 8 I was well aware that a ring to the doorbell meant turning off all TVs, running to a room, and remaining silent. Family members or friends who planned to visit knew to call prior to their arrival.
Also, at home we all learned how to take care of one another, since medical insurance was not an option. My brothers, sisters and I knew we could not afford to get sick. And we knew better than to visit the school nurse, for my parents could not afford to leave work early if they were called to pick us up.
In high school, unlike my friends who were U.S. citizens or permanent residents, I could not obtain my driver’s permit at age 15. I skipped the junior class trip to Costa Rica. A trip to South Padre Island with my best friend’s family was too big a risk because I would be too close to the Mexico border and might be detained.
There were bigger issues.
Are you a U.S. citizen? Applying to my first scholarship was an eye-opening experience. The idea of college seemed to fade as each application asked: “Are you a U.S. citizen or permanent resident?” I vividly remember the call I received from the Office of Financial Aid at Texas State University, when the woman’s voice on the phone told me they were revoking my full-ride, engineering scholarship. It was only available to U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
Eleventh grade and twelfth ushered in valuable life lessons. Regardless of the fact that I received the same education as my peers, I accepted the truth: I would be treated differently as I continued to apply for admission to universities, and for scholarships. I knew it would be difficult to fund my education. But I promised myself I would do anything to get into the University of Texas at Austin. I wanted to make my parents proud, make their dream come true, and become a role model for my younger siblings. By my senior year in high school, I was completing my eleventh advanced placement class, and my grade point average was above 4.1. Outside the classroom I was busy with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Lemelson InvenTeam, National Honor Society, sports. And I was a finalist for a National Merit Scholarship.
In 2012, Barack Obama changed my life. His Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order protected my siblings and me from deportation for two years, and was subject to renewal. It allowed us to obtain Social Security numbers, which gave us work authorization. If it didn’t provide permanent legal status, it allowed us to work and contribute to the country we call home. As a recent graduate from Texas State, my older brother quickly entered the American workforce as a Samsung employee. My sister was in her last year of nursing school and a month after graduation she was hired as a registered nurse at a regional health care provider. As for my younger brother and me, a freshman and junior in high school at the time, DACA did not help us qualify for federal scholarships. But it allowed us to work and save money for college.
More hope came in November 2014, when President Obama issued a similar executive action, known as the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans. Parents who had lived in the United States for more than five years and had children who were U.S. citizens or permanent residents could apply for temporary deportation relief and a three-year work permit.
For my parents this meant a number of things. My father could visit his family in Mexico, especially my grandfather who has stage-two lymphatic cancer. Rather than call to let his ill father know he loves him, my father would stand by my grandfather’s side. Other basic necessities would be in reach. My parents could open their own accounts with valid Texas identification, apply for a mortgage to purchase a home, apply for a credit card. They could apply for Social Security cards that promised work. Most important, they could live without the everyday fear of deportation.
Little did we know that 36 hours before the program was to go into effect, Texas governor Greg Abbott, who was then our state’s attorney general, would stop everything. He went to federal court with a claim that the program was unconstitutional. A judge in Brownsville, Texas, blocked the president’s order. Our feeling of belonging to American society was brief, the plans we had laid out quickly vanished.
Getting in In January of 2013, I was accepted into the University of Texas at Austin. With a collection of small scholarships and student financial aid, I paid for my first year of college. I participated in school spirit events, joined student organizations, and explored different majors. Passionate about engineering and business, I took classes within each school and decided that business was the route I wanted to take. I envisioned a major, and a career that would allow me to give my father what he once had: his own tailoring business. I am enrolled in one of the most competitive business schools in the nation.
Today, as a senior, I am beyond proud of what I have accomplished. Yet, what the future holds for me is unclear. The Trump administration has injected a lot of fear in my family, and the DACA program is the only thing shielding my two brothers, my sister and me from immediate deportation. My parents have no protection.
We saw the risks up close during the February ICE raids in Austin. Since the raids, we are at home more than ever. Our brunches after Sunday Mass have turned into home-cooked meals. My parents no longer go to the grocery store; instead, they write out a list and my siblings and I take turns shopping. We’ve minimized the number of times my mother and father are in public, because if they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, they will be easily profiled and apprehended.
Being cautious and staying at home is the only way they can hide.
I recall the second day of the February ICE raids, we were glued to hundreds of social media posts, in particular live Facebook videos of men being deported and children afraid to go to school. Terrorized, my father and mother laid our plan: sell the cars, withdraw any savings from my siblings’ bank account, and call our family lawyer. My older siblings, my parents, and I try not to speak about immigration in front of my younger sister. Rather than talk about the possibility of my parents getting deported, we reassure her that she will never be left alone.
This is my account. There are others. About 800,000 of us, “Dreamers” who grew up in the United States and are temporarily protected from deportation. All of them have their own stories. So do our 5 million parents, who were going to be protected until my governor filed suit and ended their protection.
The reality is that my family’s dreams and aspirations lie in the hands of courts, judges, and President Donald Trump. Our future is dark and blurry. My idea of helping my father open his own business is on hold, and working after I graduate will be affected if President Trump terminates DACA. It seems as though all of my work, dedication and desire to contribute to America, which I consider my home, goes unnoticed. Although my roots are in Mexico, my heart is in the United States, where for 17 years I’ve grown and been educated to do everyday activities the “American way.” I cannot imagine a life in Mexico, or walking away from my family, my education, and my future. Yet I have to be realistic. President Trump has warned us. We are no longer welcome here.